Last night, I finally got around to watching the latest rendition of Beowulf. I will be teaching it next year and figured I best be familiar with its most contemporary mangling. One should probably note that a story like Beowulf, even in its most "original form" as we know it, was the result of many a mead besotted retelling so there really should be no sacrilege in adapting it to a modern whim. The movie comes across as a great epic story of heroism and humanity and I suspect that was what its original intent was anyway. I will not be a strict Constructionist about it.
The "heros" of Beowulf, are of course warriors and sword wielding, mead inhaling, uberplunderers with the names of Grand Pre wrestlers who love their weapons more than their women. Scyld Scefing (translated in some versions as "Shield Shiefson") the king of the Danes is described as “scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches.” One cannot read the descriptions of the funerals of these great warlords of Scandinavia without thinking of the bumper sticker "He who dies with the most toys, wins". Greatness is somewhat define by the questions "What were you able to take from others while you lived?" and "How much of it can you take in your funeral boat with you?"
What is somewhat interesting about the movie version (not the same exactly as the written epic) is that Grendel the monster and later the dragon, are children of the Kings Hrothgar and Beowulf. They play a part almost synonymous with the monster-demon child in Frankenstein. Grendel is a"gentle" creature made into a monster by his "father's" rejection of him. It would be difficult to count the numbers of plotlines in which the anger of an abandoned son plays a central role these days. Beowulf the movie falls into that genre. In all these stories the lives of "great men" are destroyed by the fact that they put wealth and partying, and fame, and conquest above the value of the women that they should love and the children they neglect. I suspect that this theme is played out in scores of movies in contemporary media begging the question "Why must men go out and conquer things when they would be happier just relating with their wives and children?' Think of various movies that follow this line of reasoning (Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, Martian Child, Troy, etc.) In the movie version of the story of the Illiad (Troy), Achilles mother says to Achilles:
"If you stay in Larissa, you will find peace. You will find a wonderful woman, and you will have sons and daughters, who will have children. And they'll all love you and remember your name. But when your children are dead, and their children after them, your name will be forgotten... If you go to Troy, glory will be yours. They will write stories about your victories in thousands of years! And the world will remember your name. But if you go to Troy, you will never come back... for your glory walks hand-in-hand with your doom. And I shall never see you again."
Needless to say, Achilles goes to Troy.
I confess, though no one will ever mistake me for a Scandinavian beefcake like Beowulf, I did like this translation of a line from the poem:
Maybe that is what I am doing when I blog, eh? Unlatching my word-hoard. Scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead benches. Grin. Certainly Beowulf knows how tell stories about himself and his bravery and ferocious fighting spirit. Many in the meadhall however are tempted to accuse him of letting his "battleship mouth sink his rowboat butt". When Grendel the monster comes, they insist, Beowulf will piss his pants like anyone else (maybe that is why he takes off all his clothes to fight Grendel naked?) . It is for this reason that Beowulf must remind himself of his own words when the monster does come.
Question for Comment: In the movie, Beowulf says to his queen, "Keep a memory of me, not as a king or a hero; but as a man: fallible and flawed" This seems to cover for a multitude of Beowulf's sins (and they are many). He is arrogant. He lies. He takes a mistress. He trades in love for power and sex and wealth. Have we come to the place where one can achieve hero status by simply admitting that one has a weak character, (a la Bill Clinton)? Why work at overcoming one's weaknesses if simply confessing to having them is regarded as strong enough to impress people?