March 14, 2006


Beowulf rides again: With swords and monsters all the rage, an ancient literary hero is now a hot showbiz property (BRIAN D. JOHNSON, 3/10/06, Maclean's)

It's revered as the first epic work of English literature, although it's written in what looks like a foreign language. And it has become the bane of English students everywhere, a book famous for being avoided. In Annie Hall, as Diane Keaton's character leafs through a course catalogue, Woody Allen says, "Just don't take any course where they make you read Beowulf."

Growing up in Vancouver, Sturla Gunnarsson was made to read Beowulf in Grade 12. He couldn't finish it. He says he was more interested in cars and girls. But as an 18-year-old Icelandic immigrant whose second language was English, he remembers dipping into the Anglo-Saxon verse and being amazed by how much of it he could decipher. "Old English," he explains, "is very close to Icelandic, and with great difficulty, I could read it. That was uncanny."

Thirty-six years later, Gunnarsson, now a veteran filmmaker (Rare Birds, Such a Long Journey), has not only read Beowulf, he's eviscerated it. With Beowulf & Grendel, which he shot in the barren reaches of his native Iceland, he's created a revisionist spectacle that turns the story inside out -- it portrays the monster Grendel in a sympathetic light, gives him a father, embellishes the plot with a whore who beds both the hero and the troll, and offers dialogue salted with profanity. Purists will be offended. But Gunnarsson's movie tries to strip this sixth-century tale of a Scandinavian hero down to its pagan roots. And it's surfing a wave of Beowulf-mania that has torn a medieval epic poem out of the hands of academics and pushed it into the mainstream. Once a quaint scholarly fiefdom, Beowulf -- a prototype for the Hollywood western and the horror movie, and an inspiration for The Lord of the Rings -- is now a hot showbiz property.

Profanity is innovative?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 14, 2006 10:38 PM

A diligent if not enthusiastic lit student, I wasn't actually that fond of Beowulf in its traditional presentations until I read Seamus Heaney's translation. Which is masterful.

Slightly prior to that epiphany, however, I watched The Thirteenth Warrior, a surprisingly creative approach to the same material. Instead of injecting profanity and moral ambiguity, however, it starts from an interesting proposition: what if the tale were true?

The synergy between these two developments was striking.

Posted by: HT at March 14, 2006 10:58 PM

Thirteenth Warrior--based on Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead--actually borrows from the truth--the Antonio Banderas character is genuine.

Burton Raffel's translation, as all of his, is quite good.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2006 11:05 PM

Gardner's Grendel was big back in the 1970s, at the same time that there was a big surge in interest in the Rings trilogy, so it's not surprising with its success on film that Hollywood would try and mine more cash from something in the same genre.

Posted by: John at March 14, 2006 11:16 PM

Raffel looks interesting, for a range of topics. Any suggestions on a "best translation" for Iliad and/or Odyssey? I've read quite a few, and am currently working on Fagles.

Posted by: HT at March 14, 2006 11:20 PM

The Fagles is the first really readable one I ever found.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2006 11:26 PM

Just for fun, you might want to pick up (and struggle through) the T.E. Lawrence translation of The Odyssey. Unless you already have it, of course.

Posted by: HT at March 14, 2006 11:45 PM

Beowulf rocks! An epic masterpiece!

Posted by: Dave W at March 15, 2006 12:25 AM

Him se yldesta andswarode; werodes wisa, wordhord onleac.
"That noblest of men answered him; the leader of the warrior band unlocked his wordhoard."

Posted by: jd watson [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 15, 2006 5:19 AM

I'll have to check it out sometime. I was assigned this in highschool as well and couldn't muster any interest in it or the language at the time.

I was going to mention the Thirteenth Warrior but as it has been already, there was a Star Trek Voyager episode inspired by the tale too, I think. Took place on the holodec.

Right now I'm reading Chricton's Timeline which partly takes place in the 14th century and everyone is speaking various languages of the time. It's pretty interesting.

Posted by: RC at March 15, 2006 6:08 AM

Making the villian sympathetic and the hero non-heroic is innovative?
How 1960's can you get?

Posted by: Mikey at March 15, 2006 7:51 AM

Mikey - How 2006 New York Times-ish can you get?

Posted by: pj at March 15, 2006 8:33 AM

True - the NYT is sort of a living fossil-record.


Posted by: Mikey at March 15, 2006 9:22 AM

So, this is Grendel with a hooker and profanity thrown in to make it "innovative"?

Posted by: BrianOfAtlanta at March 15, 2006 2:03 PM

My high school English lit teacher would go on tirades how he didn't understand why Steven Spielberg hadn't made a blockbuster about Beowulf. He's retired, but still around.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at March 15, 2006 2:16 PM

As with most movies compared to the originating books, The thirteenth warrior was only a shadow of Crichton's Eaters of the Dead. Peter Jackson would be the only director who could make it to satisfy my imagination, as he did with the Rings.

Posted by: Genecis at March 15, 2006 4:08 PM

Fagles did a Beowulf? He does everything!

Profanity is not pagan either. The Celts and nordic people had highly organized societies. The celts were much better diplomats than the Romans who relied on brute force, just the way we do, until they matured a bit. I think most pagans now would find the old pagans a bit dull.

But don't read Beowulf. Read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. That would make a good movie.

You're right about the 13th Warrior. It was a Persian exile sent on a diplomatic mission into nowhere, probably his enemies hoped he would die. Off he goes into the middle of nowhere. Who does he meet? A bunch vikings, three times farther from home than he was, somewhere around the Urals. Russia is orginally a scandinavian name. Vikings set up the Princes of Kiev, the forrunner of the Russian state.

Then when they got bored they headed east and south setting up little kingdoms hither and yon. The fanatstic thing was how few there were. Thier system of authority was like piracy in the 18th century - a kind of moderated anarchy. It worked very well. A bunch of them came over land and ended up in Constantinople. An attempt was made to arrest them. They held they're own with complete assurance. Rather than fight them the emporerer employed them. They were ruthlessly loyal as his body guards.

Posted by: exclab at March 16, 2006 12:08 AM

Raffel's translation of Gawain is excellent.

Posted by: oj at March 16, 2006 12:12 AM

Raffel's translation of Gawain is excellent.

Raffel? I shall get it. I love that wacky poem! The head rolling around. Lovely.

Its underrated don't you think? Like Hardy's poems and Measure for Measure.

Posted by: exclab at March 16, 2006 12:43 AM