Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bewitched By Beowulf

I've seen a trailer for Beowulf, the movie. It looked like another boring foray into video game animation, but the whole idea of a movie version of Beowulf struck me as bizarre. Then I found out Angelina Jolie was Grendel's mother, and I got curious. Hollywood hearthrob hell-dam?

Blake Gopnik wrote a loving tribute to his college experience with the poem, 'Beowulf' Movie Magic Can't Conjure The Poem's Bare-Bones Enchantment (Washington Post, November 22, 2007).

The great hero Beowulf, wrestling with the monster Grendel, split the sinews of his foe and snapped his arm off at the shoulder. Going up against the monster's mother, he slammed her to the earth, then sliced her neck through with a sword.

That's nothing to what Beowulf did to me, about 20 years ago. He forced me to memorize the full beon and wesan forms of the Anglo-Saxon verb "to be," even in the preterite subjunctive. He made me write out cue cards for most of the 3,200 different words of his tale, so that I'd remember such useful terms as haeft-mece ("hilted sword"), sex-ben ("dagger wound") and galg-treow ("gallows tree"). He got me to recite the declensions of five noun classes in three genders across four cases. (After I'd crammed on what a case was, how to decline across it and what the Anglo-Saxons did to end up with three genders.)

Unlike Grendel or his mom, I gained from the assault. By learning Anglo-Saxon, I got to sink deep into the strangeness of "Beowulf," the poem composed in England sometime before 1000, and enter the imagined universe of Beowulf, its 6th-century hero. I learned to enjoy the allusive elusiveness of its circumlocutions, the drumbeat of its rhythms, the spell of its endless alliteration....

Gopnik is no academic snob--he likes the same sort of trashy movie I enjoy--with superheroes, monsters, unlikely plots, groovey special effects--but he feels that this movie misses everything great about Beowulf.

"Beowulf," the poem, is more about darkling silhouettes than three-dimensional anything. Where the movie aims for a powerful digital glow, the poem is entirely twilit. Where Zemeckis gives a crystal-clear vision of a world of striking lights and shadows, in the poem it's the vision itself that is dark and troubled. Everything about the poem is clouded in mystery, from its diction to its imagery to its mix of pagan and Christian ideals. The movie, on the other hand, believes in keeping every little hair and drop of blood and plot detail in perfect focus, leaving nothing to a viewer's imperfect imagination....

That's because reading "Beowulf" takes us to a new place, where people think about the world and its stories in terms that don't make sense to us. That's why it takes a year and more to come to terms with it (at least in Anglo-Saxon) and why the effort's worth it.

I don't buy the tired old cliche that "Beowulf" is great because it touches universal themes. What's great is that it isn't universal; that it's its own thing; that its bards managed to build a world for us that's so complete a package, in its verse and tale and coloring, that we can still get lost in it all these centuries later.

In all their many interviews, it's clear that the creators of the film could barely stomach the strange "Beowulf" they started out with. They didn't dare imagine that, even with a little cinematic help, their audience might ever come to terms with its foreignness. Instead, they had to bring the poem fully "up to date" and make it easily digestible.

I enjoyed my medieval literature classes, and took every one I could get into. (Iowa State University English Department). I'd imprinted on Tolkien in junior high, and here was "the real stuff!" Still, I can't help but envy Gopnik his experience at McGill:

...At McGill, Prof. Martin Puhvel was Beowulf's accomplice in torturing me. Puhvel had the voice and build of a bear, along with the general demeanor of an unusually misanthropic berserker. (One rumor among his students -- at least the three of us dumb enough to stick around after the first week of class -- was that, on winter nights, Puhvel could be spotted hunting in the suburban woods of Montreal. With a crossbow. Another was that he had gotten out of his native Estonia, just across the Baltic from Beowulf's homeland, on a wrestling scholarship.)

Puhvel didn't recite"Beowulf" the way an actor might, drawing out the drama so as to camouflage the demands of its verse. He intoned it, in his Viking-accented Anglo-Saxon, line after line, page after page, class after class, as though "Beowulf" the poem, like Beowulf the hero, were a force of nature that could only be borne, not fought or ever overcome. Or as though its verse were a path through a dark wood where the only outlet would be found by plunging forward, but would be sure to land us somewhere absolutely new and strange.


Rick Lee said...

After reading some good reviews, I got that Seamus Haney translation that came out a few years ago. I know I read it in High School but I didn't have the slightest recollection of it. (I probably just skimmed the Cliffs Notes) The Haney translation really had an impact on me.

After reading your scholarly thoughts, this is going to sound silly, but all I could think about was Klingons. I'm no trekkie really, but I couldn't help but notice that so much of our popular culture about warrior tribes in fiction and science fiction seems to be taken straight from this source. Over and over I was stunned that this was the culture of my *real* ancestors... not something dreamed up for suburban teenage boys to fantasize about.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Klingons, eh? I never thought of that. The Klingons made me think of the "Mongol hordes" because they were warlike and seemed nomadic, but of course, that would work for Vikings too.

Rick Lee said...

I think the Klingon clothing was vaguely Asian looking.