Review: Beowulf

REVIEW: “BEOWULF”

A Robert Zemeckis Film with Screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary

Released December, 2007

I am not even going to get started on the differences in plot between the new Beowulf movie and the original poem; or even the differences in the characters. If a student watched this movie to learn about Beowulf for his English class and tried to substitute that viewing for reading the book, he would most deservedly fail. But all that I will not touch, nor will I comment on the annoying inconsistency in how realistic the various computer-generated humans look, being studious of brevity. Instead, let me try to address the differences in philosophy or world view between the two works.

The poem was written by a medieval Anglo-Saxon Christian who used Beowulf’s character to address issues of Christ and culture that still resonate with us today. What does accepting Christianity mean to Anglo-Saxon heirs of the Germanic tribal tradition of Norse gods and a heroic warrior culture who still live in a very dangerous world? The poet went out of his way to set up parallels between Beowulf and Christ: Beowulf’s “baptism” in the mere, his apparent death at the “ninth hour,” his subsequent “resurrection,” his fight with a dragon at which he has twelve companions, one of which is a traitor and eleven of which abandon him (with the exception of Wiglaf, who thus represents John the beloved disciple), etc.

Medieval Wall at New College, Oxford

The poet’s point is that Beowulf is the modern model for the Christ-like man. This theme seems strange until you compare Beowulf with the other heroes of that culture. It often doesn’t come across to today’s reader because we are no longer familiar with the old warrior culture. But Beowulf stands out as one who does not slay his kin out of drunkenness or for personal gain. He only fights to defend the weak and innocent. And when he gives his Battle Boast, he strikes a radically new note. Rather than boasting about how his own prowess and superiority will win the day, he says, “I will fight Grendel, and may the true God [not Fate, as in the movie] then assign victory to whoever pleases him.” Beowulf’s boast gives the ultimate glory if he wins to God, not to himself. The word may sound ironic to us moderns, but Beowulf stands out from his contemporaries like a sore thumb as precisely meek. Beowulf is the Christ-like hero that the poet thinks his generation needs, because he acknowledges his strength as a gift from God, uses it for good, not personal gain or power, and gives the glory to God.

This reading of Beowulf’s character and of the poem that came down to us is confirmed by a comparison with that other brilliant Anglo-Saxon portrayal of Christ as hero, “The Dream of the Rood.”  There, far from being a passive victim, Christ is the one supremely in control of what is happening at the crucifixion.  It is his strength that enables the Cross itself to bear him, and as a conquering hero he “mounted the cross to redeem mankind” (emphasis added).  If that is the portrait of Christ that resonated with Anglo-Saxon Christians, then Beowulf is the portrait of the Christ-like man.

A monk like the one who probably wrote Beowulf?

The movie goes out of its way to contradict the message of the poem at every possible point. There is no sense in acknowledging or praying to the gods–especially the “new Roman god, Christ”–because the gods will not do anything for us that we don’t do for ourselves. Far from being a Christ-like hero, Beowulf sells his soul to Grendel’s mother for absolute power and then lies about having killed her when he returns from the mere. The movie’s writers apparently believe that real personal integrity is just inconceivable, for the only person who appears to have any–Wiglaf–is walking out into the water towards the she-demon (Angelina Jolie) with lust in his eyes in the very last scene that we see at the close. This is a Beowulf that is not only secular but also cynical. Though the dragon is slain, there is really no basis for any kind of hope at all in the movie’s imaginative world.

Robert Zemeckis is at least honest about his approach to retelling the story.  “Nothing about the original poem appealed to me,” he writes on the film’s website (www.beowulfmovie.com).  Quite so.  Neal Gaiman and Roger Avary profess in their screenplay to have undone the “editing” that the monks who presumably gave us our version of the story supposedly did to the original.  But their proffered “restoration” is based on no scholarship about that supposed original at all, other than the supposition that it must have existed.  (There is evidence that the story is older than the version we have, and probably did have pagan origins.  For more on the real significance of this fact, see J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.”)

Slaying a Dragon

So what is the basis for this allegedly original version?  As I was watching the film, I kept thinking, “This movie is what you would get if you tried to morph a secular and cynical Beowulf with–of all things–C. S. Lewis’s pre-conversion epic poem Dymer.” The movie Grendel is actually Hrothgar’s illegitimate son through his illicit sexual union with the seductive demon Jolie. Beowulf has had evidence for this astounding fact presented to him before he encounters Jolie, but forgets it and repeats the same tragic mistake, so that the dragon is actually his son; and Wiglaf’s first act as the new king is apparently going to be to repeat the same pattern. It is Lewis’s myth, of the man who has to confront the monster he himself begot, on steroids. If one wanted charitably to find a positive lesson in this hopeless mishmash, it could be to “be sure that your sin will find you out.” But the problem is that, with the gods (not just including Christ, but especially Christ) having been dismissed as irrelevant, no possibility of redemption from this inevitable fate is ever held out.

I kept thinking, “This couldn’t be an unholy marriage between Beowulf and Dymer!” But then I saw Neal Gaiman’s name in the credits. Whatever else you may say about Mr. Gaiman, he has read his Lewis–how profitably is a matter of some debate. So I am now setting it forth as a reasonable hypothesis that Dymer does have something to do with this Beowulf. If so, the end result is the worst of both worlds.  It should be seen only by the mature and spiritually fortified adult—not, despite its misleading PG-13 rating, by children of any age.

You can check out Dr. Williams’ Lantern Hollow Press books at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections on Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lantern Hollow, 2012).  Each is $15.00 + shipping. 

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About gandalf30598

Theologian, philosopher, poet, and critic; minister of the Gospel who makes his living by teaching medieval and renaissance literature; dual citizen of Narnia and Middle Earth.

Posted on October 22, 2012, in Lantern Hollow Press Authors and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I never saw the film and am rather glad I didn’t. I can’t say I had a great appreciation for Beowulf until I had read it two or three times and learned to interact with it properly, but I find it genuinely ridiculous and somehow insulting that screenwriters would freely admit to not even liking the material they are starting with. You know they had no desire to retain any of the spirit of the original, just tactlessly steal the title, names, places, and events for their own new story.

    Granted, when I studied Beowulf, I was more interested in delving into the “original” themes (such as we can hypothesize about them, anyway) rather than the Christian elements, but there is no separating the ones from the others if you want to accurately represent the poem as a whole.

  2. Annoyingly, because I couldn’t remember my WordPress log in — my nice long response has been lost. *sigh*

    Basically, I agree with the assessment of the movie. It totally runs contrary to the poem and makes you wonder why the character Beowulf in the film had any followers at all, since all he does is lie (unlike his poetic counterpart).

    I did my Master’s thesis on the poem, and my conclusion was (although not crucial to the thesis itself) that the character of Beowulf was a literary creation (no reference to him historically speaking, and actually very little to the poem itself), by a Christian poet who loved heroic literature. I do not think there was a pagan “ur-Beowulf.”

    There were other things I found lacking in the film — the animation was mostly on a the level of a rather simplistic video game, and why did the she-demon have high heels in human form? Did they have to be that idiotically anachronistic? On the other hand, I kind of liked the dragon. But then… I’m partial to dragons.

  3. One can’t help thinking that people who make films about works of literature that, by their admission, have no appeal to them, should read Lewis’ “Experiment in Criticism”…

    Also, rather disappointing from Gaiman. I don’t necessarily expect him to agree with Lewis, or the author of Beowulf, but it surprises me to see such failure to understand the heart of a work (or willingness to blatantly ignore it). His re-interpretations of mythology are normally more interesting than that.

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