Tuesday, December 11, 2007

i am here to kill your monster

In amongst the various events that make up my life I went and watched Beowulf the other day, with a bunch of Old English people. There was surprisingly little laughter during the movie. I was very disappointed with it as it just wasn't as bad as I'd hoped it would be. That's what I want out of a Beowulf movie, cringing and laughter and wonderment at what happened to the plot. Ok, this movie did take great liberties with plot and characters and most things I suppose (Heorot looked very 12th C. for instance) but sometimes you have to accept that in a movie and appreciate it for itself. That makes it sound better than it is, and let me say that the character of Beowulf drew the most laughs, as well as the strange amount of nudity. But there were eerie moments and battles that commanded some amount of respect. I wish I saw it in 3d, it was clearly made for it, but I don't think I could have handled Imax for some bits.
One of the things I most appreciated about the movie was the willingness to show the supernatural. Grendel is a troll monster, there is a dragon. And the supernatural is done well, if in a way that confuses the student of Old English. I quite enjoyed this film on balance. But one of the things I didn't like was the unwillingness to be heroic. They do show Beowulf as a hero, but at other times they undermine his heroism, and Hrothgar does not come off looking very good at all. It comes down to something Beowulf says to Wealtheow near the end of the movie (to paraphrase) "I want you to remember me not as a hero but as a flawed man". That seems to be a tendency in fiction at the moment, flawed humans rather than heroes. Which makes me sad, because I like heroes! What makes this more difficult is that I'm aware that this statement oversimplifies the issue. Tragic heroes have been flawed for centuries, and Beowulf is indeed tragic (although how flawed he is is a matter of heated debate among English scholars). Nevertheless there appears to me, in general, to be a shift in emphasis from the heroism to the flaws. A shift towards realism in characters? Or a pessismism about human nature? Meh, these questions are too big, all I really want to do is mourn the lack of heroes around. I can't be alone. Superheroes are very popular at the moment too.
To move away from that vexing question, another interesting feature of the movie is its use of Old English. Grendel (and sometimes his mother) speak Old English, but no-one else. It is interesting to hear it spoken in a movie like that, and sometimes hard to follow (also un-subtitled) but somehow appealing for the Old English geek who can decipher what's going on (sometimes. I also feel inadequate in my Old English skills). There is a part where Grendel's mother speaks either of or to Beowulf, I can't remember, and says "Beowulf, Bee-wolf, the bear" which ALL of the Old English posse picked up on. As Amy said, it was Angelina Jolie doing philology. The thing is that this is a hotly debated topic (what isn't you ask?). There was for a while an argument, which I think was fairly widely accepted, that Beowulf was a compound meaning 'Bee-wolf', which in Old English meant bear. But lately this is being questioned (it was never that strong in the beginning) as the 'bee-wolf' connection may be there but people are baffled as to how that means bear. So if there is one fact that you get from watching the Beowulf movie, please don't let it be that 'Beowulf' in fact means 'Bear', because if you bring it up at a party to someone who knows Old English you will have to listen to a lot of "well, actually"s.
Oh, and the title of this post is a line from the movie that I think is right up there with 'just kidding'.


  1. so, we should see it then?
    Hooray for heroes, and boo to the arch cynics who suspect everything.

  2. Well I went to imdb to confirm the quote was right and they also had the quote "The time of heroes is dead: the christ god has killed it, leaving nothing but weeping martyrs and fear and shame." which seemed ironic since I'd just been writing about how Beowulf seemed somewhat un-heroic to me (leaving aside questions of medieval genre, heroic saints, the dating of Beowulf etc.).

  3. OK, it may not be universally accepted, but surely there is no reason to be bafled how "bee-wolf" means bear; it is a fairly obvious kenning. The bear ransacks the hive as the wolf raids the sheep-fold.