Thursday, February 22, 2007

Magik Beans Episode 06 now up!

The latest episode in my serialized modern fairy tale is now's a preview:

"No damage?" Lara asked, incredulous.

"None," Andrew replied. "They were a bit weirded out that I came in all wound up...I told them I had some flooding in the basement and wanted to make sure it was confined over here." He was standing on the ladder, which was leaning against the wall adjacent to the trendy restaurant. He was peering into one of the fissures the tree had ripped in the wall. "This limb is too large at this point to taper off before it gets through the wall,"
he said under his breath. "It doesn't make a bit of sense."

"You have a giant tree in your coffee shop," Lara reminded him. "I think we're well past sensible." She looked intently at the wall, her eyes scanning back and forth. "And speaking of sensible," she said, "What possessed you to think it would be a good idea to cover the original brick with wood panelling?"

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Reel Heroes and Monsters: an evaluation of cinematic adaptations of Beowulf

I've noted a deluge of traffic for Beowulf in the middle of the semester...which makes me think that students are working on papers. If you use anything from my writing, don't forget to use proper MLA format, and as a thank-you, please leave a comment. A simple "I used your material for a paper" or "Thanks for the ready-made bibliography" would suffice.

The success of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has spurred a deluge of medieval-fantasy films, including adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, to name a few. Little wonder then, that one of the greatest source materials for Tolkien’s epic, the medieval poem Beowulf is being given two major filmic treatments. Beowulf and Grendel, directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, was released in 2005, while the second, simply titled Beowulf is set for release in the fall of 2007. Ruth Johnston Staver counts three other film adaptations in addition to these two; Grendel, Grendel, Grendel, an animated musical based upon John Gardner’s novel Grendel made in 1980, as well as The Thirteenth Warrior and an eponymous science fiction version, both released in 1999. Since the animated version is unavailable on either DVD or VHS, and the science fiction version has been resoundingly panned as both poor filmmaking and literary adaptation, these will summarily be dismissed from our inquiry, as will the yet unreleased version for obvious reasons. Instead, our attention will focus upon the revisionist interpretations of The Thirteenth Warrior and Beowulf and Grendel.

This paper assumes that cinematic representations of medieval periods are “an important scholarly medium, revealing not only historical aspects of the middle Ages but perceptions of the Middle Ages in various times and places, and also in popular culture” (Driver 21). By looking at modern filmic adaptations of Beowulf, we can learn something about how the poem is currently perceived. As a result, the criteria for these films’ assessment will not be historical accuracy as is often the case with cinematic representations of medieval periods since as Tolkien noted, “Beowulf is not an actual picture of historic Denmark or Geatland or Sweden around A.D. 500” (28), but takes place rather in a “once upon a time” that is partly historical” (Heaney ix).

Given the mandate of “responsible interpretation” to “address the far from easy question, what would Beowulf have meant in its own time?” (Lee 148), the assessment of each film as adaptation of Beowulf will hinge upon the bipartite relationship between Beowulf as hero, the “guardian and keeper of his people’s welfare” (Tolkien 101), and Grendel as “a physical monster, whose main function is hostility to humanity” (38). As Lee notes, when Beowulf seizes Grendel in Heorot, there is a clear demarcation between the two; one is the “captain of evil” and “dread of the land” (Heaney 51) while the other is “the man who of all men was foremost and strongest in the days of this life” (Lee 53). Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe states that the “binary opposition between Beowulf and the creatures he fights” are found underlying the scholarly consensus “that the monsters lie at the very core of the poem” (484). This binary opposition is Lee’s “antagonistic moment… when heroic and divine energy mobilized in human form decisively meets demonic hatred, and, in this instance, makes it strain to escape” (Lee 184).

Having established both Beowulf as hero-protector and Grendel as physically manifested evil, both The Thirteenth Warrior and Beowulf and Grendel will be assessed according to these core elements. If either the hero or monster (as primarily manifested in Grendel and tertiarily by his mother; the dragon has yet to make an onscreen appearance in a Beowulf film) is cinematically stripped of these core elements, then the film has fallen short as an adaptation of what Tolkien saw as they key elements in the poem. This assessment merely refines our inquiry; it does not seek to question the “mass of criticism and interpretation which Beowulf has generated over the decades” resulting from the polysemous reading which Beowulf “invites” but rather seeks to “establish some coherence in and among these efforts without in any way seeking to impede them” (Lee 147-8).

The Monsters as Physical Evil

The monsters as actual physical evil will be the first matter of our inquiry, since the evidence concerning Beowulf as a warrior protector relies largely upon the nature of the threat Grendel, his mother, and the dragon pose. By contrast, the monsters’ nature as physical, supernatural threats can be substantiated without reference to the hero who faces them. This is central to Tolkien’s argument that the monsters are primarily monsters, “central to the poem’s meaning” as opposed to “distractions from some weightier essence” (Quammen 270), seen clearly by his statement that “A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of man’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold” (Tolkien 15-6). Tolkien was dealing with the poem in terms of its original context, without revisionist or postmodern readings of it. Grendel, his mother, and the dragon are monsters, and in Northern Germanic cosmology, “monsters were on the side of the destruction of civilization, and as such their role in Ragnarok was to bring about the end of order” (Staver 32). And, while their descriptions leave much to the imagination, the original audience of Beowulf would have understood them nevertheless as physical beings:

“Although the monsters may not be rooted in the particular, something solid walks, leaving tracks, through the foreground of the poem; something hates the sound of the harps; something keeps to the misty fens. But what can be said about its (empty) form and its (overfull) significance from the tracks left across the text, tracks that only lead away into the outer dark?” (Sandner 163).

Beowulf’s first direct reference to the “threat, whatever it is” (21) is indicative of the ambiguity of the shape and nature of Grendel. This ambiguity lends itself to multiple interpretations of what Grendel is, or is a signifier of. O’Keefe constructs the possibility of Grendel as shape changer by employing the transformation of the verbs describing his movement. His approach to Heorot associates him “with the regions he occupies” the “shadow-stalker” (Heaney 47) under the cover of darkness comes “gliding” (Alexander 73). Here the verb “scriðan” is utilized, which O’Keefe says is synonymous with “spirits and clouds” (487). As Grendel moves off the moors, he comes “greedily loping” (Heaney 49) a movement also attributed to “the motion of physical beings” (O’Keefe 487). Finally, as Grendel approaches the great hall, it is “as if by association with the hall he ravages, becomes human” (O’Keefe 487) citing the word “rinc” in line 720, used to “describe the sleeping Geats in the hall and Beowulf himself” (487-8). Alexander translates “rinc” as “this warlike creature” (73) while Heaney skirts the issue entirely by using the pronoun “he” (49). But does such a transformation make Grendel human, as O’Keefe suggests? O’Keefe argues that the poem “predicate[s] a connection between Grendel and the men he approaches” (488) adding that as he enters into combat with Beowulf, the distinction between the two becomes blurred; it is when Grendel is in contact with men that he becomes most “manifestly corporeal” (487). In this way, Grendel “can elicit the reader’s sympathy as well as enmity.” (Sandner 166)

Grendel should not, however, be understood as human, regardless of his anthropomorphism in the presence of humans. While he is mortal, Lee notes that he fails as human, since “he embodies everything that brings about the destruction of human beings, bodies and souls, including his own” (Lee 174). As such, we ought not to consider Grendel “only a man and not a monster” (Sandner 166), since for the original audiences of Beowulf monstrosity was as much a way of being as it were a state of physicality. Sandner suggests that the monstrosity of Grendel is known through his actions, that “the reader only knows Grendel through his bloody actions, the horrified response of others and elliptical statements of the narrator” (Sandner 163). Even if Grendel could be proven some physical form of semi-human, his physical actions pronounce him a monster:

“An outlaw was literally outside the law, outside the protection of the community. The English did not see anything wrong with killing a monster; it was not like needlessly killing a useful beast, or immorally killing a man. Monsters were meant to be killed; they were outlaws. Monsters were at war, a terrorist guerilla war in which any and every man might be a target…More importantly, his way of fighting was cannibalistic and revolting. Grendel drinks blood, which was disgusting and horrifying to the Christian English…Grendel’s flamboyant blood drinking was guaranteed to turn stomachs and mark as a particularly evil monster” (Staver 33-4).

Both Staver and Hill see Grendel as a sort of shape changer as well, but connect his changeling aspect to the landscape the monster inhabits. Hill demonstrates that none of the narrative spaces of Beowulf are “symbolic of human prosperity and happiness” but rather are “hostile and threatening” (128). Grendel and his mother “are associated with the wilderness, the unknown and threatening world beyond the stronghold and its environs…The wilderness is a dimly made out place of threat and exile” (130) while the human architecture of Heorot exists as “emblem of humankind’s power and achievement in a hostile world” (128). Yet even Heorot transformed from “the seat of the hall-joys of the Danes” (128) to the “barricaded night house”, one of Heaney’s “three archetypal sites of fear” along with “the infested underwater current, and the reptile-haunted rocks of a wilderness” (xii). The physicality of the landscapes the monsters inhabit and affect gives substance to their own form, “its associations of undefined danger attach[ing] symbolically to Grendel himself” (Hill 131). Staver attributes a triad of monstrous types to Grendel alone based upon his connection to his environment. First, because of his massive size and because he wanders the wilderness, he is like a troll, while “like water monsters, he lives in a swampy lake” (34). Finally, Grendel is a “spirit and mist in the fens” (O’Keefe 486), who “like a ghost…must have his head cut off” (Staver 34).

O’Keefe suggests that the ambiguous nature of Grendel’s form (and by association, his mother) does not indicate a lack of monstrosity. Rather, she makes a scholarly argument for what director M. Night Shyamalan employs as one his “rules of terror,” namely to not “show the monster more than you have to” (Bowles).

“Indeed, when Grendel is lurking in the fens and marches, he not so very frightening, for we understand what he is. There the formulas work: a mearcstapa walks the marches; a þyrs inhabits the fens…Grendel is at his most terrifying not in the marches but in the place of men. When he opens the door of the hall, our horror is a horror of recognition... In the hall the formulas no longer work when the other-than-human invades the circle of light, and the hero who would counter such a foe must likewise move beyond the formulas” (O’Keefe 492).

Regardless of the form which Grendel takes, Staver is unwavering in her assessment that “Grendel is not seen as neutral. As the foe of mankind and the adversary of God, Grendel is portrayed as most definitely evil” (31). And against such a foe, a defender of mankind, a warrior of God is required. Hill shows that the word “eoten” in Beowulf which refers to the word “giant”, used in reference to Grendel twice, has only “negative connotations” in the poem, and that the “fidelity of “Giants” indeed is not praiseworthy. That kind of “fidelity”, a commitment to terror, must be opposed. In some way terror in this world must always be answered definitively; so much is a true warrior’s judicial responsibility” (Hill 61).

Beowulf as Hero

In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf, Michael Alexander states that “Heroic society is simple: a lord in peace and war is the ‘shepherd of his people’…he provides shelter, food and drink in his hall; he is their ‘ring-giver’ and ‘gold-friend’ in peace and their ‘shield’ and ‘helmet’ in war” (Heaney 16). It is this presentation of Beowulf as warrior-protector we will focus upon, as it is arguably the most defining trait of the hero in medieval society. Both as servant to Hrothgar and king of his own people, Beowulf’s actions are constantly turned towards the welfare of his people, whether they are his comrades in arms in youth, or those who swear fealty to him in old age. Lee notes that “it is clear that Beowulf is much involved in setting forth the ideal behaviour of a hero who becomes a king and whose great achievements are inextricably both physical and spiritual” (197).

The poem describes Beowulf as “the mightiest man on earth, high-born and powerful” (Heaney 15). He is the son of “a famous man, a noble warrior-lord named Ecgtheow,” but it is not his noble lineage which makes it his destiny to one day become king. Hrothgar observes that “I firmly believe the seafaring Geats won’t find a man worthier of acclaim as their king and defender than you, if only you would undertake the lordship of your homeland” (127). His words are born out of his observations of Beowulf’s conduct in leading his men and defeating Grendel and his mother, not out of political necessity. Beowulf’s kingly aspect emanates from his possession and demonstration of Tolkien’s four elements of good kingship, “liberality, sound judgement, power and inherited luckforce” (117), all of which he possesses even before ascending to the throne of the Geats. A true hero, as O’Keefe couches these attributes in direct actions wherein a hero, “ought not to slay his companions; he ought to keep his promises; he ought to maintain his companions’ loyalty by giving gifts; he ought to avenge his friend” (490). Every attribute which define a warrior-king find their inversion in the monsters of Beowulf. Since Beowulf’s opposition of Grendel and the other monsters in the poem declares him most clearly the shepherd of his people, we will examine two heroic attributes and how their opposition of the monsters reveal Beowulf’s royal heroism; Tolkien’s “liberality”, or gift-giving, which is tied directly to being the king, and prowess in battle, which is related to the hero’s warrior aspect.

The liberality Tolkien speaks of is demonstrated by the kingly duty of being a gift giver, a ruler who “would dispense his God-given goods to young and old” and “doled out rings and torques at the table” (Heaney 7). Beowulf is established as such a gift giver during his concluding battle with the dragon, an indirect revelation resulting from Wiglaf’s condemnation of his companions’ cowardice outside the dragon’s lair. Wiglaf challenges them to “make good the gift of the war gear” the “lavish gifts” the “shepherd of our land” had given them (Heaney 179). The purpose of these gifts was to “ensure a loyal and reliable following, and [Wiglaf] reproaches his comrades for not fulfilling their part of the bargain” (Tolkien 99). This shows how gift-giving is not merely an action; it is symbolic of the relationship between the warrior-king and his followers:

“The central image of early Germanic society is that of a war leader with a band of warriors who are loyal to the death. This loyalty was not for free, for the expected duty of a king was to give gifts…The warriors served their lord and were given lavish gifts as reward” (Staver 3)

When Unferth gives Hrunting to Beowulf prior to the hero’s descent into the underwater lair of Grendel and his mother, he does so not as the shepherd of his people, but because “he was not man enough to face the turmoil of a fight under water and the risk to his life” and so loses “fame and repute” (103). Even in the non-violent act of gift giving Beowulf, the “lord and lavisher of rings” (203) opposes the ultimately selfish Grendel:

“The poet has deepened the beast-child into a glittering horror, a possessor of everything. This is something that refuses to share and would rather rejoice in destruction than establish the reciprocities of gifts, expected support, internalized need, and violent enactment—reciprocities that either make or intensify kinship in Beowulf’s world. As battle-king and guardian of this people, Beowulf resolutely arrays himself against such an owner” (Hill 42).

Further, the act of gift-giving is also opposed by the hoarding action of the dragon, which appropriates the barrow of a king as its own, and responds to the needy theft of one gold cup with terrible violence. Lee notes that the “cataclysmic nature and scope of the dragon’s response seem out of all proportion” (142) to the theft of the cup. There is more than cause and effect at work here. The dragon’s reaction is part of its own violent and evil nature, which is the inverse of the warrior-king’s liberality.

The warrior king’s prowess in battle encompasses many of the kingly attributes O’Keefe and Tolkien list. Much of Tolkien’s discussion about the concept of warrior-king centered upon “the king’s valor and physical prowess in armed combat” which he believed to be a “cornerstone of kingship in both Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied” (100). Both Hrothgar and Beowulf are extolled as rulers who were mighty enough in their abilities as warriors to both establish peace as well as preserve it (100-1). This prowess extends to the attribute of sound judgment, once “physical might can no longer be reasonably be expected” (101) from the warrior-king in his twilight years. The warrior-king is no passive ruler upon a throne, but “leads his war-band into battle…fights in the forefront of his men,” whose combination of luck-force and capability are important contributors to victory in combat (117); the relationship between the king and his war-band is essential. Alexander notes that “The heroic ideal of unflinching individual courage, of a glorious personal transcendence of human limitations, is always being stalked in Beowulf by a complementary ideal of responsibility towards kindred” (33). Beowulf as warrior-king encompasses both facets of this relationship, as “ideal thane and lord” and so emerges as an “ideal hero” (35).

By contrast, Grendel, while certainly adept in battle, exemplifies what Tolkien calls “the evil side of heroic life” of which Grendel is the personification, driven as he is by “malice, greed, [and] destruction” (17). This contrast between Grendel as representative of the monsters and Beowulf underscores their opposition as natural enemies; Grendel as bloodthirsty predator whose prey are the souls whom Beowulf as shepherd of the people strives to protect. Simply put, if Grendel, his mother and the dragon are anything less than the antithesis of heroism, then Beowulf cannot be shepherd of his people. He will become something else, for “unless the hero is also a champion, mere heroism is an adolescent ideal—arrogant and irresponsible” (Alexander 33). If Beowulf is not the shepherd of his people, something essential to the narrative is lost. The heroic world, as Hill suggests is a “world of immutable certitude in which one’s place is defined and one’s obligations are clear” (105).

Film 1: Beowulf and Grendel

This sort of immutable certitude is conspicuously absent from Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf and Grendel. This film owes much of its presentation to the reality that “Heroic literature is temporarily out of fashion, at least in the West” (Frank 268); the ideal hero Beowulf presents is a caricature in the modern milieu of ambiguous ethics and rampant self-introspection. Roger Ebert’s critique of Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Achilles in the 2004 Wolfgang Petersen film Troy sums up the incongruity between current values and the tradition of the heroic epic; “Heroes are not introspective…they do not have second thoughts, and they are not conflicted” (web). In Beowulf and Grendel, the hero is exceedingly introspective, constantly conflicted, and has second thoughts about nearly every decision he makes following his arrival in Hrothgar’s kingdom.

Not only is Beowulf conflicted, but the film’s Grendel borrows a certain amount of John Gardner’s interpretation of the monster in his novel Grendel, which is told in first person. Gardner’s Grendel is “a highly self-aware monster” (Staver 188), as is Gunnarson’s, if it can be called a monster at all. Ingvar E. Sigurdsson is a decidedly human-looking Grendel, despite the sloppy prosthetics utilized to give him a somewhat monstrous appearance. This Grendel is some sort of sub-human, whose motivation for terrorizing Heorot is consistently vengeance for wrongs inflicted. The initial catalyst is the murder of his father by Hrothgar’s hand when only a boy. The second is the wanton destruction of his father’s skull, enshrined in Grendel’s cave by one of Beowulf’s men. This is what provokes Grendel into the attack upon Heorot which results in the loss of his arm—up until this point he refuses to engage Beowulf in battle. He is not a cannibal, a reluctant combatant, and his death is clearly intended to evoke sympathy.

Grendel’s mother is more monstrous than her progeny; some sort of water monster, she makes brief attacks on Beowulf and his warriors from under the waters beneath their ship and boats. When she finally engages Beowulf in combat, there is little question as to what drives her fury—her son lies dead on the floor of her watery lair. Further, Beowulf has left Grendel’s own son fatherless. He has repeated Hrothgar’s crime, a wrong which Hrothgar feels no remorse over. When Beowulf confronts the king, who lacks every possible attribute of the noble king of the source poem, Hrothgar replies that “It was just a troll…only a troll.” But the audience is meant to see Grendel as much more than “just a troll.” He is the character who draws greatest sympathy, while one can only reserve contempt for Beowulf, who has maintains his ‘heroic’ mission even after he has learned of Grendel’s reasons for attacking Heorot.

Beowulf and Grendel is definitely a product of current values which “no longer assume that fighting is glorious or fun, or that hero and warrior are synonymous terms” (Frank 268), and while it achieves a wonderful verisimilitude of a possible historical Beowulf with its rich cinematography of Iceland’s austere landscapes and solid cast, the two antagonists have been so altered as to render the film a derivation as opposed to adaptation.

Film 2: The Thirteenth Warrior

Based upon Michael Crichton’s faux scholarly fiction, Eaters of the Dead, John McTiernan’s The Thirteenth Warrior is an attempt both in its source material and in the film to speculate an answer to the question of where the Beowulf legend originated. What actual events lead to someone creating this heroic epic? Crichton’s novel opens with an introduction “that appears to be a scholarly history of the manuscript, and it sounds like real histories of manuscript fragments. There are places, names, and dates, but they are all fictional.” (Staver 189). Since this pretense is maintained throughout the book, it creates a strong sense of verisimilitude. The film however, does not. As an attempt at making the Beowulf story more ‘historical’ it fails abysmally, plagued by glaring anachronisms such as references to the “tartars”, the Spanish armor worn by one of the Viking warriors, and a mess of accents ranging from authentic Scandinavian to poorly executed Cockney, to say nothing of Antonio Banderas’ Spanish-sounding Arab.

The story is focalized through Banderas’ character, “an Arabian ambassador named Ibn Fadlan” (Grindley 161). The casting of a major film star in this primary role and a virtual unknown as Beowulf (called Buliwyf) results in “Fadlan…supplant[ing] Buliwyf as the film’s hero” (161). Fadlan begins the journey uncomfortable in the wild and ill suited to the adventure. Even once he joins his Viking companions in battle, he proves to be “an ineffective warrior, by far the least able of his compatriots” (161). Ibn Fadlan is a classic modern hero, who begins as an everyman who finds himself swept away on an adventure he didn’t ask for which turns out to be a journey of both body and soul resulting in his ‘becoming a man’ by the film’s end.

Buliwyf/Beowulf, by contrast comes into the film fully realized as the “heir apparent” to King “Hygiliak” (pronounced ‘Hiliak’ or ‘High-jill-ee-ak’ depending on which actor is delivering the line), the leader of a motley band of Viking mercenaries. Vladimir Kulich, the actor who plays Buliwyf is a formidable presence onscreen, standing 6”5 compared to Banderas’ diminutive stature of 5”9 ( When compared to the introspective dialogue Banderas is given, all of Buliwyf’s lines seem wooden; Buliwyf is a grim countenanced stoic warrior with a feathered mane of blonde hair. The film succeeds in choosing Kulich for the look of a warrior-king, but fails to communicate the ethos of a protector of the people through Buliwyf’s expressions or postures. Dennis Storhøi’s portrayal of Herger the Joyous, one of Buliwyf’s band, comes far closer to many of the characteristics of the warrior-king. He is boisterous and hospitable (he is the first to include Fadlan as one of the group) and has great prowess in battle (standing in for Buliwyf in a duel) and is sharp-minded, delivering many of the film’s best lines. One would assume that the character of Beowulf was considered too boring to be placed in a conspicuous position in the film.

When compared with the monsters however, Beowulf is far more recognizable. Staver’s evaluation of how the monsters are transformed from uncanny creatures to sub humans in bear skins:

“The monster is not a single entity but a community of primitive semi-human creatures. Their attack in a realistic, human way, in large numbers and with weapons… The “dragon” is a massive attack at night, carrying torches to set the hall on fire.” (190).

Again Grendel and his mother have been rendered as sub-humans (called the “Wendol”), who are even less troll-like than Gunnarsson’s Grendel. Garbed in animal-hides and engaging in mounted combat, they resemble North American First Nations peoples more than monsters. Unlike Gunnarson’s Grendel, the Wendol are cannibals, but as Staver notes, this is their sole motivation for attacking Heorot; they are not diabolical, just hungry. Grendel’s mother has been replaced by “the mother of the Wendol” a dirty, emaciated witch whose poisonous claw-weapon mortally wounds Buliwyf. He makes one last stand in the climactic battle against the Wendol, and collapses dead in the throne Hrothgar vacated in his own death earlier in the film.

While The Thirteenth Warrior provides a far more certain heroic figure in Buliwyf than Beowulf and Grendel does, his relegation to a sort of fifth business and the lack of diabolism on the part of Wendol place the film as a sort of poor man’s Braveheart.[1] John McTiernan’s attempt to create a possible historicity for the legend proves less successful than Gunnarson’s film. In the case of both films, the desire to ground the story in ‘realism’ creates a false foundation for the Beowulf story, which unlike the King Arthur mythos, cannot exist without its monsters and idealized hero.


The films we have examined may be excellent films in their own right. They may be laudable revisionist works of Beowulf. But they fail as adaptations of Beowulf while the absolute values of heroic epics are “abstract schemas” in the modern world, in “medieval movies we do not experience them in the abstract” since medieval films are “fables of identity…set in a harder world than ours where the demands of loyalty and faith are absolute.” (Woods 49). It is not the world we inhabit empirically, but rather a possible world, an ontology where ideal heroes can exist in the response to pure incarnated evil.

Roger Ebert made the observation that films made about heroic epics might require a “stark dramatic approach that is deliberately stylized” since the events contained within such narratives “cannot happen between psychologically plausible characters”. The trailers for the yet unreleased 300, the film version of Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the battle of Thermopylae gives a hint of what such an approach might look like. The entire film has been heavily edited through digital technology, lending a mythic, surreal feeling to the footage. Heaney seems to agree with a need for stylization, calling Beowulf a “phantasmagoria” perhaps best adapted as “an animated cartoon…full of mutating graphics and minatory stereophonics” (Heaney xiii). Thankfully, the forthcoming version to be released in November of 2007 promises to fulfill such speculations. Given that the screenplay was penned by Neil Gaiman, an author known for his penchant for mythic themes and surreal settings, combined with the fully computer generated graphics which serve as the film’s medium, there seems to be hope that a film version of Beowulf which fulfills the criteria set out in this paper will finally be accomplished.

The problem for the films discussed in this paper lies in the lack of the realization that Beowulf is a phantasmagoria—it is a mythic piece, not an historical one. Even for its own day it was anachronistic, a last vestige of pagan heroic legend colliding with current Christian beliefs and morals. Modern film adaptations of the stories look to modern psychological and political models to determine who the main characters are, while the original poem utilizes legend and the mythic heroic story “to say who one is and how one is that way” (Hill 39). The world Beowulf inhabits is not one of uncertain moralities or identities. It is “a society presented as firm and cohesive, and it is this society which gives the individual his or her significance in the world” (105).

While it remains true that in reality, Beowulf has many “detractors in the anti-heroic modern and postmodern age of criticism” (Lee 214), and that North American society finds the pure heroic ethic anachronistic, there is obviously an attraction to such heroes, as can be demonstrated by the box-office success of the recent rash of comic-book superhero films as well as The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. This is because ““…we need…hyperbolic terms” to describe heroes (Woods 49). A genteel Grendel is not monstrous enough to threaten the peace which a banal Beowulf can’t decide if he needs to protect. We want a hero whose nobility transcends reality to face monsters who are purely evil without ambiguity. David Quammen suggests that we need homicidal monsters like Grendel, who are repeated over and over again in films such as Predator and the Alien series, not only because “they enliven our fondest nightmares” or because “they thrill us horribly” but ultimately because “they challenge us to transcendent fits of courage” (431). As Keyes has recognized, Beowulf’s struggle “is the human struggle. His victory is our victory, and in his refusal to admit defeat and lay down his sword, no matter how bleak his prospects, is our hope” (Keyes 62).

Works Cited

Alexander, Michael. trans. Penguin Classics Beowulf . Harmondsworth Eng.: Penguin, 1973.

Beowulf and Grendel Dir. Sturla Gunnarsson. Arclight Films, Endgame Entertainment, Spice Factory, The Icelandic Film Corporation, Téléfilm Canada, 2005.

Bowles, Scott. “Scary, scary 2004. January 9, 2007.

Driver Martha W., Sid Ray, eds.The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy Jefferson: McFarland, 2004.

Ebert, Roger. “Troy” 2004. January 9, 2007.

Frank, Roberta. “Old English Poetry” The Columbia History of British Poetry. Carl Woodring and James Shapiro, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, (1994) 1-21.

Gaiman, Neil. “An astonishingly professional post for once with barely any bats in it.” 2005. January 8, 2007.

Grindley, Carl James. “The Hagiography of Steel: The Hero’s Weapon and Its Place in Pop Culture” Driver, 151-165.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Hill, John. The Anglo-Saxon Warrior Ethic: Reconstructing Lordship in Early English Literature. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

Hill, John. The Cultural World in Beowulf Anthropological Horizons. 6. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995. 2006. Internet Movie Database. January 8, 2007. <>

Keyes, Flo. The Literature of Hope in the Middle Ages and Today: Connections in Medieval Romance, Modern Fantasy, and Science Fiction. Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc., 2006.

Lee, Alvin A. Gold-Hall and Earth-Dragon : 'Beowulf' as Metaphor. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

O’Keefe, Katherine O’Brian. “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 23. (1981), 484-94.

Quammen, David. Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003.

Sandner, David. “Tracking Grendel: The Uncanny in BeowulfExtrapolation. 40. (1999): 162-76.

Staver, Ruth Johnston. A Companion to Beowulf. Westwood: Greenwood Press, 2005.

The 13th Warrior. Dir. John McTiernan. Touchstone Pictures, 1999.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. London: Humphrey Milford Amen House, 1936.

Woods, William F. “Authenticating Realism in Medieval Film” Driver, 38-51.

[1] In conversation with colleagues concerning this paper, they are often surprised to learn that this film has any connection to Beowulf whatsoever.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Gotthammer would make a great fantasy metal name

Up until a few weeks ago I didn't even know there was such a thing as "Fantasy Metal", or "Folk Metal" (which will be quite the Oxymoron for Tim at TaleSpin). I like checking out new music when I buy songs on I-tunes--when you go to purchase a song, the band's profile comes up and the I-tunes store happily makes suggestions based on other people's purchases. Sort of a "If you like that, then you'll like this" ala Amazon's site. I was downloading Lacuna Coil's Stars and their cover of Depeche Mode's Enjoy the Silence. This lead me to a band called Within Temptation. They're plain old Gothic metal (although there's nothing really plain or old about it) with a female lead singer. Which is, I've learned, how I like my Gothic metal and all its subgenres. I've never enjoyed hearing Cookie Monster talk with a Scandinavian accent over my metal, and that's how a lot of Gothic Metal's male vocalists do their work, borrowing a page from Death Metal.

Back to Within Temptation. Since I didn't really like more than one or two of the songs available by them on I-tunes, I went to their MySpace page to listen to some of their newer material, and I am seriously into their new material. Back on I-Tunes, Within Temptation lead me to Leaves' Eyes, whose CD covers look more like they belong in the same section as Enya than Cradle of Filth, though that isn't without good reason.

Leaves' Eyes is my favorite act of the genre, given what I've heard of them so far - a combination of I-tunes and E-music downloads and MySpace previews. Leaves' Eyes, simply put, is a combination of two of my favorite styles of music. Really heavy metal with an epic, Wagnerian flavor, fronted vocally by females who sound more like Loreena McKennitt than Lee Aaron. Take Leaves' Eyes song Tale of the Sea Maiden, which sounds like Kate Bush from an alternate history where she was discovered by John Petrucci of Dream Theater instead of David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.

By this time, I'd waded through a lot of Gothic metal bands, and noticed that "Napalm Records" is the place where almost all of them hang their hat. So I wandered over to Napalm's official site, and was fortunate enough to get there at the end of January, before they switched their "featured band of the month". January of 2007's featured band was Battlelore, who have been my introduction to "fantasy metal". This is the sort of metal that the Vampire Goddess would produce if she was a musician instead of a music afficianado. Battlelore has three vocalists - clean female (an elven maiden), clean male (an elven warrior) and one Cookie Monster, who in this case is an orc I believe. Or maybe a Nazgul. I don't know. All their lyrics are straight out of Tolkien though (And some people thought I was being cheezy singing "You shall not pass" in 7DF's Skeleton Army). Song titles range from Sons of Riddermark to the free download I got of Hall of Heroes (which is a kick ass track). I can't say I like the canon of their work...too much Orc, not enough Elven maiden in the vocals, but I like the idea, and I'm eager to see what their new release, Evernight will be like when it comes out in March.

So having listened to this stuff for a month straight, I couldn't help but think...if 7DF was to shut down, would I do fantasy/folk-metal? I love mythology and I'm Norwegian/German by ethnic background. If Dave Howard of 7DF were amenable, he'd be the shred-meister to play guitar for such a project. If I'm going to pipe dream, let's just do this right. As I've already stated, I need the Vampire Goddess involved, even if she's only writing lyrics and looking creepy...maybe she could do Elvish lyric moments (she speaks Sindarin!). I'd get Homie Bear to guest vocal in the Cookie Monster role - he listens to Slipknot and Korn, and did gang vocals on the aforementioned Skeleton Army so I assume he can do this. And Dave's girlfriend is a great there's my female vocalist, with my wife Jenica providing powerful harmonies. Of course, my brother in law Evolving Blu will drum, but only after he magically learns double kick. The group still needs a keyboardist who gets big classical music, and my first pick for this would be old friend Philip Paschke, who would make an excellent elf given the bone structure of his face.

And I already have my kick ass Viking-inspired name which evokes thoughts of cold dark northern lands...Gotthammer. Man, it's too cool. I'd probably even get to wear a sword on stage. But I'm not growing the hair out again. I'll just get a wig...and a guitar that looks like a battle-axe.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

There's an unstated snobbery in academic literary studies. No one ever comes right out and says it, but pop culture is low art. And low art ain't...sorry, isn' not literature. Literature is something higher, purer, of higher quality. It's the difference between poetry and that damn radio jingle you can't get out of your head.

But what do you do when the artist behind low art creates high art? Then what do you do? I like how Stephen King responded to being awarded an honorary doctorate and upbraided the scholars who gave it to them, because they waited until he was a ridiculously best selling author to examine his works (and others like his) in their studies. Guillermo Del Toro might have to do the same at the Academy Awards this year.

His grown up fairy tale, "Pan's Labyrinth" is a beautiful work of art that owes much to the work Del Toro has done previously (Blade II and Hellboy) but promises new and wonderful things in the future of this writer/director/producer.

There are already more laudatory statements about this film on the Internet, so I won't bother adding too many...besides, I have one of those pesky academic topics to study.

Earlier this year I posted a series of posts on classifying fairy tale film. If I had to write the paper again, I might have used Pan's Labyrinth instead of Legend as a case study. In that paper, I stated that there are five classificatory elements necessary to apply the label 'fairy tale film'. The first is gender and sexuality, which this film touches on in less overt ways than are traditionally ascribed to fairy tales - the shadow male is certainly explored in the character of Capitán Vidal, whose monstrosity exceeds any big bad wolf. His need for a son to carry on, his brokeness over an absent father and a life lived by the sword in pursuit of dying by it (the only honorable death according to Vidal) all explore the shadow masculine. Issues of what it meant to be a woman in Spain in the early 20th century are latent throughout the film, and the dangers of pregnancy also suffuse the film with a sexuality lying beneath the surface. Protagonist Ofelia asks her mother why she had to get married, and her mother replies that she will understand some day.

The second distinctive was good vs. evil; this film carries the realities of war but maintains some black and white distinctives - the Facists are evil, and the rebels are good. This is never ambiguous. The movie is even able to deal with Kenneth Kidd's call for children's books (or movies) which “actually reckon with the horrific world violence to which our nation handily contributes, and which challenge the masterplot of childhood innocence that has transformed our very understanding of citizenship”. While "Pan's Labyrinth" is no children's film, it is certainly a fairy tale that reckons with real world violence. Ofelia's final solution to violence in her world is one which critics of the myth of redemptive violence will appreciate. And the rebels rejection of passing along Vidal's values of dying as a soldier in battle being the highest honor further underscore this. While the film plays towards moral ambiguity throughout, one of the final scenes is replete with symbolism which does not so much negate as clarify the ambiguity, casting literal "light" on the greys and shadows that have acted as the backdrop throughout.

Interestingly, I concluded in my study that "There can be no anticipation of a better world if a darker world is not imagined, and in that imagining, defeated." There has been much said about the harsh violence and dark ambience of "Pan's Labyrinth", but the beauty of the film would have been diminished without the depths it sinks in showing horror as well. Del Toro certainly understands the concept of the sublime to be sure - the film both attracts and repels.

The third distinction states that the meritorious individual will win out in the end, no matter the obstacles. Without spoiling anything, I'll let everyone know that they do live happily ever after. And this is all due to Ofelia's refusal to back down from her principles and her commitment to her mother and unborn sibling.

The fourth element is all manner of weird phenomena. If you've seen the trailer, you know the film succeeds here in spades. And this isn't the pseudo magic of "The Prestige" where we are uncertain as to what sort of magic has been worked. This is fairy tale magic without apology or explanation. The film begins in the Perilous Realm and then moves to our 'real' world - but the ontologies blur throughout. Doorways to the realm of Faerie abound in Ofelia's world, and they need no logic save that of fairy tales, where chalk provides a way to make a door when none is available.

And finally, transformation must occur. This is, in my esteem, the essential element. Without it, there is no true fairy tale, only a phantasmagoria. Ofelia's transformations are multiple; I will do my best to not create a spoiler by saying that she moves from being the innocent, to the orphan, to caregiver...with one last transformation which I will leave unstated. You can make your own conclusions once you've seen the film.

And while you might have had to wade through a lot of blah blah to hear me say it, I do recommend it...HIGHLY. This film, as it was released in 2006, has my number one spot for that year. I've included an adjusted list below.

Gotthammer's Top 10 of 2006...
1. Pan's Labyrinth
2. V for Vendetta
3. Casino Royale
4. Miami Vice
5. The Prestige
6. Silent Hill
7. Superman Returns
8. Underworld: Evolution
9. Cars
10. Pirates of the Caribbean 2

But you know me...I have a few items from 2006 to still see (The Illusionist) and some to still review (Slither), so this list may yet change again...

Kittens making Candles

I know that, as a role model, a minister, and maybe as an educated academic I shouldn't find the following funny, but I do. I really, really do. So I'll give a warning - if you are easily offended, don't click here. If you're not, and are interested in a really funny, at times juvenile review of the soon to be released film 300...then click here.

And for everyone...regular Gotthammer posts will occur on Saturdays. Goofy crap like this whenever the fancy strikes me.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Defense of Alternate History

Nearly every person who reaches adulthood will have likely engaged in the self-reflexive activity of asking the question, “What if?” The question arises from a polemic of nightmare and fantasy (Rosenfeld 11) of regret or nostalgia, for a past more terrible or wonderful than the present. The literary genre of alternate history plays with the same question on a larger scale, asking the “what if?” question to major events in history, and extrapolating possible alternate historical outcomes. The practice of writing alternate history is not a new one, dating back to antiquity with Greek historian Herodotus’ speculation concerning the “possible consequences of the Persians defeating the Greeks at Marathon in the year 490 B.C.E., while the Roman historian Livy wondered how the Roman empire would have fared against the armies of Alexander the Great” (5). Despite this antiquated tradition, it is a genre which has received little attention from academic scholarship (12). Alternate history, even in its more respectable form of historical counterfactual, has been dismissed as “an idle parlor game” (E.H. Carr, in Hellkson, Alternate History 16) and has been “attacked by historians because [it is] untrue” (16). The genre is not without its defenders, although its advocacy is supported by the disciplines of new historicism, social psychology and literary theory rather than traditional historicism. Lubomir Dolezel states that the alternate history is a “useful cognitive strategy” given that “the acquisition of knowledge about the past…is such a complicated task that no available avenue should be left unexplored. If the consideration of counterfactual, possible courses of history can enhance our understanding of actual history, we have no right to ignore this strategy” (800).

Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, is how a ‘useful cognitive strategy’ can result in an ‘enhanced understanding’ of the actual discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Intially, the “what if”? question takes the form of speculating what would have happened had Europe not discovered and colonized America, but becomes more complex as the story unfolds. In this paper, Card’s Pastwatch will serve the dual role of case study as well as providing an ongoing dialogue with the genre’s major features. In honor of alternate history’s connection to possible world theory, the “real” statements of actual academics and traditional history of Columbus’ voyages will be woven along with the fictional conversation of Card’s characters and the “alternate history” of Pastwatch.

Despite the precedent of a general lack of academic interest, alternate history has garnered a good deal of attention recently as a popular phenomenon. Gavriel Rosenfeld cites the decentralization of political ideology in the West, the emergence of postmodernism, recent scientific trends such as chaos theory and evolutionary biology, the advent of cyberspace and virtual reality, the “speculative sensibility” of pop culture (where narratives do not simply mirror reality, but “explore alternatives to it”) and the impact of the entertainment revolution on the popular presentation of history as contributing factors to this popularity (8-10). Rosenfeld’s contributing factors’ share a relativistic outlook which threatens the traditional historic academic enterprise. While empirical thought relegated alternate history to “the field of imaginative literature” (5), postmodern epistemologies can threaten to make all history alternate, seeing traditional historical narratives as “a form of fiction or, at the very least, a narrative which has neither more nor less a claim to authoritative status than any other competing narrative.” (Wain 360). As Ryan observes, ““Since there are no limits to the human imagination…one may then be tempted to conclude that there is no such thing as an impossible world” (31). Likewise, one might be tempted to say that since “historical representation is dependent in practice on the representability of events, and not on their reality as such” (3) then all histories could be considered alternate histories. As Mary Gentle observes, we do not recover the past, but represent it using “a collection of fallible memories, inconvenient documents, disconcerting new facts, and solemn cultural bedtime stories” (Turtledove, Stirling, Gentle and Rigney 233). Considering the likely potential for a “confused and fuzzy” discussion of the limits of fictional histories, it is the task of the academic to “demarcate the limits—and limitations—of historical representation” (Ryan 6), or in our case of alternate historical representation.

Karen Hellkson’s article, “Toward a Taxonomy of the Alternate History Genre” proves very helpful in this regard. In it she provides ““alternative histories, alternate universes, allohistories…uchronias” and “parahistory” (249) as a list of the synonyms for alternate history, but rejects alternative histories, since “the term ‘alternative history’ has another meaning among historians: histories that approach their subject from a nonstandard position” (249). To this list we can add Marie-Laure Ryan’s “hypotheticals” or “counterfactuals” (19) and Dolozel’s “counterfactual history” (800). I will use the term alternate history simply given its common usage to identify the genre in the popular fiction market. But what identifies a work as an alternate history as opposed to a counterfactual or hypothetical?

Ryan states that if we assume that possible worlds (of which alternate history is a sub-category) are “constructs of the mind, we can classify them according to the mental processes to which they owe their existence” (19). The mental process which predicates alternate history then would be the “hypothetical”, a type of possible world resulting from the “what if?” question. While this helps to discern what makes a possible world an alternate history, it leaves the defining features which separate an alternate history from an alternative history too vague. The “hypothetical” classification could catalog Josephine Tey’s intertextual narrative of Richard III in The Daughter of Time as alternate history.

Likewise, someone might wish to include Robert Howard’s Conan series as alternate history, given that it takes place in a prehistoric Europe, or the entire Star Trek canon given that the ‘alternate’ future of earth hinges on the “moment of the break” where the warp drive is developed. In those cases though, the secondary world of the narrative is “made familiar through the author’s use of historical cultures from Earth to lend a degree of reality for the reader, a sense of understanding, and a sense of place” (Stypczynski 453). Alternate histories do not employ history merely as a backdrop to narrative events, nor to create a heightened sense of verisimilitude in a pure work of fantasy, but rather the narratives of alternate history “revolve around the basic premise that some event in the past did not occur as we know it did, and thus the present has changed” (Hellekson, Taxonomy 248, italics mine). Dolozel states that ““An ineradicable relationship exists between the historical Napoleon and all fictional Napoleons, between the actual London and all the fictional settings called London” (788). This is the problem in considering certain Star Trek episodes alternate histories, since the event that catalyzes space travel happens in the earth’s speculated future, not its past. It could even be said, as is the case with Pastwatch, that the present time which has been changed need not be a mirror of the author’s present time. The story may take place in the far future, so long as the focus of the story is linked to a past that is different from primary reality.

Based upon this link to the past, Hellekson provides a narrower taxonomical scope for the classification of alternate history. She classifies alternate histories “according to the nature of the historical inquiry, not according to the nature of the story told” (250), and states that alternate history can be systematically categorized within four models of history inquiry: the eschatological, which is “concerned with final events or an ultimate destiny” (Alternate History 97), its opposite the genetic or cause and effect, entropic, wherein the alternate history is never given “permanence”, and the teleological, which “focuses on design or purpose” (Taxonomy, 250). While any of these models may be the focus of an alternate history, “the genetic model lies at the heart of every alternate history because the alternate history relies on cause and effect” (251). For that reason, this paper will focus upon the genetic model, both because it is the most prevalent form of alternate history, and also because it is the main approach taken in the case study of Pastwatch.

Hellekson’s classification system is based upon the “moment of the break” or divergence which causes the alternate history, answering questions such as “When do the great figures of history make the decisions that set them on the path of greatness?” (Card 58). She argues that counterfactuals are practically useful to the study of history because they “foreground the notion of cause and effect that is so important to historians when they construct a narrative” (Alternate History 16). It is primarily the “moment of the break” or “point of divergence…some variable in the historical record [which] would have changed the overall course of historical events” (Rosenfeld 4) which stands as the “one property” by which the fictional universe of alternate history differs from “our own system of reality” (Ryan 33) and therefore from other historical and speculative fiction.

For example, an alternate history does not postulate that the historians “might have got it wrong”, as is the case in The Daughter of Time. Alternate histories create a secondary ontology wherein a single occurrence changes the entire course of that secondary world’s history. To say that Richard III did not murder his cousins is simply an alternative perspective on a set of accepted historical facts. A narrative wherein Richard rescues those self-same victims from the Tower of London and achieves victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field would be an example of alternate history. It should also be noted that the moment of the break, while it may be benign or mundane, generally affects a major historical event, since “exceptional events are more salient, and are thereby more available and more likely to be mentally mutated” (Roese & Olson 61). For a work to be classified as an alternate history, it must contain a clearly established moment of break which transforms a readily recognizable historical event, thereby setting off a chain of cause and effect which results in a different version of present reality.

This idea of cause and effect is expressed in Pastwatch through the character of Tagiri, an African woman whose work utilizes a technology enabling people to observe the past. In Pastwatch, the protagonists are all historians living in a distant future following “a century of war and plague, of drought and flood and famine” (2) in which a technology is achieved whereby people are able to see into the past. At first, the technology allows only for the viewing of “great sweeping changes” (2) but with refinement, allows for closer observation of individual historical figures. The historians involved in this endeavor are referred to as Pastwatch. Tagiri, unlike other historians sees the world “not as a potential future awaiting her manipulation” but as “an irrevocable set of results, and all that could be found was the irrevocable causes that led to the present moment” (20). This idea of time as a linear continuum, or as “time’s arrow…is the metaphor implied in most historical writings” (Hellekson, Alternate History 36), as in the case of Metahistory, where Hayden White describes history as a narrative “sequence of events” which raises speculative questions similar to the “what if?” of the alternate history (6-7).

Hellekson suggests that the “moment of the break” as the defining feature of alternate history can be expressed in three categories. The first, called nexus stories, involve time travel, occur at the moment of the break, and focus on “a crucial point in history, such as a battle or assassination” (250-1). Initially, Pastwatch could be classified as an example of a nexus story. Early on the reader is informed of the narrative’s outcome: “Though Tagiri did not put her own body back in time, it is still true to say that she was the one who stranded Christopher Columbus on the island of Hispaniola and changed the face of history forever…she found a way to reach back and sabotage the European conquest of America” (15). The protagonists are all historians living in a distant future following “a century of war and plague, of drought and flood and famine” (2) in which a technology is achieved whereby people are able to see into the past. At first, the technology allows only for the viewing of “great sweeping changes” (2) but with refinement, allows for closer observation of individual historical figures. Ultimately, Pastwatch develops the technology to physically send humans into the past and thereby not only effect change, but direct it as well.

However, the novel takes a twist and thereby becomes an example of Hellekson’s second category, the true alternate history, which takes place “years after a change in the nexus event, resulting in a radically changed world” (253). A domino series of causes and effects produce narratives set in “worlds dramatically discontinuous with reality” (254). The discontinuity with reality could occur in a world grounded in primary physics, as is the case in Pastwatch. The novel’s reality is a future version of our own, not a parallel universe, although there is a narrative twist to this. The “actual” history of Columbus’ discovery of the New World in 1492 is in fact an alternate history, the result of another Pastwatch’s intervention. While the physical reality is identical to the readers’, it remains that the characters have been living in an altered reality many years beyond the nexus point, and as such classifies Pastwatch as both nexus story and true alternate history. In certain cases the discontinuity can be more severe, including “different physical laws” (Hellekson, Taxonomy 250), as is the case in Philip José Farmer’s alternate history of Columbus, “Sail On! Sail On!” which ends with the Santa Maria and her sister ships sailing off the edge of a flat earth.

Finally, Hellekson identifies the parallel worlds story, based in quantum physics, “implies that there was no break—that all events that could have occurred have occurred”(Taxonomy 251-252) but “simultaneously” on timeline(s) parallel to primary history (254). Pastwatch is definitely not a parallel worlds story, as is evidenced by how the present is affected by so radically changing the past; that line of causality simply ceases to exist in a blink of an eye. When evidence is discovered of the Pastwatch project’s intervention, the question is asked: “Had there once been a different history?” to which the answer is “No, two different histories, both of them obliterated by interventions in the past” (397). The obliterated history does not somehow exist on a parallel stream of time, underscoring one of the book’s more poignant themes. In the conversation concerning the choice which will result in this negation of hundreds of years of history, the conclusion about the outcome of the decision is decidedly bleak:

“…anything in their history that the introduction of that machine in our history caused not to happen is utterly and irrevocably lost. We can’t go back into our past and view it because it didn’t happen.”

“But it did happen, because their machine exists.”

No, they said again. Causality can be recursive, but time cannot. Anything that the introduction of their machine caused not to happen, did not in fact happen in time. There is no moment in time in which those events exist.” (216)

The message of Pastwatch is clear in its assessment of the seriousness of such historical counterfactual contemplation. What individuals do, the actions historically taken, contain depth of meaning, a concept of the alternate history which will be explored in depth shortly..

Like the self-reflexive exercise an individual might engage in, the goals and benefits of alternate history are as rich and complex as the primary histories they are based upon, or put very simply, “Alternate history has many uses” (Stirling 149). There are five broad uses I have identified. The first to be examined is that alternate history allows for a virtual redeeming of historical acts deemed terrible or disastrous. M. Elizabeth Ginway argues that the alternate history utilized in Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro and Carla Christina Pereira’s works serves to “redress the omissions of the official history of Brazil, specifically its lack of reference to women and racial minorities” (291). In Pastwatch, issues of gender and race are dealt with throughout the narrative, seen most clearly in Columbus’ inner struggle in response to one of the time-travellers’ challenge to him:

“I will know when you love Christ more than gold,” said Diko. She pointed to the villagers. “It will be when you look at these and see, not slaves, not servants, not strangers, not enemies, but brothers and sisters, your equals in the eyes of God” (338).

Las Casas speculated upon what the outcome might have been had the indigenous peoples been allowed to convert to Christianity (11), and repeatedly denounces the Spanish colonists as false Christians. In Pastwatch, the actual injustices observed by Las Casas find hypothetical solutions. The transformation of the Columbus of history, a conquering Spaniard to the Columbus of this alternate history, a benevolent proselytizer who asks himself “who were the Christians…the baptized Spaniards, or the unbaptized Indians?” (356) is the redemption spoken of in the book’s title.

Secondly, alternate history forms a unique discourse on the academic study of actual history. Stypczynski sees value in alternate history as “a form of comparison and contrasting through which a fuller understanding of history can be reached” (463). This goes beyond the obvious possibility that a reader of an alternate history may be inspired to do research into the actual history the counterfactual is based upon. The alternate history collection Worlds That Weren’t features short essays following each story detailing actual historical details, while Card provides an annotated bibliography of his sources at the end of Pastwatch. However, the alternate history can also achieve this end intertextually. From the simple statement that “History is not prelude” (15) which evokes Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of Time’s Arrow to the observation which supports his idea of Time’s Cycle (10-16), which supposes history as “a chaotic system” wherein “details…shift endlessly, but the overall shape remains constant” (40), Pastwatch refers to the challenges of traditional historical discourse repeatedly. Even the critique of the alternate history genre by traditional historicism is addressed in an argument between a superior Pastwatch officer and an idealistic subordinate, who is told that “Pastwatch watches the past…we don’t speculate on what might have been…there’s no way to test it, and it would have no value even if you got it right” (126). In agreement with Hellekson, for whom the genre is “a critique of the metaphors we use to discuss history” (Taxonomy 255), the subordinate replies to the accusation that he has not “caught the vision of what Passwatch is all about” with a very new historicist response, ““I haven’t…I want to change the vision.” (151).

Thirdly, as S.M. Stirling notes in the essay, “Why Then, There” alternate histories have the ability to “revive literary worlds that time has rendered otherwise inaccessible to us” (149). Farmer’s short story would again be an example, perhaps being indicative of tales of voyagers and adventurers who were said to have sailed off the edge of a flat earth. It could be stated, as Stirling observes that such conclusions or speculations are “still available to us through historical fiction” but also notes that this approach is “is sadly limiting in some respects; the “end” of the larger story is fixed and we know how it comes out” (151). By contrast, alternate history provides insight to a mindset where “horizons are infinite and nothing is fixed in stone…In other words, a world larger and better suited to the classic adventure story than ours” (151). Stirling’s hope for a return to “the gorgeous, multicolored, infinite-possibility world that opened up with the great voyages of discovery of the sixteenth century” (150) is achieved in Pastwatch once the trio of time travelers have arrived in the past. At this point the narrative shifts from science fiction to a modern form of the travel-adventure story of the sort popularized in the colonial era, albeit one with modern North American values. The three characters all experience Robinson Crusoe-like encounters, but none of the Taino are given the name Friday, nor set to be servants.

Fourthly, alternate histories can amplify the causal inferences of historical events (Roese & Olson 36). Dolozel stresses that “the precariousness of certain historical situations comes to the fore only if counterfactual outcomes are considered” (801), given shape in a discussion in Pastwatch where Tagiri’s focus on slavery as the worst possible evil is challenged by a teammate who studied the progression of human sacrifice to slavery in the ancient world (92). Later on, the possibility of a united Meso-American nation, possessing the technology of iron and advanced seafaring ship construction is explored, who might have eventually crossed the Atlantic to conquer Europe—but instead of enslaving it as the Spaniards did, using captives for human sacrifice (167). The question is not given a simple answer, but maintains and even in some ways strengthens the moral and ethical complexity, given that the reader is forced to some degree to ponder the same issues the fictional characters do.

Rosenfeld produces a fifth possibility for alternate history to act as commentary upon the contemporary reality (11). When linked to Hellekson’s observation that “alternate history as a genre speculates about such topics as the nature of time and linearity…and the role of individuals in the history-making process” (Taxonomy 254), this idea demonstrates that despite its sweeping historical scope and global or national concerns, alternate history is ultimately also about the individual people involved. In Pastwatch, Tagiri’s quest to save the Tainos from extermination and slavery is transformed from a broad, sweeping, generalized speculation to considerations more personal and self-reflexive:

“What if some stranger from a faraway place came and stole my son from me and made a slave of him, and I never saw him again? What if a conquering army from a place unheard of came and murdered my husband and raped my daughter? And what if, in some other place, happy people watched us as it happened, and did nothing to help us, for fear it might endanger their own happiness? What would I think of them? What kind of people would they be?” (51)

This fifth use for alternate history is also the one which the previous four functions serve to support. In and of themselves, they are arguably merely mental gymnastics. They are, perhaps examples of Dolozel’s “useful cognitive strategy” (800), but each begs the question for whom, and to what purpose? It must be readily admitted that “all counterfactuals are necessarily false, insofar as their antecedents refer to some state of affairs that was not so” (Roese & Olson 3). No one has suggested that the consequent of an alternate history’s mutated reality is that it has actually become so in our physical world. No one would suggest that speculating about Columbus being shipwrecked among the Taino, marrying a black woman from a fictional future and leading a Meso-American armada back to Spain near the end of his life will make it so. We cannot actually travel back in time. Further, while postmodern approaches to history have claimed that history is “a form of fiction or, at the very least, a narrative which has neither more nor less a claim to authoritative status than any other competing narrative” (Wain 360), the idea that alternate history has as much claim to empirical truth or even historical truth insofar as that is understood by traditional historicists seems misguided, and misses the opportunity to explore one of the more prolific benefits of alternate history.

If the consequence sought by alternate history is not to make a truth statement about the past but rather the present, then the assessment of what makes the statement true or false changes. The polemic of alternate and real history becomes secondary. Alternate histories should not be evaluated according to the rules of logic or traditional historicism, but rather should be considered in a social-psychological framework (Roese & Olson 4). As Rosenfeld observes, “Biases, fears, wishes, the desire to avoid guilt, the quest for vindication” are all driving forces in the creation of speculative accounts of history (12). He suggests that “the genre’s appeal may ultimately be rooted in deeper human urges”, exploring the past “less for its own sake than to utilize it instrumentally to comment upon the state of the contemporary world” (11).

Therefore, the fifth purpose of alternate history is the social-psychological benefit of underscoring the importance of the individual in history, wherein the objective truth value of counterfactual propositions are largely ignored, “in favor of examining their perceived plausibility and meaningfulness to the individual” (Roese & Olson 6).. As Hellekson puts it:

“readers of the alternate history come away with their own lives sharpened and enriched by the realization that history is something possible for an individual to shape. The psychological effects of reading the alternate history are important; it could have happened otherwise, save for a personal choice. The personal thus becomes the universal, and individuals find themselves making a difference in the context of historical movement” (Taxonomy 255).

Once again, Pastwatch serves us well as a case study. When Tagiri is told, “You can’t change the past, but you’ve changed the present, and these people are no longer forgotten” she responds “It isn’t enough” (35). This challenge is issued to the modern reader; in light of reading not only the alternate history of Pastwatch but also Las Casas’ A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies with its grotesque catalogue of the horrors inflicted by the Spaniards upon the indigenous peoples of the New World. The question which Tagiri asks is, does it suffice to know the mistakes of the past in all their trivial detail, or should such information be brought to bear upon current situations wherein similar atrocities are being committed? Should the emotional reaction to the dehumanization of Latin American peoples color the way in which one views the existing events in the Sudan?

Another question Pastwatch asks of the present reader, with Card relating to Las Casas once again, concerns the relationship between church and state; what would the effect of the Christian religion have been upon the lifestyle of the Taino people had issues of power, economy and state not been involved? If the faith had spread but not the colonial culture, what might the religion of the Taino have evolved into? These questions are especially pertinent to modern readers living in the Western world at a time when religious rhetoric is being used within the political arena to justify aggressive foreign policies. Card makes his point in an understated but compelling fashion:

When Segovia comments to Cristoforo that the Spanish are “forgetting to be Spanish”, Cristoforo replies, “…the Taino are also forgetting to be Taino…they’re becoming something new, something that has hardly been seen in the world before.”

“And what is that?” demanded Segovia.

“I’m not sure,” said Cristoforo. “Christians, I think.” (378)

The alternate history’s ability to make commentary on current situations and to challenge readers to see themselves as active agents in the current construction of history is arguably its greatest strength. In the case of actual history, such as Las Casas’ account, the reader might deem the atrocities committed against the Latin American peoples as something which has happened in the past, which we can do nothing about. There is a sense of escapism where one can excuse themselves of blame or responsibility. Alternate history reminds the reader that a different outcome might have been arrived at if a different decision were made at different points in history.

When this fifth function is brought to bear upon the first four functions of the alternate history, they become tools toward clarifying the fifth. The first, to redress past wrongs can become an opportunity to identify and engage current actions of injustice, such as ongoing racism or gender inequality. The second could call the traditional historicist to account for more than cataloguing trivia, but to create social commentary based upon the knowledge of the past. The third, to regain lost literary perspectives could serve to help readers to normalize elements of the past which may have become excessively valorized or vilified; being able to understand that the actions of a person being a product of their time is helpful in the current context of critically reading propaganda or advertising that marginalizes certain groups. And fourth, if alternate history can help to bring gravity to the outcome of historical decisions, it can by association do the same for discerning possible outcomes for current ones.

So to summarize, alternate history is a genre of historical fiction and a sub-genre of science fiction which posits a point of divergence in the past which changes the outcome of what we would refer to as primary history. The types of alternate histories can be identified by their temporal relationship to this divergence. The divergence and its outcomes have a number of functions, the primary of which is social-psychological in function which acts as a means for modern readers to meditate upon primary history in a way which causes the reader to reflect upon their own place in the act of history making, and perhaps challenge them to act upon that knowledge in their contemporary world. While it might be stated that this advocates a return to the “dissemination of literary knowledge for the express purpose of enhancing the moral sensibilities of the nation’s readers” (Womack 594), the complex and sometimes ambiguous stance of alternate history resists such appropriation. While Card’s Pastwatch deals with Christian morality and posits a utopian outcome to the time traveler’s decisions, alternate history, as was stated at the outset, can deal in both nightmares and fantasies, and as such, allows readers to explore the complex chronicles of histories that might have been, never were, and yet may be.

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