****Slight Beowulf spoilers ahead****
So, in an effort to reaffirm my liberal credentials, I put the Huffington Post in my RSS reader. That lasted all of five days.
What went wrong?
I just could not stand reading one more story about how we’ve all been tortured into reading it while in high school and about whether this damn movie can save Beowulf from itself.
Listen, I’m very sure that the movie will be just fine. But I’ve read enough reviews of the movie to tell you that it’s got two problems very difficult to surmount.
1. Is that the writers (Our buddy Neil Gaiman and someone else whose name escapes me at the moment) decided that the poem had been ruined by monks’ stripping all the sex out if it.
2. Though they’ve decided Christians ruined the story, they seem to refuse to commit to a heathen worldview.
So, we end up with a movie in which Angelina Jolie plays Grendel’s mother and she ends up having sex with Beowulf and, as far as I can tell from the reviews, they end up having a relationship of sorts and he lets her live.
If you want to play up the Christian worldview, then maybe you can make Grendel somewhat sympathetic, worthy of redemption, but monstrous because of the curse of Cain. And, in that case, it makes sense that Beowulf would not fight Grendel’s mother. And maybe the main characters are haunted by a feeling of not being who others perceive them to be, after all, who, if not Jesus, is the literary prototype of the hero with a secret that leads to his death?
But, if you’ve decided that Christianity is a problem, then you’ve got to see that the issue between Grendel and Hrothgar in the poem is Grendel’s utter refusal to abide by societal conventions. Sure, killing folks puts a damper on mealtime, but it’s that he refuses Hrothgar’s attempts to make things right between them that becomes the real issue–Grendel is a force of such social chaos that he single-handedly undermines Hrothgar’s ability to rule as king.
And then, let’s talk about the women. One nice thing about Beowulf is that the women have power and are present. Yes, their lives take up different spheres than the men, but here we have a story in which none of the women are just objects of desire. Wealhtheow is a fine host and storyteller and is willing to vocally protect the interests of her children (and her own self-interests) even in the face of how pleased her husband is with Beowulf. And, more importantly, Grendel’s mother is a real threat and, like a real threat, Beowulf must face her. He doesn’t chase her down so that he can fuck her. He chases her down to remove the real threat from the community he is protecting. She’s a real villain, not a seductive witch using her cooter to lead men astray.
But, in the reviews I’ve read, the women are all, first, fuck-objects.
I think that’s a shame.
But what I think is a shame most of all is this idea that reading Beowulf sucks.
Is it easy? No. Not even Seamus Heaney’s awesome translation is particularly easy.
But it doesn’t suck.
I mean, go ahead and read whatever summaries so that you know what happens. Or here, I’ll tell you. Beowulf fights Grendel. Grendel dies. Beowulf fights Grendel’s mom. She dies. Beowulf fights the dragon. They both die.
It’s not about getting to the end of something.
It’s about, for a while, sitting yourself in the language of our ancestors (literally in some cases and linguistically in others) and putting yourself in a mindset that is both completely foreign and utterly familiar. It’s about being there in the halls, hearing the stories of these men and, even more cool, hearing the stories they told each other.
If it’s boring, it’s only because you’ve been let down, either by your teachers, by long wintery nights with nothing more to amuse you than story telling, or by your own imagination.
I can’t bear to listen to people disparage Beowulf, as if it lacks something. This is a gift, something so special that when our heathen ancestors gave it to our Christian ones, our Christian ancestors, rather than burning it or throwing it in the ocean and forgetting about it, disguised it a little and passed it down to us.
I mean, here’s one case (the Eddas being another) in which Christians are not the enemy of great literature, but instead its protector. In a way, it’s like when two sides of the family who detest each other work together to get you the perfect Yuletide (wordplay intentional) gift. Differences aside, it was important enough to them for you to have this that they brought it over 1000 years to you.
It offends me at a soul-deep level to see people disparage that gift.
And so that’s why I’ve stopped reading the Huffington Post.
p.s. Here’s Beowulf online.