Thursday, March 13, 2008

The New Beowulf: Death of a Hero?

“The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf; the Christ-god has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear and shame.”
Beowulf, 2007 (director Zemeckis)

The Old English poem, Beowulf, is one of my favourite works of English literature. Last year, in my enthusiasm and excitement for this poem, I rushed out and purchased the DVD of the newly released modern film version entitled, Beowulf and Grendel. To my disappointment, the noble culture and heroic landscape of the poem was translated into a misguided but strong culture that was being eradicated by Christian usurpers. The result of the "Christian impact" (as portrayed in the film) was a replacement of the original, pure culture by disillusionment, cynicism and weakness. The only wise and stable character in the film is a sorcery-practicing witch (where does she fit into the original poem?). Beowulf is portrayed as an arrogant charlatan, who learns (too late) that the true hero of the story is Grendel (a misunderstood cromagnum man) who is trying to avenge the prejudicial and unfounded murder of his father. Huh?

This year, I was more cautious when the Robert Zemeckis’s animated film Beowulf was released on DVD in February. I resolved not to make any rash purchases. Curiosity overwhelmed me, however, and despite the mysterious presence of Angelina Jolie in the film, I rented it.

To my delight, what I found was a dazzling animation, a visually satisfying recreation of the world of Beowulf. To my disappointment, I found another anti-Christian rendering of the poem. Focus on the Family’s movie review site Plugged In, gives a candid review of the positives and negatives of this film version from a Christian perspective. Unfortunately, there are more negatives than positives.

The real poem---the poem I admire---is the earliest major literary work in the English language. Written by an anonymous Christian poet in the 8th century, the work describes a Scandinavian-based myth/legend; the primary subject is the humble Geat hero, Beowulf, and his battling of two monsters and a dragon. Despite the pagan context, the poet infuses a Christian worldview into the story, what Douglas Wilson describes as redeemed “northernness” (Wilson 4). Literary scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien, also underscores the Christian foundation of the poem. His essay, entitled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” was described by recent Beowulf translator Seamus Heaney as “epoch-making” and “brilliant literary treatment” of the poem (Heaney xi). In this essay, Tolkien rejects the theory that “[Beowulf] is a string of pagan lays edited by monks” or that “it is the work of a learned but inaccurate Christian antiquarian” (8). He also rejects the notion that the poem was written by “muddle-headed” and “beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons” (8). Tolkien argues that Beowulf “moves in a northern heroic age imagined by a Christian, and therefore has a noble and gentle quality” (45). Tolkien cites another writer who explains that Beowulf's heroic quality is more distinctly “a Christian knight” heroism than a Greco-Roman mythological heroism (20). Tolkien also compares Beowulf’s continual battle with monsters and foes to Christians battling the “enemies of the one God, ece Dryhten” (eternal Lord); like Beowulf, Christians were (and are) “hemmed in a hostile world” (22).

According to an interview on the DVD bonus content, the co-screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary believe that they are undoing the edits made by supposed monks, monks who wrecked the poem by Christianizing it. In the film, Beowulf laments, “The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf; the Christ-god has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear and shame.”

On the contrary, Christ is the ultimate hero, the only true authentic hero in history. Literary heroes face incredible adversaries; Odysseus faces the Cyclops, Beowulf faces Grendel, St. George faces the dragon. The Christ-hero faces man’s greatest adversary---death---and he defeats it. Then Christ promises to battle our enemies in and through us. The screenwriters seemed to miss this central theme: before Christ, the world of Beowulf was an endless cycle of death and defeat. Christ brings true victory and ultimately, true heroism.

The screenwriters’ and director’s efforts to restore Beowulf to its original form by “undoing” the edits by monks is ironic. The only editing that actually occurred in this film adaptation is the edits made to remove the fundamental Christian elements. Another ironic aspect is the confessions of the screenwriters and the director that they hated Beowulf when they had to read it is high school. Who hired these guys? Question number one should have been, do you like the story? Question number two should have been, have you actually read the story?

Avoid the film and read the poem yourself. Students of the poem should be especially wary. As Paul Asay from Plugged In writes, “The film has very little to do with the book… So anyone who uses this film as a sort of CliffsNotes is bound to get all the questions wrong on the semester test.” I recently read Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s New York Times bestseller translation of Beowulf this fall and I highly recommend it.

  • Heaney, Seamus. “Introduction” pp. ix-xxx. Beowulf. Trans. S. Heaney. New York: Norton, 2001.

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. pp. 5-48.The Monsters and the Critics and other Essays. Ed. C. Tolkien. London: Harper, 2006.

  • Wilson, Douglas. “North of the World” pp.4-5. Credenda Agenda. Vol. 9 No. 4 Idaho: Community Evangelical Fellowship, 1997.

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