BEOWULF AND GRENDEL (2005)...A Movie Review (blog)

Category: Beowulf & Grendel Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: March 1, 2008 | Publication: | Author: boopster
Publication/Article Link:

I am a medievalist ... specifically, an Anglo-Saxonist. Don't panic ...all that means is that I am becoming something of an "expert" at the literature, and perforce, the history, of the Anglo-Saxons. And THAT means that among the things I must know is their greatest epic, the tale of the adventures of their greatest legendary hero, BEOWULF.

Now, I studied BEOWULF, the epic poem which is heralded as the greatest epic of the English language, in Old English. I was eighteen, my teacher was herself a medievalist, Jean D'Costa, now retired (I'll re-post my blog about her this month, in honor of Women's History Month), and I was a freshman at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, St. Andrew, Jamaica, West Indies.

Since that time, I have become what I still am - a teacher and student of literature in English. And every time I teach a senior English class in the school where I am now also the assistant principal responsible for the English department, I teach BEOWULF. I always begin the survey of British literature by reading them the first few lines of the poem, in Old English, of course:

HwŠt! We Gardena in geardagum,
■eodcyninga, ■rym gefrunon,
hu ­a Š■elingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing scea■ena ■reatum,

monegum mŠg■um, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.

If I could, I would read it to you, too! Here's the translation, courtesy of the website listed below:

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes,
in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls.


I thought, as I watched the older modernized version of the poem, referenced in the title of this blog, that I would be displeased with it, as I so often am with movie adaptations of seminal works of literature. While there are spit-flying "blowing raspberry" moments, where my lips did a more than passing fair imitation of Timon's in THE LION KING when he was told that Simba was a king, there are also moments when I saw the thoughtfulness of a mind willing to grapple with the difficulties of making legend into reality.

I forgive the writers, producers, and directors for the license they take with the original. After all, the poem is a fragment, and many questions need to be answered to make what's left "real" for a modern audience. The way they have chosen to answer those questions makes for an interesting retelling of a famous and riveting legend. They have made much that might elsewhere be taken as literal and made it figurative. And that's fine by me!

The version I watched this morning, not the one that came out this year with this ambitious and yet somewhat laughable blurb - "In a legendary time of heroes, the mighty warrior Beowulf battles the demon Grendel and incurs the hellish wrath of the beastĺs ruthlessly seductive mother. Their epic clash forges the timeless legend of Beowulf." - had as its hero the ruggedly handsome and deliciously-accented Gerard Butler in the hero's role.

He is a hero burdened by a conscience, one that is awakened by a character who appears nowhere in the fragment of the poem still extant in the British Museum. Selma, the "witch", can see the future, able as she is to read the bones of divination. She it is who sees Grendel's end. And well she might - we come to find, as the movie winds to its close, that she was "had" by the "troll" once, and that forever thereafter he protected her against the wicked Danes, who would otherwise have not only "had" her, but slit her throat.

And the troll Grendel - well his story, as you can see, if you know the original, has been so tampered with as to make him almost unrecognizable. And yet, despite its many fascinating "additions", I don't mind him as the antagonist. After all, the Danes killed his father before his very eyes, because he happened to be in their path, and had taken a fish. He cut off the head from his father's corpse and kept it in his cave until Beowulf's men found it, and one of them, who was to get his at the hands of the affronted son, smashed the skull to bits in a fit of useless anger.

Hrothgar, the man who killed Grendel's father, was the king of the Danes, and a more pitiful man it is hard to find in a warrior culture. He has been humbled at the hands of the troll, and by the midpoint of the movie, he is a sad drunk, bemoaning his fate, and wondering why Beowulf is giving credence to a woman who lives outside the community, whom his men would ravish if they could, and whom they had exiled anyway. If you understand the culture of the Danes, exile was tantamount to death for a warrior. But Selma is only a woman, and so of less value in the scheme of things.

Grendel's mother makes her appearance late in the movie. She is a white- haired, long-toothed, screaming banshee of a woman, coming to retrieve the arm of her dead son, and to kill any who try to stop her. She is the wild creature of the cave under the water, fighting in mortal combat with our hero to protect the corpse of her dead son, and her grandson - oh yes, another fabrication progressing, perhaps, from a "heat-oppressed brain" - the child of Grendel's one-night-stand with the fictitious Selma. She dies like a hero, at the wrong end of Beowulf's sword. That much is as it should be, if we go by the poem.

The setting is one of the reasons I have respect for the movie. It is bleak, even in daylight hours, and at night, when the troll stalks the land and murders the men in Hrothgar's mead hall, Heorot, it is even more eerie and fearful. The lives of the people are hard, and even the children (though none appear in the fragment of the poem that remains) are not left untouched by the cruelty of the times and place in which they live.

What lessons does this Beowulf learn? First, he is not immune to the charms of a "witch" who still manages to make him look like an unprepared, wet-behind-the-ears warrior with little capacity to understand the subtler lessons about leadership which Hrothgar has to learn the hard way. She has to tell him, practically, so that he does not repeat the mistake of the once mighty king of the Danes. Let me explain...

The movie opens with Grendel and his dad walking on the open plain, Grendel gamboling a few feet away from his sire. Suddenly, his father calls to him, gathers him in his arms, and runs. Behind him appear a band of warriors, who overtake him at the edge of a cliff. He lowers his child, who crawls over the side, clinging to the cliff-face, watching as Hrothgar's men shoot him with arrows and Hrothgar dismounts to make sure he is dead. He sees the boy, raises his sword and then lowers it. The final battle scene in the movie shows Beowulf facing a wild-haired child with a sword, defending the corpse of his dead father, now that his grandmother has been killed. Beowulf lets him go unharmed, and Selma tells him he has learned nothing from Hrothgar. We see him, just before he sails back to Geatland with his remaining men, making a burial mound for Grendel, as the troll's son watches.

What he has learned, it seems, is that to spare a life is not enough unless one acknowledges the life one has taken away. He has learned that compassion must act to heal the breach, or else the wound will remain, and the consequences for others will be high. He has learned that no act is without a consequence in human joy or pain, that no evil deed goes unpunished, that no one is immune to suffering. He has learned that we are each of us a part of something bigger and better than ourselves.

And he has learned the most powerful ties that bind us to each other are the ties of parent to child. What comes of that bond can be good or ill, but it cannot be broken, not even by death. I leave you with a quotation from the blurb from this movie:

"BEOWULF AND GRENDEL" powerfully entwines themes of vengeance, loyalty and mercy, stripping away the mask of the hero myth, leaving a raw and tangled tale that rings true today."

Maybe I'll show this one to my students the next time I teach the poem... it bears re-viewing.

MY RATING (take this as you will from someone who doesn't do movies much!) 4 stars