"Beowulf got ready, donned his war-gear, indifferent to death;"

I’ve come down with some manner of plague, which is a shame considering we’re experiencing unexpected (but not unwelcome) balmy weather in Ireland.

Still, the sunshine cheers me up as I lumber around the house, the pockets of my red dressing gown bulging with tissues.

I haven’t forgotten it’s Thursday, so that means another piece of twitter fiction.

“Begone!” the teen exorcist roared. The demon picked its teeth with a rib and rolled its eyes downwards. “A 6.5 at best,” it said. “Again!”

I watched Beowulf a few nights ago. Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman wrote the screenplay, and Robert Zemeckis directed it. I read the story, long ago, when I was in university, at a time when it was still mandatory to study Old English for a year if you were taking English as a subject. While I loved the sagas I found Old English a struggle.

In 1999 Seamus Heaney offered a new translation of the story. My parents gave it to me as a Christmas gift the following year. I like Heaney’s version of the tale, although my opinion is an inexpert one.

Initially my biggest problem with the film was the Uncanny Valley effect. The CGI animation, while laudable, is just not good enough to make you forget you are watching pixels approximating human actors. It feels like you are in the middle of a video game. This creates a distance between the audience and the characters, and many of them lack complexity. Strong, charismatic performances from the actors might have diminished this problem, but instead the animation style highlights it.

Grendel and Grendel’s mother in the text are specifically referred to as demons, and their lineage comes from Cain – a traditional explanation for the presence of demons in the world. There is remarkably little information about what they look like, although Grendel’s arm, once wrenched from his body is described:

“Every nail,
claw-scale and spur, every spike
and welt on the hand of that heathen brute
was like barbed steel. Everybody said
there was no honed iron hard enough
to pierce him through, no time-proofed blade
that could cut his brutal, blood-caked claw.”

In the film there is a new idea that involves sovereignty of the land being granted to King Hrothgar by Grendel’s mother, in exchange for sex and a child: thus Grendel is Hrothgar’s bastard child.

This has a strong mythological resonance, and great potential, however it’s never properly explored. The issue that I found rather uncomfortable was that Grendel’s monstrous shape and disability is inherently tied to his illegitimacy. I was also taken aback that Grendel’s mother didn’t attempt any revenge upon Beowulf for killing Grendel, but instead offered Beowulf the same deal as Hrothgar. Transforming Grendel’s mother into a seductive Angelina Jolie – equipped with high heels! – was the typical sop for the male audience.

Beowulf’s tendency to strip naked whenever he planned to fight was rendered comical rather than heroic by his genitals always being covered by a strategically placed object – it was rather reminiscent of the Carry On films. Hrothgar’s suicide made no particular sense either, except as a plot contrivance. Hrothgar ceded Queen Wealhtheow to Beowulf along with the rest of his property.

The time jump to King Beowulf as an older man also brings problems in that his estrangement from his Queen is not easily understood except through direct exposition. Yet, this part of the film works best for me, much to my surprise. The pathos that lingers around Beowulf added an element of humanity to his character that was lacking at the beginning.

Beowulf’s battle with the Dragon is the kind of all-out action piece you want in a film, and it contains overtones of regret, guilt and shame. This set-piece is by far the most engaging in the film. The Dragon is Beowulf’s son by Grendel’s mother, so we must have a father/son death match. Freud would be proud.

After the Dragon and Beowulf die it’s implied that Grendel’s mother is already looking for her next consort, and of course her next son (she doesn’t seem to possess any desire for daughters).

It would be simple to say that she’s the most powerful character in the film because she continues, undiminished in power. Yet, she doesn’t even rate a name. She’s defined by her relationship to men. Her longevity comes from her ability to mould herself to suit her consorts, and to sate their desires so she can bear children – which she then pits against each other. There is no sense of purpose behind this. It is an unending cycle. It’s enough that she wants to have children – women require little other motivation, apparently.

I would prefer to have kept Grendel’s mother as an out-and-out monster, rather than see her transformed into a succubus character whose existence is entirely centred on appeasing male desire.

Overall I thought this was a confused re-imagining of the Beowulf story, and the choice of animation exacerbated the weaknesses of the characters and plot.

One Comment

  • Br?d

    Saw it when it came out M, and actually did think about you and wondered what you would make of it. Suffice to say that my thoughts were nothing like as thorough as yours. I’d also read it way back when (at Uni) and managed to forget most of it. I have to say I quite enjoyed the whole romp.