Beowulf is a true classic, the most important piece of Olde English literature to survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. The story is set during a much earlier era, the action taking place in fifth century Scandinavia against a backdrop of political intrigue, feuding, feasting and fighting amongst men and monsters.
The original author and precise date(s) of origin remain open to conjecture, though it was certainly set down, in written form, in pre-Saxon Britain, though possibly as a series of separate stories later compiled around the central theme and adapted to take in the influence of Christianity. It is generally thought that many elements of the story had been passed down from the scalds, bards of the Norse, as there are themes and conventions in common with the great Viking sagas such as those of the hero Sigurd.
The surviving version of story as we know it, is thought to date back to the early eighth century, later being recorded as one manuscript toward the end of the tenth century, almost certainly by a monk or religious scribe of some kind. The original poems, from which the story is derived, could date back as far as the fifth and sixth centuries, contemporary with when the action is set. The only surviving manuscript is 1,000 years old and only narrowly escaped being destroyed by fire in 1731, when held at the Cotton Library. It is now preserved and displayed at the British Library, who have also made an e-version available on-line.
|A page from the one and only Beowulf|
There are three pivotal confrontations, or trials, that punctuate our hero’s life. First, Beowulf takes on the formidable Grendel, a creature of natural and supernatural power that has been terrorising the court of King Hrothgar. After defeating Grendel in combat, Beowulf is then faced with the onslaught of the beast’s mother, whom he also defeats after a metaphysical journey into the earth to seek her subterranean lair. The third and final confrontation occurs some fifty years later when a mighty and fierce dragon, a firedrake from the north, becomes Beowulf’s nemesis.
Beowulf was not written by a single author, it stems from the age of the storyteller, where a tale would be told and re-told, adapted to the audience, elaborated upon and passed down to the next generation as oral tradition. Each storyteller would add their own personality, experiences and style, emphasis may shift according to political climate and contemporary events. Beowulf is a tale filled with the drama and poetic artistry gleaned from generations of performers who have spoken and sung its verses. It is the earliest, long story to make the transition from this bardic tradition of story-telling and story-singing into the written form. It could be considered the earliest example of the novel.
Beowulf is a well-known work, though it has not, until recently, been widely read and had remained the preserve of scholars. Some small sections and verses from Beowulf were translated into 'modern' English in the early 1800s, but the very first ‘accessible’ translation of the full text, from the Olde English, was into Danish in 1820. This was followed, some years later in 1895, by a translation into contemporary English by William Morris. Probably the person most responsible for the poem coming to the attention of a wider audience was Professor J R R Tolkien who drew heavily from it for his Lord Of The Rings sagas and presented a lecture to the British Academy in 1936 titled, Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics. He had also written his own translation of the saga in 1926, though this remained unpublished… until now.
The Beowulf story itself remained hard to get to grips with until an excellent translation by Michael Alexander was broadcast by the BBC and published in the Penguin Classics series in 1973, to be reprinted almost every year for the following decade. This version goes out of its way to convey the ‘barbaric splendour’ and ‘sustained energy’ of the poem and is accompanied by an extensive introductory essay that points out that a textual translation can never by completely faithful. Old English ‘scopas’, and the storytellers of yet older traditions, would certainly have spoken the piece, or even recited it in song to the sound of harp. Alexander concludes his intro by saying, ‘While I cannot expect readers to sing, I hope they will read the verse aloud. Beowulf was not written to be readable but to be listened to’.
Then here is one scholarly editor who may well approve of the treatment the story received at the hands of eighties rock giants 'Marillion' in their monumental track, Grendel. The song is a 17 minute rock opera that tells the story of Grendel from the monster’s point of view, where he is the ‘good’ primeval force of nature and the Viking ‘heroes’ are the villains, with their lack of respect for the land and for their fellow humans, whom they slay by the hundreds in ‘noble battles’.
|Fish fronting 'Marillion', circa 1983,|
takes on the mantle of Grendel
“Gardner completely re-wrote the whole thing from the monster’s perspective,” Fish explained, “The humans were actually the more evil of the two. Grendel had been on the planet from ages before - it had a lot of ecological roots in it - and I took that from his book. What can I say - it was a very early piece of writing and it stands on its own, but, y’know, it’s not what I’d have carved on my tombstone! To me it’s a nice wee slice of nostalgia.”
( Grendel is currently available on the compilation album B'Sides Themselves... you can watch a wonderfully theatrical live performance of Grendel from 1983 - on YouTube - and you can read a longer Scrawl interview with Fish here... )
The Grendel section of the story seems to be the piece that most effectively captures the imagination of the modern creative and was also the plot focus for the film, The 13th Warrior, adapted by Michael Crichton from his own novel, Eaters of the Dead. Though Crichton has said that the plot is based on the journals of Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, played by Antonio Banderas in the film, it is undeniably an adaptation of the Grendel story thread - and a pretty faithful and effective one at that.
Ibn Fadlan was a Moslem emissary who travelled with a group of Vikings through the Europe of 922 and who was, “astonished by their lustful aggression and apathy towards death”. In his journals, according to Crichton, the leader of the warrior band is named ‘Buliwyf' - which does sound pretty similar to ‘Beowulf’. What Crichton has done, is expertly fuse the historic facts of one source with the poetic power and drama of another, thus creating the most accessible portrayal of the Grendel arc so far, as well as one of the most intelligent action movies of 1999.
There are some interesting takes on major scenes from Beowulf, for example, the strange ribbons of fire that look like serpents across the land are interpreted as vast hordes of horsemen bearing torches and riding in columns. Grendel himself is represented as one particularly fierce warlord among a vicious tribe who don paint and animal pelts before a raid. Grendel’s ‘mother’ is their pagan priestess and the supernatural magic is the stealth and tactics they employ, and perhaps the effects of certain ‘herbal’ substances - both on the raiders and their victims.
|Ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas) has yet to earn the respect |
of Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich) in The 13th Warrior
It is also worthy of note that the personage of Odyn is referred to as ‘grim’, meaning hooded, and ‘dark’, possibly because he was of a middle-eastern origin and would have had dark hair, eyes and complexion compared with the redheaded and blonde-haired, pale or ruddy complexions of the Nordic races. His garb was also unusual enough to warrant comment.
The 13th Warrior was not the success that may have been expected from, John McTiernan, director of blockbusters such as Die Hard, and passed without being noticed by many who could have appreciated its content on the level at which it was intended, instead garnering luke-warm reviews and even a few hostile ones from mainstream critics who could not see beyond the rim of their tub of popcorn.
In contrast, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, published the same year, was well received by the critics and did make it into the best seller lists. This most recent translation was also released as a talking book edition, read by the poet with his expressive Irish lilt. This form best suits the work, so it is unfortunate that the spoken version has been abridged for release, though it remains a very enjoyable and certainly a most accessible rendition.
You can listen to Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf: part one and part two
...or you could read his translation in text for yourself here.
Four further films have since tackled the task of re-telling the classic tale. A fairly low-key (not Loki) historical drama treatment, Beowulf and Grendel, was filmed in 2005 against the moody backdrop of Icelandic landscapes. This was a solid attempt at a more naturalistic, performance-driven interpretation with Gerard Butler as Beowulf and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson as a more ‘homo-simian’ Grendel.
Then, in 2007, there was the pioneering CGI Hollywood epic version of Beowulf, starring a ‘buffed-up’ Ray Winston in the central role of the ‘larger-than-life-but-authentically-flawed’ hero and an interpretation of Grendel portrayed as, hideous – yes – but also a sympathetic victim to some extent – an unfortunate outsider, unable to comprehend the hatred and revulsion he inspires in others. The role of Grendel’s mother was given a seductive makeover in the form of Angolina Jolie as the Sea ‘Hag’.
|Beowulf confronts Grendel's mother, the 'Sea-Hag'!?|
More recently, in 2008, Outlander introduced a ‘futuregoth’ theme in a clever re-imagining of the tale. A crashed space ship brings the hero and an alien menace that will fulfill the role of both Grendel and the Firedrake. Again the villain is shown as sympathetic, one of the last few of an alien race that were dreadfully wronged and now seek understandable vengeance. Yet its jailer-custodian cannot allow that wrath to be vented on the unsuspecting Viking villages of Earth, and so steps in to defend their inhabitants.
Cinema is not the only transmedia journey taken by our ancient hero… in 1975, probably spurred on by the huge success of the Penguin translation, DC Comics launched, Beowulf: Dragon Slayer, a typically camp and musclebound interpretation of the saga. Well almost. The comic soon veers away and leaves very little in common with the original epic. There are horned helmets and bikini clad maidens left right and centre, and also a whole array of international, cross-cultural monsters for Beowulf to slay – it seems he will travel far and wide to avoid, or at least, postpone his confrontation with Grendel!
Produced in 2008, the slim graphic novel, Beowulf: Monster Slayer, adapted by Paul Storrie and illustrated by Ron Randall, is a bold attempt to compress the poem and render it more accessible to younger readers, which it does fairly well… Though produced around the same time, Gareth Hinds' three volume Beowulf is the most successful graphic adaptation to date.
Each volume tackles a main segment: Beowulf versus Grendel in book one, takes on his mother in book two and defeats the firedrake in the third volume before being proven to be mortal himself. These books are now available collected in a single volume.
|Beowulf graphically retold by Gareth Hinds|
…and so the story of Beowulf continues to capture the imagination of readers, and viewers, to this day - perhaps this is because the story operates on a number of levels. It is obviously an action adventure, heroic epic and ripping yarn, but it is also a symbolic parable that reflects not only the trials and triumphs that beset Beowulf throughout the journey of his life, but those that have continuously confronted all human endeavour on both the physical and spiritual levels.
If you are interested in the reality behind Viking life, then there is currently (until 22 June) a major exhibition at the British Museum that you should take time out to visit – more information and some on-line resources here.
|Enthroned Odin - small silver piece currently on display in the |
British Museum's Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition