Butchering Beowulf

Beowulf was a heroic Geat. Neil Gaiman is a bloody git.

He actually ruined Beowulf. [Yes, I blame Roger Avery, too, but Gaiman should have known better than to tamper with the poem that has shaped nearly every piece of fantasy or action/adventure fiction since. Then again, since there are rumors he’d also like a shot at The Epic of Gilgamesh, maybe he doesn’t have a clue. I can’t say I’ve really been impressed with his original work, be it Stardust or Sandman [the latter being appropriately named, since when I gave it a try it kept putting me to sleep!]

I was really looking forward to seeing Beowulf, but I’d missed the theatrical release. I found out later that it was made in that same annoying animation style as The Polar Express, but I still thought it would be alright. [The effect is like watching someone play Final Fantasy or, more appropriately, God of War.] But nevermind the flash, what I wanted was the story itself.

The poem  

It was an epic tale just dying for someone to give it the sort of reverent film realization that Tolkein’s LOTR and CS Lewis’ Narnia books have recently enjoyed. Beowulf is already great. He is a larger-than-life hero who takes on monsters and defends kingdoms against dragons. He refuses to usurp the throne, stays out of bloodfeuds and rules his people with wisdom. All that was required was a faithful adaptation.

But neither Gaiman nor Avery [of Pulp Fiction fame] were content with the poem. Why? They were bothered by its “inconsistencies” and by its Christian voice. The press notes, repeated in the special features of the Director’s Cut DVD give some insight:

“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.”

It’s equally possible that these elements of structure never existed outside the fertile minds of Avery and Gaiman. Beowulf is quite literally the oldest thing in the English language. Literature was not subject to literary criticism back then. They’ve also assumed that there were in fact numerous changes to the story over hundreds of years of verbal tradition before the monks transcribed it. It is again, an assumption.

Essentally, they used Beowulf as a framework and created a completely different tale with an entirely different tone. And they’ve amply illustrated the old truism, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The tone is important to Beowulf. The narrator’s Christianity is evident. Gaiman and Avery turn this reverent contemplation of Beowulf’s life and deeds completely on its head. Instead, they vilify Christianity [or what else do you call two guys discussing how to get to heaven while they both take a pee?], tout the autonomy of man [Hrothgar states at one point that the gods, including the Roman Christian god, cannot help them; they need a hero now], present Christianity as impotent [the dragon destroys the church, treating us to an image of a burning, falling church, shortly before slaughtering Unferth’s family] and stereotypical treatments of Christians as hypocrites [Unferth converts but beats his servant all the more visciously for it].  It should be noted that the themes of Christianity versus paganism or the autonomy of man versus reliance upon religious faith were part of the original poem. Beowulf’s narrator comments upon the tale from a Christian perspective, but none of the characters are actually Christians. The themes of Beowulf are fate [wyrd] as the will of God contrasted with the uncertainty of being human [and hence the stress upon making a name of glory that will outlive you]. God and fate are paramount. In Gaiman’s revision, faith is a sham and heroes make their own fortunes. There is no consideration of the pagan idea of wyrd or of the Christian idea of God’s omnpotence. The autonomy of man is supreme, which is why Gaiman and Avery have to write flaws into the hero’s character almost immediately. If man is the measure and not God, heroes cannot be larger than  life; they must be whittled down to something much more our size.

As for the perceived “inconsistencies” of Beowulf: Who is Grendel’s father? Um, who cares??! It’s not a consideration to the story at all. In fact, it reminds me of one of those pointless questions high school textbooks ask when they review great literature. The poem does answer in a roundabout way. Grendel and his mother are the offspring of Cain, as are ogres and giants. Did Hrothgar sire Grendel? Not bloody likely. [Neither did he kill Fafnir, for that matter.] In fact, the whole scenario also fails to take note of the fact that, rather than keeping herself from her husband for cheating on her with Grendel’s mother, Hrogthar’s wife has two sons of him named in the poem. Why does Beowulf bring back Grendel’s head and not his mother’s when he goes to kill her? Simply enough, because her blood tended to melt swords and presumably anything else it touched, while Grendel’s corpse was less dangerous. Besides, Grendel’s mother had taken Beowulf’s previous trophy [Grendel’s arm] and he wanted it replaced.

Grendel and his mother, as portrayed in the film, are probably the biggest disappointment, aside from the film’s antiChristian tone. The poem describes them as huge, powerful, scaly creatures. Grendel in the film is rendered as a half-rotting, malformed zombie troll. He’s repulsive and stomache-churning. He’s hard to watch. Grendel’s mother is easier on the eyes, but our eyes see rather more than they ought. Reportedly, even Angelina Jolie was shocked at how much of her they rendered and had to warn her relatives of it.

The dragon as Beowulf’s son is just dumb. It’s pointless. We never get to know the character. His motivatons seem forced and never quite authentic. We don’t care. The fight with the dragon was probably the best part of the film, but the drivel about his origins was just unnecessary. The dragon has a point in the Beowulf poem and I’m surprised that Gaiman didn’t know it. The dragon is mortality on a grand enough scale to match its hero. Even heroes die, though the world is a bit smaller and sadder for the loss.

–Sirius Knott

3 Comments Add yours

  1. petersonion says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, as I could tell from the previews that it was not directed by an artist.

    However, reading your post, I actually agree with Avery that the question of Grendel’s father, and reading it as two great kings fathering their own destructions, does indeed add a compelling story arch.

    As for the incorporation of anti-Christian sentiment, that surprises me, since I think the interpretation they have chosen is wide open to a Sin-and-Redemption sentiment, which could be well done. It seems they missed opportunities.

    Nevertheless, one should never discourage new interpretations of old pieces. John Gardner for example used Beowulf to great effect in his novel Grendel.

  2. Sirius says:

    Respectfully, I still think answering the question of Grendel’s father in this way alters the story too much. Beowulf has not yet seen a decent faithful adaptation to the big screen. Why should we go about hacking and editing it when it hasn’t had its own say yet?

    I haven’t read Gardner’s book, so I won’t comment on that. I will say that new interpretations on old pieces are fine [We’ve seen some fine updated, even contemporary versions of Hamlet and Othello, and the oddest and surprisingly entertaining rendition of The Oddysey via O Brother, Where Art Thou?], but a new interpretation isn’t what Beowulf needed. Again, it needed — and still needs — a faithful translation to the screen.

    I found the idea of two kings fathering their own destructions just plain gratuitous. Why can’t our heroes be what we think they are? Why can’t they be larger than life? Why must we try to drag them down into the mud? Postmodern mores have no respect for anything. Nothing is sacred; what was once considered sacred must be profaned. Garbage. And why is Hrothgar’s offspring a half-rotten mutant, but Beowulf sires a dragon? That’s just inconsistent. And annoying. Perhaps if Grendel had been more dragonish as the poem descibes him it wouldn’t have drawn me out of it quite so sharply.

    The interpretation they’ve chosen would be wide open to the old sin-and-redemption theme, if there were drunks taking a pee while they discuss theology and Christian Unferth beating the hell out of his servant. They vilified Christianity. Again, it was gratuitous. They claim to be adding realism to the film [but why the video game style then?], but they’re really just calling good evil and evil good.

    You’re right there, they did miss some opportunities.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Always good to have a different opinion to consider.

    –Sirius Knott

  3. Piutrar says:

    Dear Sirius,

    Thank you so much for this critique.
    It is helpful to have a considered view that includes
    the endurance of the Beowolf legend. There is nothing enduring about this film version. It is too gratuitous and graphic to merit the children’s 12A viewing certificate it received.

    With gratitude,


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