Guest Post by Prof. Brian J. McFadden: That's One Sexed-Up Beowulf
Sherman Oaks, California
Our guest blogger today is Brian J. McFadden (pictured), who teaches Anglo-Saxon literature at Texas Tech University. Brian and I were high school classmates, and, in the twenty years since, Brian earned a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Notre Dame and learned French, German, Latin, Middle English and Old English. In other words, Brian is Really Effing Smart.
When Paramount Pictures released Beowulf last fall, I asked Brian for his comments since he can probably recite the poem backward while drinking a flagon of mead. He takes aim at the script, which was co-written by science fiction master Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction author Roger Avery. Beowulf (Unrated Director’s Cut) is released tomorrow on DVD.
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Beowulf (2007). Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
The film, as do most adaptations, takes some liberties with the story; a lot of the nitty-gritty detail that goes into the poem just won’t work in coming up with a focused narrative (see what Peter Jackson had to do in a few places to keep LOTR moving, like deleting Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire).
The major liberty taken is that the writers focused on one aspect of the story, the importance of heredity, and ran with that to the exclusion of many other themes of the poem. Beowulf the poem opens up with the genealogy of the Danes; Scyld Scefing, his son Beowulf (not the title character), then his son Healfdene, then Healfdene’s four children (Heorogar, Hrothgar, Halga, and an unnamed daughter who, despite some textual issues, appears to have been married off to Onela, the Swede).
Beowulf, on landing in Denmark, is not asked his name by the coast-guard; he is asked his lineage and identifies himself as a Geat and the thane of Hygelac, not even bothering to name himself until he presents himself to Hrothgar. Hrothgar does have an heir; in fact, he has two, Hrethric and Hrothmund, plus his nephew Hrothulf, who, in the analogues to the poem in Norse and Icelandic literature, actually fight fairly well together. (In the poem, Beowulf returns to the Geats; no spouse is mentioned, and he fights the dragon in his own land, not Denmark.)
It takes sex to get heirs, but there isn’t a lot of on-page sex in the poem; we hear of marriages being arranged, of Wealhtheow and Hrothgar going off to bed, and of Healfdene’s unnamed daughter being the “dear bed-companion” of Onela, but that’s about it.
In the movie, on the other hand, sex abounds and in ways that the poet would probably not appreciate. Apparently any king who has sex with Grendel’s mother, a lamia, just can’t have children with anyone else; both Hrothgar and Beowulf take Wealhtheow as a queen and then take other lovers, but they still don’t have any heirs.
The poem’s Beowulf, like the film’s character, doesn’t have an heir and names Wiglaf as his successor as he dies; this idea, however, is at the end of the film tied to Wiglaf’s attempted seduction by Grendel’s mother (the outcome of which, perhaps mercifully, we do not see).
Beowulf was not in the hall when Grendel’s mother attacks (in the poem or in the movie), having been in the “buru” (bed-chambers) at the time, which Zemeckis seems to assume always means someone is having sex (Beowulf’s warriors and the hero himself are always busy trying to get busy).
In the poem, the dragon is angered by the theft of a golden cup and ravages indiscriminately, but Beowulf believes he is being divinely punished because he avenged his lord Heardred’s death at the hands of Onela (Hrothgar’s brother-in-law); this fits into the motif of fratricide that begins with the scop’s singing of the story of Cain and Abel and continues throughout the poem. In the film, the dragon, when he is not flying and burning villages, is an incredibly handsome golden youth who is angered because a servant found and recovered the golden cup that is the token of peace between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf.
Rather than commenting on a social system of vengeance that continually pits kinsman against kinsman, as the poem does, the film keeps slipping into an Oedipal conflict of father against son (Hrothgar against Grendel, Beowulf against the dragon). Zemeckis seems to have taken the idea that violence breeds violence (which, granted, is a part of the poem) rather literally in these instances.
Another major issue that comes up is the absolute untrustworthiness of anything that is not seen by multiple people. The swimming match with Breca is not questioned in the poem (although Beowulf’s worthiness is); everyone agrees that he lost, but no one doubts him when he talks about defeating sea monsters. In the film, Beowulf does in fact defeat many sea monsters, but he takes a break to have sex with a mermaid, which he leaves out when recounting the story.
The idea of being seduced by Grendel’s mother is not a new one – there was a 2001 movie titled Beowulf starring Christopher Lambert (of Highlander fame) in which Grendel’s mother seduces Hrothgar to produce Grendel in a post-apocalyptic future scenario – but in this film it involves Beowulf actively lying to Hrothgar and the court (although Hrothgar, having been seduced himself by Grendel’s mother, sees through the ploy). In the poem, upon Beowulf’s return to Hygelac, he recounts his adventures, and while he does rearrange them for narrative power and includes the story of Freawaru for the first time, he does not change the essential truth of the narrative.
Being somewhat skeptical of the stories of ones’ leaders is a useful modern mindset, but, in an oral traditional culture, an exact match with the truth is unimportant as long as the major story points are kept, and the idea of a poem enacting a flat-out lie would not have made much sense in medieval England.
In short, Zemeckis has tried to make the story of Beowulf more up-to-date by adding deliberate misconduct to Beowulf’s character, but the idea that a hero’s actions may come back to haunt him is enacted much more subtly in the poem (Beowulf’s trust in a flawed system, his lack of foresight in having an heir, his pride – or perhaps, his extreme fidelity to his idea of duty - in taking on the dragon alone).
The film is visually wonderful – there were times I couldn’t tell the animation from live action – but it just isn’t the poem.