Me on Beowulf

As I’ve mentioned here before, the essay collection Thrillers:  100 Must Reads has been nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America.  The awards will be given later this month.  The book contains my essay on Beowulf, which I’ve been given permission to reprint in full here–the essay, not Beowulf.


BEOWULF (between 700 and 1000 A.D.)

Andrew Klavan

Beowulf is the earliest epic poem in English and one of the greatest. Its Anglo-Saxon author is unknown. It may have been composed as early as 700 A.D., but the oldest copy was made by two scribes somewhere around 1000 A.D., the only Beowulf manuscript to survive Henry VIII’s destruction of monastery libraries. Ironically, though the poem has a hallowed place in the history of English literature, it tells a tale of sixth-century Scandinavia, and is largely drawn from Scandinavian history and mythology. It was, of course, from the language of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invaders that English evolved. These invaders were pagans originally, and Beowulf probably began its life as a pagan story. But by the time of its writing, the Anglo-Saxons had become Christians, and the interweaving of Christian morality with a tale of warrior courage is both fascinating and profound. In 1999, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney translated the epic, winning critical praise as well as the prestigious Whitbread prize. I personally found it a bit too restrained and scholarly and much prefer the more heroic 1963 version by Burton Raffel from which the spellings and quotations below are taken.

Great works of literature often peel away the mask of our piety to expose the raw life underneath. So it is with Beowulf, a brooding, blood-soaked celebration of warrior manhood.

We in the modern West have been so powerful, so dominant, so safe in our homes for so long that we slip too easily into the illusion that we live at peace. We are never at peace, not really. When we go to the ballet or walk in the park or stop to smell a rose or read a book, we only do so by the good graces of the fighters who stand ready to kill and die to defend us. Soldiers on our borders, police officers on our streets—only the threat of their physical force keeps those who would murder, rob, or enslave us at bay. Every moment of tranquility and freedom implies the warrior who protects it. The world of Beowulf is the real world.

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And what a wonderful poem it is, a tale and a tone of such ferocious, melancholy virility that it shocks the sometimes overdelicate modern mind. It’s the story of the Scandinavian hero Beowulf and his battles with monsters. It begins when Beowulf travels from Geatland in what is now Sweden to Denmark to come to the aid of King Hrothgar in his towering mead hall Herot. The Danes are being plagued by the swamp monster Grendel, “that shadow of death,” who hunts their warriors in darkness, “lying in waiting, hidden in mist, invisibly following them from the edge of the marsh, always there, unseen.” Beowulf is such a tough Geat, so bent on winning fame for his courage and prowess, that he disdains to use a sword to kill the beast and wrestles him bare-handed, ripping his arm off by main strength. Grendel slouches home to his swamp to die, thus sparking the rage of his mother, who comes for her revenge.

There’s plenty more—including digressive tales of war, betrayal, and tragedy—all set on misty fens and under murky waters and in broken, crumbling towers and halls that seem the earliest inspiration for the setting of many of today’s video games. Which is fitting, because really you have to turn to those games to find anything in modern art that so boldly elevates and celebrates the warrior and his drive to “win glory and a hero’s fame” in battle.

If you want to see how completely more “sophisticated” modern artists have lost the ability to understand those virtues and their ever-present necessity, take a look at the 2007 CGI film Beowulf by director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Note how entirely it subverts and corrupts the vision of the original. In the film, the warriors are drunken thugs and Grendel is King Hrothgar’s bastard child. This implies not only a measure of responsibility on the part of the Danes for their own slaughter, but also a tiresome Freudian psychomachy underlying the action. In the poem, conversely, Grendel is the child of “those monsters born of Cain, murderous creatures banished by God.” He is roused from his slumber by the music and rejoicing in Herot, especially a poet’s song of the world’s genesis. The implication in the poem is far more insightful and unflinching than that in the film. The poem’s Grendel is a primal force of evil spawned by sinful human nature itself and now perennially at war with the creation. The guilt is not sexual and personal but general in terms of mankind’s instinct toward fraternal violence.

That general guilt gives Beowulf ’s heroism its context. It tells us that evil is woven into human nature, but that individual men may choose to stand against it. The film Beowulf descends into moral equivalence and relativism as Beowulf, in his turn, is seduced by Grendel’s mother, a slinky CGI version of the likewise slinky Angelina Jolie. “I know that, underneath your glamour, you’re as much a monster as my son, Grendel,” she tells him. Which is blithering nonsense. In the poem, she’s the monster and he’s the guy who’s got to kill her so that men may live in peace. That may not be nuanced or urbane or pseudo-deep, but it’s actually more honest, more like life as it is lived. The evils of this sad world are not always susceptible to analysis or negotiation. Some monsters are really monsters and just have to be taken down. That’s why poets write—or used to write— epics honoring the warriors who do the job.

And that’s why it’s fair to trace the thriller novel’s pedigree back to Beowulf and to include the epic in a list of thriller must-reads. It may not be a thriller in the modern sense of the word, but it holds the kernel of the idea that gives our genre one of its key reasons for being. In modern fiction, only genre novels—crime, horror, fantasy, sci-fi—regularly dramatize the existence of evil, the need for courage, and the glamour of physical strength and fighting skill. It’s an essential and too often neglected role of the arts to portray these things. If they don’t, it becomes too easy for us to forget them, too easy for us to be self-satisfied with our lives of compassion and peaceful loving kindness without paying tribute to the warriors who make those lives possible.

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  • Stephen Manning

    Whether Orwell actually wrote it or not, this is true: Good people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

  • Twerp

    ‘There’s no peace in these lands anymore.” Beowulf says once in that horrid movie “The Christ child has killed it.”

    This is so idiotic its almost pitiably desperate. First of all its blatantly untrue since Hrothgar was shown to be a violent person before Christianity ever showed. Second of all it misses the entire point of the original poem!
    If you’re going to tell a story, tell it, don’t use the same characters to say exactly the opposition of the stories intentions.
    Like Starship Troopers (ugh)

  • Saintrandall12

    Good points all. I remember being particularly puzzled by the movie versions attempt to discredit Christianity by using John Malkovich’s Unferth character as a personification of what the screen writers perceived to be the Church’s hypocrisy and opportunism: Unferth is a cruel and duplicitous pagan adviser to Hrothgar in the beginning of movie and is an equally cruel and duplicitous Christian bishop in the latter part of the movie. The implication clearly being that Unferth’s conversion to Christianity was merely a ploy to remain in his high social station, as paganism had officially fallen out of favor, and had nothing to do with personal introspection and reflection. There was also a speech given by one of the main characters where they lament how this “new” religion of Christianity was taking away their warrior spirit – I am paraphrasing here. These elements were so blatantly jammed into the movie to fit an agenda, and seemed so out of place and contrary to the story’s original narrative, that its is one of the few things I remember about an otherwise forgettable movie. That and the gold CGI of Angelina Jolie. I mean, they made her feet look like stiletto high heeled shoes for goodness sakes.

  • Anonymous

    The new Grendel, the new evil, is moral relativism. It seeks to convey that all viewpoints (no matter how depraved) are somehow equal. Equal consideration of everyone’s self interest is the great PC leveler of the playing field. PC strives for equality of individual outcomes – no matter how dumbed down, or barbaric. PC doesn’t consider the greater benefits to humans as a group, through the recognition of moral superiority and/or individual excellence.

    Moral absolutes of good and evil do exist, and the reality that strives for the equal opportunities that our founding fathers envisioned leaves room for moral superiority and individual excellence. The mediocrity of the equal outcomes, communal philosophy is nowhere more evident than in the present day mediocrity of most Hollywood films.

  • Michael Champion

    Great article about the original Beowulf poem, and why the world needs warriors who fight for good.

  • Heather McFarlane

    Breitbart’s “Big Hollywood” calls this, ‘the suckerpunch.’ I don’t see why they couldn’t just stick to the story. And why oh why the utter awfulness of The Evil Christian!

    Peter Jackson did something similar: the whole point of Tolkien’s world is that there is always Sin. Jackson made the Elves into angels without sin. The latter were, of course, ultimately responsible for the Rings (the One Ring being a super copy of the others). Galadriel had been a traitor back in the day, and was allowed to return to the West when she refused Frodo’s offer of the One Ring. The whole movie Elves was so teeth grinding irritating!

  • Postaldog

    I was saddened by the perversion of the epic poem when they made the cgi film. I remember Beowulf from high school and as a fan of mythology, was hoping it would be fun to show it to my son. Like a commentor mentions below — suckerpunch. A better telling of the Beowulf saga is presented in “The 13th Warrior” a surprisingly good movie.

  • Oaci1

    I wish you’d stop doing this, Klavan. I find out about all this great stuff to read and see via your posts. Of course I know about Beowulf, but, as I’m a high school dropout, I now need to go back and read this thing. Course Beowulf is one of those works everyone’s heard of and no one’s read. Thanks for straightening us out on the recent filmed version, as well. I can’t recall any of the reviews I read at that time mentioning how the original story got skewed by Zemeckis and Co. Hey, wasn’t he the guy who accidentally beheaded Vic Morrow? Hmmmmm. Love those old Combat episodes.

  • face

    The 13th Warrior is based on an excellent Michael Crichton novel retelling the story of a tenth century Iraqi who meets and travels with vikings.

  • Tj Bea

    Didnt Angelina Joile look hot as Mrs Grendel?

  • pmccoin

    I saw a version of Beowulf a few years ago. I think it was a straight to video release with Gerard Butler called Beowulf & Grendal. That was the opposite of the CGI version completely. It was pretty raw, but I enjoyed it much more. Also The 13th Warrior was amazing.

  • Oakenquill

    Hollywood Liberals kneel at an alter built by the masons of pseudo-intellectualism in the shadow of academe’s Ivory Tower. Their burnt offerings are the art and ideas — the very organs — of their own culture. As hurt as I was about the gutting of Beowulf by Zemeckis, I was not surprised: even the professors at my otherwise apolitical university are trying to baptise Beowulf in Marxist waters.

    They see the “ring-/treasure-giving” concept, the “Gold threads [showing] / in the wall-hangings” (page 67 of Heaney’s translation), and other examples of material wealth, as indicative of some fundamental greed underlying the entire epic, and, as such, proof of its moral depravity.

    As luck would have it, my professor, feeling especially fatigued one day, asked the one uniformed cadet in class (me) to improvise a short lecture on Beowulf to allow her a moment’s rest. Odd request, but I couldn’t shirk my obligation to serve when called.

     I began with the premise that all these elements of golden grandeur were not about a fixation on material gain, but simple survival. These nascent civilizations had nothing between them and certain death but the strength of their warriors, and the only proof of their virility — proof needed to ward off lesser enemies and keep the community together — was in the size of their coffers.

    The professor was dumbfounded. Her eyes were wide; her brow, furrowed. “I had never thought of it that way,” she said. I’m not sure any of them have. And as long as otherwise intellectually honest professors lack access to reasonable thinking, so will Hollywood Liberals.

    But having Mr. Klavan, a functional Hollywood success story with a more lucid mind than mine, strike the same chord in this essay as I had tried to play in class gives me hope that our literary heritage will survive the boutique -isms of avant garde thought — and the idiotic re-imaginings that spring forth.

  • chukmaty

    A ridiculously good read, as always Mr. Klavan.

    The atmosphere in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings benefited a great deal from Tolkien’s love of the poem. An example of how great ideas flow through time from the mouths and pens of storytellers. Fiction is consequential, how we interpret it tells us a lot about who we are.

  • Nickolas_mitsialis

    Speaking of a creative reimaging of ‘Beowulf; has anyone seen ‘Outlander’ with Jim Caviezel?

  • Lars Walker

    This is excellent. I agree with a previous commenter that “The 13th Warrior” is a far better expression of the essence of the poem (in spite of execrable armor and too-large horses). The earlier Icelandic “Beowulf & Grendel” film was, in my opinion, even worse than the Zemeckis–the Danes were depicted as Nazis and Grendel’s folk were victims of genocide. After I’d seen it, I had to watch “The 13th Warrior” again to get the bad taste out of my mouth.

    I have a friend who has built a Viking fort on his farm in Missouri (I hope to visit it next month). He has hosted high school classes who got the opportunity to read the poem in an authentic setting. I suspect it’s something they’ll never forget.

    We really need a new appreciation of our Scandinavian/Angl0-Saxon cultural roots. The heroic ethic isn’t all they have to offer. They were generally a democratic culture, with kingship subject to the vote of the free men. One of the reasons for all the plundering that went on was the chieftain’s need to be wealthy, in order to hold feasts for his people and give gifts to his chief supporters. It was about sharing, not accumulation. They had a participatory, hands-on system of mutual defense and peacekeeping.

    Lars Walker, author of West Oversea, published by Nordskog Publications.

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