The blood-soaked tale of a Norse warrior's battle against the great and murderous troll, Grendel. Heads will roll. Out of allegiance to the King Hrothgar, the much respected Lord of the Danes, Beowulf leads a troop of warriors across the sea to rid a village of the marauding monster. The monster, Grendel, is not a creature of mythic powers, but one of flesh and blood - immense flesh and raging blood, driven by a vengeance from being wronged, while Beowulf, a victorious soldier in his own right, has become increasingly troubled by the hero-myth rising up around his exploits. Beowulf's willingness to kill on behalf of Hrothgar wavers when it becomes clear that the King is more responsible for the troll's rampages than was first apparent. As a soldier, Beowulf is unaccustomed to hesitating. His relationship with the mesmerizing witch, Selma, creates deeper confusion. Swinging his sword at a great, stinking beast is no longer such a simple act. The story is set in barbarous Northern ...Written by
The ninth century Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf recounts the exploits of a hero of the Danes who saves them from a monster, Grendel, and the creature's vengeful mother, and then, decades later, dies fighting a dragon. This is an oral epic like Homer, which means it was composed and recomposed by oral bards among an illiterate but highly verbal people and "passed on" (actually constantly varied and renewed) in that way for many generations, and only later, when the tradition was waning, was written down. Epics, especially oral ones, have something in common. They are the embodiment of the primary values of the nation and culture they come from and represent. Their purpose is not just to entertain, but also to instruct, to inspire, to move, to instill pride in and knowledge of traditions and history. In a sense they tell stories everybody knows everybody of the nation or culture but they also preserve the values, the traditions, and the history and legend of the tribe. We don't know much about those traditions found in Beowulf, but in Iceland they do, and this movie was made in Iceland by an Icelandic director, Sturla Gunnarsson, who lives in Canada.
Anglo-Saxon poetry is alliterative, haunting, sad, and in a language utterly unlike modern English, completely strange. Here's how the poem begins, with translations for each line.
(You will have to look elsewhere, because the format of this website does not allow foreign languages.)
Which has been translated:
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. Since erst he lay friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him: for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve, till before him the folk, both far and near, who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate, gave him gifts: a good king he!
Along comes a movie, which doesn't have much US distribution but is currently showing in New York (July 2006). And I'm told there was a version with Christopher Lambert, but I have not seen it.
There are many translations but one by a poet of distinction recently done is that of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Here are a couple of short passages from Heaney's version:
You have won renown: you are known to all men far and near, now and forever. Your sway is wide as the wind's
It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, That will be his best and only bulwark.
This atmosphere that comes in the poem, even from a few lines, the importance of fame, of reputation, a deep fatalism, a sense of the power of nature and overwhelming sadness, are typical of Beowulf and of Anglo-Saxon poetry. But whether you get any of that from the movie I don't know.
What you do get is plenty of cussing, of F-words and S-words, spoken even by King Hrothgar and Beowulf himself, and body functions, and sexual intercourse with a monster, who, for reasons best known to the filmmakers, is referred to as a "troll." Perhaps in Iceland a "troll" can be a giant, but in English the word has more often been used for a dwarf. Grendel isn't a dwarf. In the poem you don't see him clearly. He has scales. He's a monster. In the movie he's a big man who babbles incomprehensibly and has big muscles. He's like the Hulk.
It's rather unfortunate that Sarah Polley plays a witch, one who has intercourse literally with both troll and man. Everybody else has some sort of rustic English accent, but she speaks mall American. That doesn't work, and neither does her presence.
In the time of the Angles and the Saxons, the mead hall was a place for carousing, but also a semi holy place. Men got drunk and swore oaths, which they were bound to for life. The mead hall scenes are huge in Beowulf, but they just look like moments from any minor historical mélange here in this movie. Hrothgar's hall's structure is realistically represented from the outside, though.
The snowy Icelandic landscape has an austere beauty that is one of the best things about this movie.
Ingvar Sigurdsson as Grendel is impressive; but it would still be more evocative of the story and the poem not to see him clearly. Gerard Butler is dashing as Beowulf. But the way he talks! Stellan Skarsgård as King Hrothgar appears very beaten down; in the poem he is, indeed, depressed and presumably drunken, but somehow that is nobler in the mind than on the screen.
Whereas there's a lot of history -- epics are repositories of history -- in Beowulf the poem, in the movie things and people aren't explained very much. You get a rough idea, but explanation is almost totally omitted, even though every once in a while somebody in a boat speaks a few lines of poetry carrying the story forwrd.
The music by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is astonishing and powerful, though it isn't the sad, slow music of the Anglos-Saxon poem. This is of course an action movie. But there isn't quite enough action. It made me think of the wonderful example of dramatic narrative on film, which is so succinct and gripping and atmospheric, and which evokes an archaic time among Scandanavian peoples: Nils Gaup's 1987 Pathfinder/Ofelas, a Norwegian-Finnish production shot in the snow. Smashing. Find it and watch it.
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