Beowulf: The experts speak

Nope, I haven’t seen Beowulf yet — maybe I’ll catch it over the T-weekend. But I have been reading the opinions of those who spend their time studying the medieval mindset, and while their reactions to the film are extremely interesting, there’s enough spoilerage that you might want to hold off until you’ve seen the thing yourself.

Richard Nokes, professor of medieval literature at Troy University in Alabama, has a nice roundup of reactions to go along with his own assessment, which declares the film to be a highly mixed bag but finds substantial qualities to appreciate:

The film has a weird kind of unity of place, which I think works as a corrective to the disunity of time in the story. One of the problems of adapting Beowulf is that big 50-year jump in time. Here, the writers keep that jump in time, but they shrink the world of Beowulf down into about 5 square miles. Except for Beowulf’s journey there by sea, a flashback to his swimming race with Brecca, and a single scene of battle with the Frisians, the entire film takes place close enough to see (and hear) Heorot Hall. It cuts back on the potential for epic sweep in the film, but it keeps that 50-year gap from seeming like a disjuncture. Instead, it allows for the plotline to be cyclical, connecting Beowulf back with Hrothgar, the king/father he replaced.

The theme of the plot seems to be the unreliability of storytelling. Every time someone tells a story there’s something left out . . . a lie of omission, a carefully-crafted parsing of words, or an exaggeration. By the end of the film, we expect stories to be unreliable. When the scop (annoyingly mis-pronounced skop) finally tells the tale of Beowulf, the only geniune inclusion of the language of the poem in the film, we are left to understand that his version is wrong. After Beowulf has an encounter with a Frisian who wants to kill him, Beowulf broods a bit, humiliates the Frisian, then sends him on his way, saying that the man now has a story to tell — the understanding is that the man will lie and exaggerate.

I gather that Grendel speaks his few lines in Old English, which is an interesting touch.

Carl Pyrdum gives a very detailed description of the film, with this summation:

As a medievalist, I can’t really fault the makers of an adaptation for not remaining true to the letter of their source material. If medieval authors had shown that sort of fidelity, my dissertation would be very short. Nevertheless, I prefer adaptations that allow the characters the dignity that they had in the source material, so I was annoyed to see Hrothgar prancing around like a fool and Wiglaf sitting on his hands while Beowulf fights the dragon. And to reduce Beowulf’s vaunted wordhoard to “I AM BEOWULF!!!!”… it boggles the mind.***

The main problem with the movie is that it is a bog-standard dumb action extravaganza created by people who think that they have instead made a very smart film. I put the blame mostly on Neil Gaiman, because he has a solid track record for taking well-worn cliche’s, stock characters, and stale plots, adding some black-eyeliner, and calling it Deep, Dark, and Meaningful. He thinks that he’s some sort of revolutionary for making a movie where the evil woman is a slinky seductress and the virtuous woman is an ice queen. I’m not saying that we need to see Wealtheow in a string bikini, but it’s a little absurd that Grendel’s Mom’s breasts are such a big part of the film that they probably had their own trailer on the set, while Wealtheow’s wearing some sort of medieval minimizer. And how subtle to have the evil woman live in a cave shaped like the only part of Angelina Jolie that they didn’t computer animate.

Dr. Virago found Beowulf to be a movie that was good enough, and equipped with enough decent storytelling ideas, to make her wish the whole had been a lot better:

It’s clear that Gaiman and Avary have taken the question about the interpretation of last word of the poem — lofgeornost, “most eager for fame” — and applied it to their characterization of Beowulf throughout. Fine. But in doing so they’ve also decided to ignore the other three descriptors applied to Beowulf in the last lines of the poem: manna mildust (mildest of men), monthwaerust (most gentle), and leodum lithost (kindest to his people). Gaiman and Avary’s Beowulf is an asshole. He’s a lying, cheating SOB who strangely likes to get naked in the dead of Danish winter (all the better to show off his six pack abs). He’s also not all that impressive of a fighter.

Expanding on the movie’s theme of the unreliability of storytelling over time, Jeff Sypeck compares two writeups on the poem — one from 1952, the other a 2000 review of the Seamus Heaney translation — and finds evidence of the unreliability of Time over storytelling:

Note the difference in tone. The reporter in 1952 may have been ignorant of the continuing value of the Beowulf manuscript even after its copying and reproduction, but he reports on the state of Anglo-Saxon manuscript preservation without any snark. Amazingly, he even refers to “the famed Thorkelin transcripts” with no trace of irony. Time magazine didn’t expect its readers to know who Grí­mur Jónsson Thorkelin was, but the mid-century reporter kindly explains the scholar’s importance in four concise sentences—without jokes, without dismissive anecdotes, without caveats about political incorrectness, and without calling anything “boffo.”

Maybe the contrast is unfair. After all, a straight news article serves a different purpose than a book review that takes its subject seriously after three paragraphs of irony. But those three paragraphs sure are telling. The reporter in 1952 takes for granted that Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are important, and he assumes that the average Time reader, when briefed on the basics, is likely to agree. By contrast, the reviewer in 2000 assumes that the reader is inclined to think an Anglo-Saxon poem irrelevant based on a quip in a Woody Allen movie; that the reader needs a Harry Potter reference to make this material palatable; and that the reader requires inoculation against—or permission to enjoy, I’m not sure which—the work of “the deadest white European male.” The 1952 article respects the discernment of its readers, who may be receptive to the obscure. The 2000 review condescends. Really: “boffo”?

What’s especially strange to me is that Time magazine is so out of sync with the literate public’s genuine interest in the past. Except for bored patients in doctors’ offices, most of the people who still read general-interest news magazines must be doing so because they’re at least somewhat curious about the world. I don’t want to overstate the number of readers who might be interested in medieval manuscripts, but the massive success of the Beowulf translation tagged as “boffo” by Time magazine suggests that we shouldn’t understate their numbers either. Why preface a review with cutesy language that camouflages an implicit apology to the larger, incurious public? They’re not going to see the article anyway. How strange to let non-readers set the tone of a book review.

And how strange for an industry that rises and falls on reading to spend its time trying to cultivate people who don’t read — and by doing so, alienate people who do read. As the brightly-lit dark age of mass-market media continues to descend, we can savor that irony here in our digital mead halls.

OUCH! Glenn Kenny rather unkindly likens Angelina Jolie’s voice as Grendel’s mother to Sara Berner as Mama Buzzard in the classic 1945 Bugs Bunny cartoon Bashful Buzzard. Now when I go see the flick, my mind will rewrite the dialogue: “Are you goink to wreck that mead hall?” “Awwwwwhhhh, no no no no no no no no . . . . uh, yup.” Thanks a whole heap, Glenn.  

One thought on “Beowulf: The experts speak

  1. Jeff says:

    Thanks for the link, Steven! This may very well be the first time an excerpt of something I’ve written has been prefaced with chiasmus.

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