Sunday, July 27, 2008

Beowulf Revisited

     Every time I go to the video store lately, it seems the animated version Beowulf beckons to me from the shelf.  I am resisting.  The image that I saw of Grendel's mother with Angelina Jolie's face gives me a sinking feeling not unlike the one that I got when I saw ads for the version of Beowulf with Gerard Butler.  Much as Gerard Butler proved in that film and 300 that he was born to wear leather, it was the beautiful witch in the ads that gave me the sinking feeling that seeing the film did not allay. 
     There is no beautiful witch in Beowulf; there is no witch at all but, if there was a witch, Beowulf who was of the Geatish royal family would not have been boinking her.
     Thus far, the movie that I think has the best version of the Beowulf story does not even call itself that. It is The Thirteenth Warrior, starring Antonio Banderas, based on the Micheal Crichton book The Eaters of the Dead.  The producers of this film made a valiant attempt to recreate the time in which Beowulf lived, which would be the sixth century.
     There are several reasons for dating it to this time and one of them was already discussed in my  blog of May 4, here, Beowulf himself was present at this raid and escaped the Franks by swimming the Rhine. After the death of Hygelac, his son Heardred took his place but he was killed soon after by the Swedes.  This is when Beowulf became the king of the Geats and ruled for 50 winters before dying while killing a dragon which had been ravaging his country.
     In Beowulf, there are more reasons for dating the visit to Heorot at about 520 A.D. (for arguments for this date, see Tolkien's Finn and Hengest), such as the story that a minstrel sings at the banquet to celebrate Beowulf''s victory over Grendel.   This is the song about a fight at Finnsburg where Hengest avenges the death of Hnaef, who is probably the great-uncle of Hrothgar.  Some short time after this battle (c. 452 A.D.), Hengest left the continent for England to participate in the Saxon conquest of the island.  This makes Beowulf possibly a contemporary of Arthur, since the battle of Badon Hill is estimated to be circa 500 A.D. (see timeline in sidebar).
     Most etymologies list the meaning of the name Beowulf as "Bee-Wolf" but I prefer the alternative in Brewer's Guide to Phrase and Fable which suggests that the name means "War Wolf" from the OE word for war, beadu.  Beowulf's name is probably a title or a nickname of a sort since he does not appear in Jordanes History of the Goths or Gregory's history.  Indeed, he does not appear under that name in any history which is why he is usually considered a fictitious character.  One would think someone who ruled for so long would have been mentioned somewhere else and Cassiodorus, Jordanes, Gregory and possibly Procopius as well were all alive when Beowulf is said to have fought and killed a dragon. 
     This is what I enjoyed about The Thirteenth Warrior:  they account for Grendel, his mother and even the dragon in a way that makes them possible in this world.  I will not spoil the movie for those who have not seen it yet.  Of course there is a large gap of time ( 50 years +) between the death of Grendel and his mother and Beowulf's death fighting the dragon but it does not spoil the story for me at all.

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