In the last few years, Beowulf has leapt from academic obscurity into the public imagination. A new translation of the ancient poem, two feature films, and a comic book are showing the world that English literature did not begin with Shakespeare. Even the Lord of the Rings films reminded us that Tolkien did not create his fantasy out of whole cloth – Beowulf was one of his main sources.
Here is my universal review of Beowulf—the poem, both movies and, the recent comic. WARNING: SPOILERS!
Beowulf the Poem
Beowulf is a poem first written down some 9 to 14 centuries ago—the only surviving manuscript was written in the 11th Century. But the story itself is undoubtedly older. The poem is written in Anglo-Saxon, aka Old English, which you’re not going to be able to understand without a couple years of grad school under your belt.
Ða wæs on burgum Beowulf Scyldinga,
leof leodcyning, longe þrage
folcum gefræge (fæder ellor hwearf,
aldor of earde), oþþæt him eft onwoc
heah Healfdene; heold þenden lifde,
gamol ond guðreouw, glæde Scyldingas.
ðæm feower bearn forð gerimed
in worold wocun, weoroda ræswan,
Heorogar ond Hroðgar ond Halga til;
hyrde ic þæt wæs Onelan cwen,
þa wæs Hroðgare heresped gyfen.
Which translates as:
Now Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone
away from the world, till awoke an heir,
haughty Healfdene, who held through life,
sage and sturdy, the Scyldings glad.
Then, one after one, there woke to him,
to the chieftain of clansmen, children four:
Heorogar, then Hrothgar, then Halga brave;
and I heard that — was —’s queen,
the Heathoscylfing’s helpmate dear.
To Hrothgar was given such glory of war.
You’ll notice the original lines don’t rhyme—old Anglo-Saxon poetry was based on alliteration and meter, not rhyme. Rhyme is for losers, not Vikings.
If you want to read the original poem, then you should get Seamus Heaney’s translation. (Note from 2023: Actually, check out the volume translated by JRR Tolkien, who was personally responsible for the popularity of Beowulf in the 20th Century.)
It tells the story of Beowulf (= “bee-wolf” = “bear”), a Swedish hero who kills a series of monsters before getting killed himself. The first two monsters, Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, are not really described, but are perhaps some kind of water demon. (Note from 2023: There is a folkloric monster from the United Kingdom called the Grindylow, descended from Grendel.) The third monster is a dragon.
The poem goes on and on at length about how great Beowulf is, and because this version of the ancient tale was written down by a Christian, how great Yahweh is. There are also a lot of formal speeches of the type familiar to anyone who reads the Icelandic sagas. (Which is what I did in college. If you’re wondering how to get a job as a videogames journalist, my advice is: get a degree in saga literature and the anthropology of medieval Iceland. It worked for me!)
In addition to long speeches, you’ll get a great deal of family genealogy, more stuff about how neat the Christian god is, and a lengthy aside called The Lay of the Last Survivor, which doesn’t have much to do with anything. I’m not complaining—this is the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry. I’m just warning the casual reader of what they’re getting into.
Heaney’s translation keeps the poetic feel of the original, but there are translations in prose text (I am right now holding the Donaldson translation, for instance.)
If you’re looking for a window into the minds of our medieval forebears, then Beowulf is something you want to read. If you’re just interested in medieval fantasy adventure, you’re better off sticking to Tolkien and his imitators.
Beowulf & Grendel (2005)
Beowulf & Grendel is a 2005 film starring Gerard Butler and Ingvar Sigurdsson as the two title characters. The title change is apropos, as the film centers on the actual relationship between the hero and the monster, which doesn’t exist in the poem.
The film begins faithfully—King Hrothgar’s brand new mead hall is assaulted by Grendel, in this version some kind of humanoid troll or giant or tall man in makeup. Beowulf the Geat arrives from over the sea to slay the monster. Here the film deviates from the poem—Beowulf gets into a game of cat and mouse with the “monster,” who keeps killing Danes but won’t attack Beowulf, his men, or King Hrothgar.
Beowulf deduces that Grendel is not a monster, but a man with a grudge, and spends three quarters of the film trying to figure out why. The “mystery” was tipped off to the audience at the very beginning—Hrothgar killed Grendel’s father, but spared young Grendel, who grew up alone in a cave and lost the ability to speak. Since we know Hrothgar’s secret, watching Beowulf spend scene after scene trying to deduce it is pretty frustrating. It may have worked on Columbo, but it doesn’t work here.
Another variation from the poem is the character of Selma, a beautiful young witch. She is played by the usually reliable Sarah Polley, who in this film can’t seem to settle on an accent. She spends a lot of time looking comely, spouting witty non-sequiturs and swearing like a sailor. Years ago Grendel subjected her to the politest rape ever, and she bore the monster an adorable little half-troll son.
In the end Beowulf must slay Grendel, despite having come to respect him. But Beowulf ends the tragic cycle of revenge by sparing the son, and giving Grendel a proper funeral.
Beowulf & Grendel has a lot of good performances, especially Stellan Skarsgård as the annoyingly depressive King Hrothgar (he seems to be channeling John Noble as Denethor in The Return of the King). And Gerard Butler, who starred as King Leonidas in 300, is an excellent Beowulf. The Scottish actor really seems to take to roles where he walks around outside without pants and hits things with a stick.
The movie was shot entirely in Iceland, so it’s gorgeous. The action sequences work well, although they tend to be brief. Some reviewers complained about the “anachronistic” swearing. Anachronistic? Really? Do people think profanity was invented in 1948 by Frank Sinatra? I thought the swearing was great. The actors didn’t have to act mad while spouting family-appropriate dialogue.
I’m not quite done with B&G yet, as I’ll be comparing it to this year’s Beowulf.
If George Lucas began the destruction of fantasy cinema by sticking hapless actors in front of a green screen, Robert Zemeckis seems intent on finishing the job by covering actors in pixels.
Don’t get me wrong, the CGI acting in Beowulf is the best I’ve ever seen, excepting Andy Serkis as Gollum and King Kong. The motion capture actually captured the nuances of the actors’ performances. But tell me, if you’re going to make the CGI characters look just like the actors, why replace them with CGI toons in the first place? It’s like covering an actor in a latex mask of themselves. Computer character design is still trapped in the “Uncanny Valley,” and in Beowulf I could never believe the human characters were real people. They came across as sophisticated but imperfect puppets.
The decision to make the entire film as CGI animation was the only part of Beowulf I didn’t like. The screenplay, written by brilliant fantasy author Neil Gaiman and some guy who is not Neil Gaiman, was witty and engrossing. Their take on the original poem was to assume it was a redacted version of events designed to make Beowulf look good, and this film reveals the shocking truth. So Beowulf is a braggart who exaggerates his heroic achievements, and Hrothgar is a manipulative schemer trying to wend his way out of a deadly curse. Grendel’s Mother is more of a succubus than a sea hag, and everything in the poem after Beowulf encounters her is a lie told by Beowulf to cover his own ass.
Grendel is presented as a giant, even more pitiful version of Gollum, with a fascinating character design that evokes the face of actor Crispin Glover without really looking like him. And Grendel’s Mother, as we all know from the previews, is a buck-naked CGI Angelina Jolie, sporting digital gold body paint and a prehensile ponytail.
Like Beowulf & Grendel before it, Beowulf starts out true to the poem (minus the genealogies and digressions), but takes a left turn half way through. And as in B&G, it all has to do with the parentage of Grendel, and Hrothgar’s (and later Beowulf’s) relationship with the monster and his mother.
Both films share certain themes; the coming of Christianity to Denmark; the futility of revenge; characters who rip off their own arms; and the power of women.
Gaiman is a master of making ancient myths relevant to today, as he did in his famous Sandman comic series, or in the American Gods novels, or in this year’s film version of Stardust. While B&G was ultimately about the futility of revenge, Beowulf attacks a modern problem: are fame and power are worth the price?
By the way, I heard an interesting idea about the plot of the Beowulf film. (SPOILERS) Hrothgar becomes king because he slept with Grendel’s Mother. When Beowulf shows up, Hrothgar has the golden horn. He gives it to Beowulf, declares Beowulf king, then immediately kills himself. Beowulf gives the horn to Grendel’s Mom, sleeps with her, and becomes king in earnest. Fifty years later, Beowulf gets the horn back, and is attacked by his own monstrous son in dragon form. He dies killing his own son, and Beowulf’s buddy Wiglaf gets the horn, and is (presumably) seduced by Grendel’s Mother.
So here’s the theory: Grendel’s Mother lures powerful men, shtups them, and takes the horn. When her child by the man grows up, she returns the horn and sends her child to attack. The she lures a new man, and the cycle begins again. This means that Hrothgar was luring Beowulf to his doom all along.
Beowulf the Comic Book
A four part graphic-novelization of the 2007 film was released weekly this last October, and is now available in one volume. The story by Chris Ryall pretty much sticks to the screenplay, and retells the movie briskly.
The art by Gabriel Rodriquez is crisp and attractive; although I do have some advice for artists everywhere, and not just Mr. Rodriguez. That advice is this: don’t try to mimic the manga BESM style! Unless you’re actually Japanese, and in Japan, just don’t do it. You will FAIL. Rodriguez’s art is pretty standard for an American comic, except he uses anime eyes. And it does not work.
Strangely, the characters in the comic adaptation do not look like the actors, except in the vaguest sense. But the comic does a great job at recreating the feel of the film, particularly in its use of dark blues and earth tones, giving the feel of the chill Danish tundra.
If you’re a fan of the film, then I recommend picking up the graphic novel.
There have been other adaptations of Beowulf, of course. Here is a brief list:
- Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981), an animated story told from the monster’s point of view.
- Beowulf (2000), a sci-fi version with Christopher Lambert and Rhona “Lara Croft” Mitra.
- Grendel (2007), a made-for-TV movie on the Sci-Fi Channel.
- Beowulf (2007), an actor performs the poem onstage.