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 (imdb.com). 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 nightusatoday.com 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” rogerebert.com. 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.” neilgaiman.com. 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.

Imdb.com 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.


  1. I must say I am rather more of a fan of your serealized writing. So, I will read and comment on this piece in sections.

    Reading your first section on Grendel I have to disagree. I suppose you could put me in the camp which laments "Alas Poor Grendel". I simply cannot accept that he is simply an evil monster. The Christian association with the Biblical character of Cain gives me pause to think. I am not going to claim that Grenedel is not a monster, he certainly is, but the text gives me a sense that he is not responsible for his monstrosity. I find that within Beowulf, Grendel is consigned to the curse of Cain prior to his becoming a monster.

    He is describes as being rejected from the "happy laughter loud in the hall"(88). Grendel is here clearly shown as an outsider. It is a very pitiful scene indeed that we find him in. And why is he there? Heredity! He is cursed for the sin of Cain to live a life outside of civilization. It is only natural that feelings of violence and hate would emerge in such a poor creature. To be rejected from the community, to be kept out of the "hearth troop" is a fate worse than death in both Christian theology and the Heroic Code. I see his acts of slaughter in Heirot as attempt to come close to the throne of God and the community that he has been cast away from.

    This is becoming a long comment which will become increasingly more unorganized if I continue. I am writing a paper on this topic which will essentially make the opposite argument about Grendel than yours does. I think that my thoughts could be summarized as please have some "sympathy for the devil" because they are often created by their surroundings. You liked V for Vendetta, I liken Grendel to V in a way. They are certainly monsters, but civilization needs to label heroes as terrorists and monsters in order to maintain the status-quo. You should understand this Mike, those who are excommunicated from the community are certainly not always wrong. They are just wanderers.

    A well written and convincing paper nonetheless, I will keep it in mind so that I can write against it in my paper.

  2. I'm not saying we can't look at Grendel in a revisionist light. My paper is concerned with film adaptations of the poem being true to the poem's original intention, insofar as we are able to reconstruct it. And in that, I don't think any of the warriors sitting around listening were giving each other hugs and weeping for poor old Grendel.

  3. Hey it probably got pretty emotional in those meadhalls. Mead, battle stories, remembering dead comrades, pointy hats, did I mention mead...even big burly warriors have sensitve sides.

    I know that this isn't the focus of your paper, but as to the "original intentions", I really do think that within the text there is an elegaic tone used in the description of Grendel. Perhaps it is not as prominent as I am imagining it, but the greatest fear of all Anglo-saxon warriors was to be in exile, to be cut off from the lord. I can see the original audience feeling a hidden empathy and compassion for Grendel because they could imagine what it would be like to be cast out of their lord's presence. They too would know the anguish and madness caused by being denied admittance to approach the lord's throne...or drink mead with him...

    I do not see my reading as revisionist, I see it rather less aligned with the Christologist approach. I am certainly arguing against a Christian morality; finding a place for Grendel, Cain, Judas and all the other rejects of the world. Like one big self help group for traditionally defined moral lepers. Mead for everyone!

  4. I don't see arguing for a place for the Cains, Judases, etc. as contrary to a Christian morality unless we're narrowly defining that concept as "Medieval Christianity" or "Colonial Christianity" or modern right wing American Christianity. And I know about the exile aspect. I just don't buy that Grendel's identity is primarily as outcast. He is, first and foremost, a monster - a troll. Beowulf and Grendel's struggle is a continuation of the eschatological mindset of Scandinavian culture, which has a huge influence on this work.

  5. http://www.stomptokyo.com/movies/g/grendelgrendelgrendel.html

    Here is a film review of Grendel Grendel Grendel, a stunning cartoon adaptation of John Gardner's Grendel. This has all I have to say on all things related to Beowulf.

  6. http://www.stomptokyo.com/movies/g/grendelgrendelgrendel.html

    This is it, I screwed the first one up.

  7. Ahh why won't think work...after the g/ it goes