Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Beowulf-What's Up With That?: Some Fledgling Thoughts

No, not the movie, which I confess I have yet to take in. Before beginning I should note that this is my first post to this forum, and I know I can not match the posts of my fellow new bloggers here at Modern Medieval. My thanks to Matt for including me.

Ok, back to Beowulf. I know, its not a very Christmasy post-topic. Still, I think it appropriate at this holiday season. Here's why.

Over the last decade, well, really just eight-nine years, Beowulf has enjoyed a great deal of public attention, quite apart from the scholarly attention. There was one of the first digitized manuscript projects, Electronic Beowulf, and Seamus Heaney's translation, followed quickly by a Christopher Lambert movie (with a character named Roland in purple leather who proved to be every bit as deadly to Hrothgar's men as Grendel, and a couple of pornstars and a techno beat). About the same time came a delayed 13th Warrior movie, based on Michael Crichton's novel, itself a sort of H. G. Wellsian take on the poem. Since the turn of the millenium there has been another new translation, Roy Liuzza's, at least two extensive and useful websites offering new editions and translations of the poem, the Sci Fi channels Grendel movie, the Gerard Butler vehicle (with Sarah Polley playing a combination of conscience, whore, wise woman, and the lady of the Wife's Lament)Beowulf and Grendel, and of course the most recent Beowulf currently in theaters, with as Michael Drout put it so well, Angelina Jolie doing philology nekked. The scholarly world has not been far behind. In addition to scholars and interested amateurs doing new editions and translations and other work on the web, there have appeared by my count 3 new editions (ok, one edition is in the Electronic Beowulf, but still), the appearance of Andy Orchard's critical companion, and John Hill's cultural study. And the poem has now become post-modern with an excellent array of essays edited by Eileen Joy and Mary K. Ramsay and published by Pat Connor at West Virginia Press titled, The PostModern Beowulf. I hope I'll be permitted a shameless plug here and note that The Heroic Age will be publishing an essay by Daniel Murtagh in a new column edited by Eileen in the next issue along these same lines and I'm quite excited about it. Well, this is a long paragraph and I'm certain that I'm overlooking material that should be mentioned.

Quite apart from the scholarly work, as subject to fads as anything is, the popular attention is astounding. It is tempting for me to bring up the subject of how we in the medieval academy can and should foster this, but I've covered that on my own blog and it will be addressed in an upcoming issue of The Heroic Age (another plug). And it would be tempting to discuss how well the poem has been adapted to screen or retold etc, but again, another subject covered elsewhere. I mention these things only help keep me on the topic I want to address in this post and that is what Beowulf has to say to us, why the poem, and other great poems, are garnering public attention now and why so many have missed the point.

In addition to Beowulf, a few other epics have received more popular attention: The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. Each is in its way both a foundational and fundamental text for cultures of the past and for modern culture, even in the US of A. And each in its own way paints a picture of heroism in battle and yet paints a very ugly picture of war and battle. If we just focus on Beowulf, one of the recurring themes of the poem is the futility of the heroic culture in which the eponymous hero lives, moves, and has his being. The systems of vengeance and wergild are shown to be useless, the practice of peace-weaving by marriage is shown to be futile, the societal structure of obedience and faithfulness til death to one's lord especially if like Beowulf and Hrothgar they are good and generous lords is demonstrated to be ineffective since thegns consistently in the poem (and not just Beowulf's it must be added!) are faithless (save Beowulf himself). The popular takes on the poem certainly pick up on these themes: it is in fact seemingly the only point of the Polley character in Beowulf and Grendel: to ask Beowulf after Grendel's death "Have you learned nothing..." which in the movie results in Beowulf's careful building a burial cairn for Grendel, and so again according to the movie avoiding any future vengeance and conflict. Certainly other modern takes want to play on these themes while introducing the modern element that needs to explain Grendel's actions against a backdrop of some wrong done to him by Hrothgar (whether as neglectful father or as slayer of Grendel's unmentioned paternal unit or some other take).

If we look at The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid we see similar themes. Wars there will be, war is sometimes necessary, but war is ugly and personally very costly. Society in many ways does not work (though it works in The Aeneid far better than in other epics in part because that's the point: Roman society is ordered and is the best in comparison to Greeks and others).

I'd suggest that it is this that makes Beowulf a poem for our time. We're supposedly in the midst of a war, a war started by a senseless act of violence that was not directly provoked--just as Grendel attacks Heorot apparently without cause other than that he hated the joy of Heorot at its height. The poem speaks of a hero from outside who comes and deals with the threat, only to be replaced by another more dangerous threat. And that speaks to our fear and that fear has been used to justify our current state. I don't want to wax political here, tempting as that is. I merely want to point out that Beowulf is as important and apt now as it was 1000 years ago when copied down in the midst of renewed Viking raids on England. Beowulf still has a great deal to say to us, and it is the search for that meaning that in great part fuels renewed interest in the poem in the public sphere.

There are other aspects to it as well that I'll mention here and perhaps return to or let others comment elsewhere. But we've also seen a renewed interest in our comic book heroes, though that movement has been going for a lot longer, and I suggest (and I think Dr. Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard has touched on this) that the desire for heroes is still with us and that in part a need for Batman or a new Superman or the X-Men is the same need for Beowulf or Odysseus or Achilles. Whether modern versions of these hero tales have done justice to the originals, is another question. But without question our society is searching yet, and in tales like Beowulf, we may still find meaning for the 21st century.

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