Politically Aware 'Beowulfs' Miss an Ancient Delight: Terror

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: July 4, 2006 | Publication: New York Times | Author: CHARLES McGRATH
Publication/Article Link:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/04/books/04beow.html

"Beowulf," as college lit majors used to have to learn, is the first significant work written in English, or in what passes for English: a 3,000-line epic poem composed in alliterative, unrhymed verse probably during the first half of the eighth century. It's also the original horror story, featuring three monsters of not quite escalating horrificness.

Desmond Richardson as Beowulf, left, with Eric Owens as Grendel, the monster, in the opera "Grendel," with a score by Elliot Goldenthal and libretto by J. D. McClatchy, which will be performed at the Lincoln Center Festival later this month.

There is, first of all, Grendel, a man-eating creature who makes nightly visits to the mead hall of the Danish King Hrothgar, where he snacks on sleeping Danes until the poem's hero, Beowulf, sails over from Geatland (or what is now southern Sweden) and, in a Stephen King moment, rips his arm off.

Then there is Grendel's mother, even fiercer and more monstrous, a swamp creature from hell bent on avenging her son. She is the poem's oddest creature, the only significant female in a world where women are otherwise regarded as chattels and window dressing, and by far the scariest: a maternal rage-ball and a projection of all the fearsome qualities that men have ever imagined in women.

And finally there is a fire-breathing, treasure-hoarding dragon, in whose lair Beowulf eventually meets his downfall.

The "Beowulf" story is so strange, so elemental, that it has spun off a surprising number of satellite versions, even though, aside from scholars, few people have actually read it, at least not in the original Old English: an Anglo-Saxon dialect, employing a partly runish alphabet, that is closer to Icelandic than the language we speak today. There have been several comic-book Beowulfs, and both Beowulf and Grendel turned up in several episodes of "Xena: Warrior Princess," as well as in a legendary 1995 "Star Trek: Voyager" episode in which Ensign Kim turned into a holographic version of the Geat warrior.

The 1999 movie "Beowulf," starring Christopher Lambert, similarly gave the story a science-fiction twist, on the theory, presumably, that Grendel and his mum are so weird that they must have come from another galaxy.

There are also two animated versions: a 1998 short with Derek Jacobi as the voice of the narrator, and Joseph Fiennes as Beowulf, and coming next year a full-length $70 million "Beowulf," directed by Robert Zemeckis, with a screenplay by Neil Gaiman, using the same computer technology as "Polar Express." The cast includes Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar and an inspired choice for Grendel's mother, that terrifying embodiment of the maternal instinct gone amok, Angelina Jolie.

An action movie of sorts, "Beowulf & Grendel," directed by Sturla Gunnarsson and starring Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgard, Ingvar Sigurdsson and Sarah Polley, opens in New York on Friday. And an operatic version is coming to Lincoln Center later this month: "Grendel," directed by Julie Taymor, with a score by her companion, Elliot Goldenthal, and a libretto by J. D. McClatchy that is a sort of spinoff of a spinoff, based on John Gardner's 1971 novel of the same title.

Some of the recent popularity of "Beowulf" surely derives from Seamus Heaney's splendid translation into contemporary English, which became a surprising best seller in 2000, but even more compelling, to filmmakers at least, is the box office success of the "Lord of the Rings" movies, which have "Beowulf" embedded in their DNA. J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, taught Old English at Oxford and was one of the first scholars to pay attention to "Beowulf" for its genuine literary merit and not just because it was a way station in the development of our language. In his own writing he borrowed freely from the poem, most obviously for the character of Smaug, the cunning dragon.

Most of the subsequent "Beowulf" adapters have flinched a little, however, from what in the poem is the sheer malignance of Grendel and his mother, explained there by the belief that they are descendants of Cain. The Gardner novel, the inspiration for the opera, is told from Grendel's point of view and turns him into the hero of the story: an existential quester trying to sort out his own identity. And in the Gunnarsson movie the great monster is just misunderstood, the victim of what amounts to racial prejudice.

At first Grendel is a blond little moppet, a sort of miniature Bigfoot, who would be perfectly presentable if someone would just shave his beard and wax his excessively hairy legs. Nor is there any hint of an unhealthy relationship with Mom. The great trauma of Grendel's life is the ethnic-cleansing murder of his father by Hrothgar, and it is simply misplaced revenge or the lack of a good therapist and not all-purpose malevolence that prompts the grown-up monster's raids on the mead hall. He has no beef at all with Beowulf and his Geats. Beowulf, for his part, begins to have doubts about why he is in a foreign country, doing another king's dirty work, in the first place. This, Mr. Gunnarsson, a native of Iceland, has said is because he intended the movie partly as a veiled commentary on American involvement in Iraq. In other words, the movie is, of all things, a politically correct "Beowulf," though it has some spectacular scenery and is historically accurate in at least one respect, reminding us that not the least of the hardships suffered by those early Norse warriors was the lack of shampoo.

It's tempting to say that every age gets the "Beowulf" it deserves, or one that suggests what's most on people's minds: the kooky sci-fi version; the brooding, existential one; the sensitive anti-epic. What the original audience for "Beowulf" had on its mind was terror. They listened to the poem in circumstances much like the ones it describes, huddled together around a fire and fretting about what lurked outside in the darkness, and they knew something that some of the modern adapters may have lost sight of: that in the right circumstances it's extremely pleasant to be scared out of your wits. Far more entertaining than a lonely troll with grief issues, or one working through identity questions, is the thing from the night who (to adapt Mr. Heaney) bites into your bone lappings, bolts down your blood and gorges on you in lumps.