Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Impact of “Beowulf” on modern literature and pop culture

(and this one is from my Old ENglish Literature classes at the Uni)

The Old English epic poem “Beowulf” has influenced generations of modern writers and has left a trace in our pop-culture.

Probably one of the most influenced is J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of the epic trilogy “The Lord of the Rings”. Tolkien is famous for his fascination with myths and legends and his deep academic studies on that subject. Of Tolkien's academic publications, the 1936 lecture "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics" had a lasting influence on Beowulf research. In his famous article he also revealed how highly he regarded Beowulf; "Beowulf is among my most valued sources…" And indeed, there are many influences of Beowulf in “The Lord of the Rings”. When Tolkien wrote, the consensus of scholarship deprecated Beowulf for dealing with childish battles with monsters rather than realistic tribal warfare; Tolkien argued that the author of Beowulf was addressing human destiny in general, not as limited by particular tribal politics, and therefore the monsters were essential to the poem. (Where Beowulf does deal with specific tribal struggles, as at Finnsburg, Tolkien argued firmly against reading in fantastic elements.) Tolkien argued that the poem is an elegy. He speaks against critics who play down the fantastic elements of the poem (such as Grendel and the dragon) in favour of using Beowulf solely as a source for Anglo-Saxon history. Tolkien argues that rather than being merely extraneous, these elements are key to the narrative and should be the focus of study. In doing so he drew attention to the previously neglected literary qualities of the poem and argued that it should be studied as a work of art, not just as an historical document.

And speaking of human destiny in general – “Beowulf” is one of the works on the reading list Joseph Campbell gave his students at Sarah Lawrence college. His studies on comparative mythology deal with the archetypes and the universal themes and philosophy in stories from all over the world. Many of these themes, motifs and symbols are common for many different cultures. And “Beowulf” is a fine example of what Campbell calls “a hero’s journey” – the main character going through various trials, killing monsters and defeating supernatural enemies. Beowulf is also a classical heroic figure, one of “the thousand faces” Campbell describes in “The Hero with The Thousand Faces”.

Many writers draw some of their inspiration from the epic poem. Probably the best known among them is the American author John Gardner and his novel “Grendel” (1971). This is a parallel story. It is a retelling of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf from the perspective of the antagonist, Grendel. The novel deals with finding meaning in the world, the power of literature and myth, and the nature of good and evil. The basics of the plot derive from “Beowulf”- Gardner's retelling presents the story from the existentialist view of his enemy Grendel, exploring the history of the characters before Beowulf arrives. Beowulf himself plays a relatively small role in the novel, but still is the only human hero that can match and kill Grendel. “Grendel” has become one of Gardner's most well-known and well-reviewed works. Ten years after publication, the novel was adapted into the 1981 animated movie, “Grendel Grendel Grendel”, where Peter Ustinov gave his voice to the monster.

Another Beowulf-inspired novel is “Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922” (1976) by Michael Crichton. The story is about a 10th-century Muslim who travels with a group of Vikings to their settlement. Crichton explains in an appendix that the book was based on two sources. The first three chapters are a retelling of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's personal account of his actual journey north and his experiences with and observations of the Rus', the early Russian people. The remainder is based upon the story of Beowulf. The novel was adapted into film as “The 13th Warrior”, directed by John McTiernan. In 2006, Elliot Goldenthal and Julie Taymor premiered an opera of Grendel, also based on Gardner's novel.

Some pay a tribute or make a reference to “Beowulf”. For example there’s a character named “Beowulf” in the Dune cycle, created by Frank Herbert (though not in one of the books written by Frank Herbert himself). Sir Beowulf, or Beo for short, is a character from Dominic Barker's fantasy novels - a burly warrior who joins the main characters on their quest. Beowulf Shaeffer ("Bey") is a fictional character from Larry Niven’s Known Space series. And the title of one of the short stories in the series is “Grendel”. Beowulf is a fictional planet in David Weber's Honor Harrington “Honorverse” series of novels. Grendels, a predatory alien species in the science-fiction novel “The Legacy of Heorot” written in 1987 by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes, and its sequel “Beowulf’s Children”. Grendel is a long-running series of comic books about the adventures of a masked assassin, originally created by American author Matt Wagner.

In cinema there are several “Beowulf” adaptations. One of them is the 1999 movie starring Christopher Lambert. It is loosely based on the poem, depicting motifs from its story in a techno-medieval setting. Here goes Beowulf from Anglo-Saxon epic to steam-punk action...

Another one is “Beowulf and Grendel” (2005) – a co production between UK, Canada and Iceland, filmed entirely on location in Iceland and directed by Sturla Gunnarsson. Here Grendel is more of a misunderstood outcast, than a real monster. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, Grendel is a huge clumsy creature with a horrifying appearance, but has feelings and not really evin in his true nature. Hrothgar, king of Daneland, and a group of mounted and helmeted warriors chase a large and burly man, whom they consider a monstrous troll, and his young, albeit bearded son across a large open field until father and son find themselves on the edge of deep cliff overlooking a beach and a large sea. The father directs his young son, Grendel, to climb down and hide from the attackers' view. The Danes shoot the father dead with their arrows and his dead body plunges down onto the beach far below. The Danish king walks towards the cliff edge and sees the young Grendel hanging but chooses to spare him. Later, Grendel is on the beach below and finds his father's body. After failing to move the large and heavy corpse, the boy takes a sword and cuts the head off to take it home. Many years later, the severed and mummified head is inside a cave where the boy Grendel has grown up to be as large and burly as his father. After killing a great number of warriors in Hrothgar’s meethall, the monster is hunted by Beowulf and his men, who come to help the Danes. Grendel is even further humanized, feeling love for a woman named Selma, who he protects and who gave him a son. Grendel is feeling anger and despair when Beowulf’s men ravage the cave where he lives and destroy the mummified skull, the only legacy from his slain father. The movie uses the plot of the epic poem to discuss questions like “Who is the real monster?”. The Beowulf presented in this film constantly doubts the Danes' assertion (and later, that of his own men) that the troll is a monster of all encompassing evil. His insight tells him that Grendel is a being of some intelligence and is operating against an evil done against him, which is confirmed by the king's admission to Beowulf that he slew Grendel's father. (And yet, Beowulf notes, Grendel does not attack the king himself, implying a complex ethical and moral code. Grendel takes revenge against the Danes, but will not kill the Dane who spared his life.) Beowulf deeply regrets the need to destroy Grendel, and yet accepts the fact that in his world, it must be done. At the end of the movie, after he had slain Grendel and his mother, Beowulf spares the life of Grendel’s son. Another theme of the film is that of Christianity's introduction into pagan civilization. As Grendel’s reign of terror continues with no end in sight, the people of the village turn away from their Norse gods, which seem to offer no help, and who, they believe, expect the Danes to fight and struggle unto death, to the Christian Jesus, who they are told forgives all and, from Beowulf’s point of view, expects nothing.In 2006, a documentary of the making of Beowulf and Grendel called Wrath of Gods was released and went on to win several European film awards.

There is also a “Grendel” TV-movie based on the poem, produced by Sci-Fi Channel and shot on location in Bulgaria. Haven’t seen it, but from what I’ve seen so far by Sci-Fi Channel, I guess it’s plain bad.

And last but not least, Robert Zemeckis’ “Beowulf” (2007), which unfortunately I haven’t seen yet… I don’t want to spoil the experience, so I won’t do any research or write anything about it. I’ll just say that I have great expectations for this movie


ps. This was written before the Bulgarian premiere of Zemeckis' "Beowulf". After I saw the movie, I can say that I'm kinda disappointed by the story and the way they depicted Grendel, could have been a great "Dungeons and Dragons" movie with this animation. The best scene for me was the fight with the sea monster :)

1 comment:

MyBrainHurts said...

Interesting post. I am starting a PhD on Beowulf in modern media and had not heard of Dominic Barker or Larry Niven's works, so that was helpful!