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Monster's Ball

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News
Article Date: December 18, 2005 | Publication: Los Angeles Times | Author: Dan Neil

Posted by: admin

One more way in which life is like high school, only with money: Eventually, we all will have to contend with "Beowulf."

Galumphing out of the Dark Ages toward a cineplex near you is the tale of the Geat prince's bloody intervention in the affairs of the Danish state. An Icelandic production called "Beowulf & Grendel" debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and could land in U.S. theaters in 2006. Meanwhile, Robert Zemeckis is directing an animated version due in 2007, with Angelina Jolie voicing the hell-dam, Grendel's mother. After "Alexander," this will mark the second time Jolie has played a scary, big-toothed monster overly enamored with her son.

With its pop culture moment nearly at hand, now is the time to reconsider "Beowulf." Or just consider it.

Even though the epic poem is routinely assigned in English classes, many a student has managed to duck it. Perhaps they are inspired by the line in "Annie Hall," when Woody Allen tells Diane Keaton to avoid "any course where you have to read 'Beowulf.' " It seems to me that even I might have built a Beowulf diorama for a senior project rather than actually suffer the book to write a paper.

And yet no work of the musty old canon could be friendlier. First, it's short—a mere 3,182 lines, and these have been mercifully translated from Old English by a number of brilliant writers, most recently and definitively by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.

Second, "Beowulf" reads like something Sony created for PlayStation. Beowulf—he's the strapping and none-too-bright blond in the reindeer cape—arrives in Daneland to battle the monster Grendel, who has been making an old-fashioned smorgasbord out of the Shielding warriors. For this initial battle, Beowulf declines use of sword and armor (bonus points?). There follows a bench-splintering donnybrook in the mead hall wherein Beowulf tears off Grendel's arm. The next night, Grendel's mom shows up, and she's even bigger and badder (level 2?).

Beowulf quickly defeats her in her underwater lair. Much oath-ing and toasting ensues. His legend and coffers enlarged, Beowulf returns to Geatland. Fans of literary brevity will be pleased that the next 50 years pass in the span of four lines. Then Beowulf battles the dragon. Then the old world passes away. Game over.

"Beowulf" is, in other words, a huge literary timesaver. I didn't read J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." I'm sure it's top-drawer, but I am not going to invest in 1,200 pages of Hobbit-ish doings while this month's copy of Popular Mechanics waits in the mailbox. Neither have I read—or plan on reading—C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia." The boxed set, after all, weighs in at 2 pounds.

But "Beowulf"—the earliest extant epic in English, composed sometime between the 7th and 11th centuries—is fundamental to the fiction of both Tolkien and Lewis, who were literary antiquarians together at Oxford. Tolkien, in fact, wrote an influential essay defending the poem. With its enchanted suits of chain mail, magic swords, sky-oaths, ring-givers, heroic martyrdom and pitched battles with the underworld on which all depends, "Beowulf" is something like the imaginative gazetteer of both Middle-earth and Narnia. Or better yet, the CliffsNotes.

Considering the poem's relation to these and other works of sword and sorcery—to say nothing of Led Zeppelin lyrics—"Beowulf" has ready-made box-office credentials. It's crawling with monsters all just begging to be rendered in CGI. Beowulf himself has this terrific death scene at the end, where he hands off his armor and helmet to his thane, Wiglaf. You . . . are . . . the . . . last of us. . . . Uhhh. . . .

I picked up Heaney's wonderful translation and read it over the weekend, and it occurred to me that this grand old piece of Big L literature is actually kind of trashy. For starters, Beowulf doesn't have what you might call a rich inner life. He pretty much lives to kill things. "For every one of us," Beowulf tells King Hrothgar, "living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death." Oh, that's helpful. You wouldn't perhaps want to build a road or two, would you?

For another thing, Beowulf is, I hate to say, a bit of a blowhard. The poem wants to portray him as this reticent hero, reluctantly opening his "word-hoard." But then he just won't shut up. Beowulf also surrounds himself with a large and useless entourage who skedaddle when the going gets tough. No wonder Hollywood can relate.

And, by the way, Beowulf rules for 50 years without a queen. I'm just saying.

In any event, all of these things can be fixed in rewrite. The pleasant thing about "Beowulf" is that it reminds us how little entertainment has changed in the past millennium and how artificial the distinction is between high and low culture. A big guy with a big sword dealing death to our nightmares. It still packs them in.


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