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The Real 'Beowulf'

By Duane Dudek
Friday, Nov 16 2007, 08:15 AM

Although "Beowulf" has been around for 1,500 years, more or less - it is the oldest surviving poem in the English language - the version that most people will remember from now on will be Robert Zemeckis's stunning performance capture digitally animated film. (Click here to see the "Beowulf" trailer).

However, it will surprise no one to learn that the film - co-writen by Neil Gaiman and "Pulp Fiction" co-writer Roger Avary - takes considerable liberties with the source material. Which is o.k. with "Beowulf" scholar Timothy Machan, a professor of literature at Marquette University, who credits the poem's survival with such mutations.

After seeing the film Machan weighed in with these observations. Be forewarned - the below item contains plot spoilers.

"I liked it as entertainment -- I thought the visual effects, the technology, were terrific. It really does change the story, though, by making Grendel's mother a seductress, while in the poem she's a simple monster; and significantly, in the poem neither she nor Grendel ever do, or probably can, speak: they are not remotely human -- that's important.

"She also, unlike in the poem, is  the mother with Hrothgar of Grendel and with Beowulf of the dragon; in the poem, Grendel is explicitly identified as being from the race of Cain, while the dragon is, well, a dragon. The movie also therefore makes both kings tormented by bad behavior and anxiety. And that change, more than the plot differences, really transforms the poem. In the poem, Hrothgar is a great but old king, not a drunk and womanizer (or maybe monsterizer), and the young Beowulf comes not for treasure but glory, because that's just what heroes do.

"Throughout the poem, he is unflaggingly a glorious hero, never giving any sense that he has compromised his character or doubts his integrity and ability, and he dies defeating the dragon in order to save a people (the Geats, not the Danes; he goes back to Geatland after the Grendel battles in the poem, and needless-to-say never marries Hrothgar's 'widow') who might not be worth saving -- the poem suggests, that is, that they cannot even approach the standard of character he sets.

"So the poem is in some ways a meditation on heroism -- what a real hero is, what he does, how he relates to the people around him, and all this in a bleak and frightening landscape that lacks the security of police, lawcourts, and so forth. The poem has NONE of the Christian and pagan elements -- Unferth as convert, for example, or invocations of Othinn -- that provide the movie with another layer of doubt. The movie, on the other hand, set against the sword-and-sorcery background, does seem to replay modern concerns with failures of character, petty jealousies, and insecurities -- the sorts of things modern 'heroes' might rise above, though in the end they are not uncompromising heroes in the sense that the poem's Beowulf is. Almost Bill Clinton as Beowulf.

"I really did like the movie -- I strongly recommended it to my college-age sons -- but it does drift rather far from the poem, even granting ... that the poem comes from an oral culture and did not then exist in a fixed form. The poem's Beowulf never weakens, never errs, never doubts himself, and that given creates some of the poem's tensions -- if THAT's a hero, where does that leave the rest of us? if THAT'S a hero, are heroes in fact truly possible? if THAT'S a hero and no such heroes live anymore, how do the rest of us find meaning and consolation in a hostile world?

And if the poem has a Christian edge, it is through that implication -- that in the absence of a Beowulf, we had better believe in something else."

Click here to hear an interview with Machan discussing "Beowulf."

And in the press notes for the film Gaiman and Avary describe how they created the story. 

This description contains spoilers aplenty.

"Basically, Neil came up with the key operator of a unified field theory of Beowulf, which I had been working on for a decade." says Avary.

 "The poem always seemed disjointed to me and, in particular, Beowulf never seemed to be the most reliable of narrators. For instance, Grendel never attacks Hrothgar; he just torments him. Why? It made me ask the simple question that for some reason no one has ever asked before: who is Grendel's father? It really plagued me. All of Grendel's behavior began to make sense when examined in that light. Later, Beowulf tears off Grendel's arm and Grendel slinks off to his cave to die.

"After Grendel's mother's retribution, Beowulf ventures into the cave, ostensibly to kill Grendel’s mother. Yet he emerges from the cave with Grendel’s head, not the head of the Mother, which is really perplexing. Beowulf says he killed Grendel’s mother, but we only have his word. Where's the proof that he killed the mother? It became obvious to me that Beowulf had fallen prey to the same temptations I surmised had befallen Hrothgar – the temptations of a siren. He had made a pact with a demon.

"Then, in the second half of the poem," Avary continues, "after Beowulf has become king, a dragon attacks him and his kingdom. I couldn't figure out how this fit into everything. I was telling Neil about my theories, when he made the remarkable insight that the dragon might be Beowulf's son – his sin comes back to haunt him. Suddenly, the two halves of the Beowulf epic, which had always seemed so disjointed, made perfect story arc sense. Had it been a snake, it would have bit me.

"It's quite possible that these elements of the structure had been lost over hundreds of years of verbal telling, and further diluted by the Christian monks who added elements of Christianity when they transcribed it to the parchment we now know as MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv."

"Gaiman and Avary are not the first to notice the awkward construction of the original poem. David Wright points out in the Penguin Classics edition of Beowulf that "… the early critics and commentators of Beowulf and a good many of the later ones have been sarcastic about the clumsiness of the plot. For the poem is a bit of a rag-bag as well, stuffed with fragments from the history of Scandinavian tribes and spilling over with untidy-looking references to apparently irrelevant events and legends." Wright also notes that Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien appreciated the poem’s power. In his famous essay, Beowulf: The Monsters and Critics, Tolkien noticed, among other things, that although Beowulf is a superhero of sorts he is, in the end, human and his all-too-human traits contribute to his downfall.

"He is a man and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy."

 

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