8.3.09

Beowulf

Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving pieces of English literature -- an epic poem in Anglo-Saxon, probably sung in halls to entertain feasting thegns. Seamus Heaney, probably the most eminent Irish poet living today, had done a new translation. I was intrigued (we were doing Heaney in school) and picked it up. This was a while ago, and my memory of the poem is vague. But as far as I remember, the plot is terribly simple. The monster Grendel is plaguing the kingdom of Hrothgar. Beowulf, a distant relative, comes to kill it. In exchange Hrothgar will give him his gratitude and a share of his treasure. After expounding at length a swimming race he took part in, which involved getting through sea monsters, Beowulf goes and kills the (vaguely described) Grendel, and his (even more vaguely described) mother. Later on, when he has established himself as a king in his own right -- perhaps with the gold and connections he has made -- his lands are attacked by a dragon. Beowulf kills it as well (he's a hero, after all), but is mortally wounded. The poem end with him being buried with lots of treasure.

This 'superhero fights monsters' story is just incredibly simplistic. There is little character depth. There are, however, interesting things in it about the way Anglo-Saxon society functioned: weregilds, mercenaries, treasure, heroic values. Most interesting is the fact that the poem contains overt Christian references, and yet the tale it tells is pretty much devoid of Christian values and symbols. Sidebar: before inventing Hobbits, Tolkien made his name as the first person to analyse Beowulf as literature, rather than just as a historical source. He thought there was a Chistian subtext to the poem. Personally, I couldn't see it -- and a bunch of experts feel the same. For me, Beowulf is interesting mainly because it marks a transition in the culture and religion of Anglo-Saxon society. The Christian bits are likely to be later additions to an older story, which had itself been constantly amended and distorted as it was orally passed down through the ages. The text thus reveals the creeping process of Christian conversion. The new religion -- a missionary religion we mustn't forget -- latches on to the prevalent values, rituals, superstitions, hopes and fears of the people it is trying to convert, and overlays them with a new language and imagery. Beowulf captures a situation where Christian concepts and symbols are comfortably being used in a society that remains largely pagan. It demonstrates the way Christianity, and indeed all missionary religions, are spread among the wider population.

The recent film adaptation by Robert Zemeckis briefly acknowledges this process. During the course of events, the presence of Christianity in the kingdom becomes more prevalent. This is just one of the surprises of Zemeckis's film. When I first heard about it, I assumed that it would be derivative nonsense, cashing in on the post-LOTR wave of epic fantasy features. There would be cool dragon action and little else. However, the promise of dragon action is enough to part me with my money, sometimes to my cost -- Eragon was one of the few films in which I found myself consistently not caring about what happened next. But Beowulf was a surprise in every way.

You would expect a film about dragons to have a wincingly clunky script. But look here. Beowulf is jointly written by comics legend Neil Gaiman and Tarantino script-doctor Roger Avary. Interesting... Any old fool would quickly realise that the original story would need a lot of adapting to suit a modern audience. But in doing so, Gaiman and Avary managed to craft a very sophisticated fable involving a variety of complex characters. In the film, Beowulf (played by Ray Winstone!) kills Grendel, but doesn't kill Grendel's mother. Instead, she seduces him, promising power, riches, military success and eternal fame. When Beowulf returns, he learns that Hrothgar had also been seduced by the demon, and that Grendel was his son. The film ends ambiguously, with Beowulf's successor also facing Grendel's mother, and the choice she has offered to the previous kings. In this way, the film makes a powerful statement about how power, wealth and fame is granted only after a deal with the devil. Beowulf gets all he has ever desired, but at the cost of losing his humanity. He becomes a true hero when he realises this -- he asks his estranged wife to remember him as a fallible man rather than a superhuman demon-slayer.

What is most interesting is how the film portrays lust for power as straight lust. The most arresting image in the film is the digitally animated naked body of Angelina Jolie, dripping with liquid gold, in the seduction sequence. She is a pagan Eve, tempting men with sex and treasure. The overt sexuality of her character is contrasted with the chaste, white-robed Wealtheow, who Beowulf falls in love with after hearing her sing -- i.e. he falls for who she is rather than what she looks like (I suspect Gaiman, who understands symbol, was behind this). The point, I think, is that as power erodes humanity, so lust can destroy love. Deep or what?

I mentioned symbol. The golden horn is another: representing the contract between king and demon, and how it's passed from one king to another. In a clever shot at the beginning, Hrothgar hands the horn to Beowulf, with Wealtheow in the foreground, and says something about giving other 'cups' (can't quite remember the words) if he succeeds. Wealtheow is also a 'treasure' to be bargained with. Her sex is a commodity, like gold. Symbols proliferate in Beowulf. Unfirth jumping into the pissing gutter at the side of the hall when Grendel attacks is a perfect introduction to his character. And Grendel's mother could be seen as a comment on the position of women in ancient and medieval society. They cannot exercise power directly, but have to manipulate men or work through their sons.

As mentioned above, the film references the Christian conversion process, part of the historical context in which the original poem was written. So while liberties have been taken with the story, the creators are very precise about bringing the Anglo-Saxon world to life. From my brief study of the period, I would say that the portrayal of mercenaries, treasure-hoards, politics and life in the royal hall is accurate, at least as far as our knowledge of the historical reality behind the idealised descriptions in Beowulf extends. It's a nice touch when the film shows the first manifestations of the exaggerated 'Song of Beowulf', which will eventually reach us.

What's funny about Zemeckis's Beowulf is that the script, which in a film like this you would expect to be weak, is actually amazing. Conversely, the visuals, which you would expect to be amazing, are actually somewhat weak. The animation not only fails to bring the motion-captured performances to life, its figures, particularly the galloping horses, are stodgy and unrealistic. There are also some annoying visual gags thrown in, which are jarring when placed within what is otherwise a serious, adult film. I wish the creators could have pushed the certificate to 15, so that we wouldn't have the ridiculous framing tricks that keep Beowulf's privates concealed during his naked battle with Grendel. Just show us his penis, and Angelina Jolie's nipples for that matter. I swear I'm not a pervert. I genuinely think it would have made for a better film. Because this is what Zemeckis's Beowulf is -- a brilliant grown-up film hiding in a pulpy dragon film for boys.

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