Charles Dickens was so good at describing neurological disease in his characters that the symptoms were used word-for-word in medical text books of the day, says an Australian neurologist.
The 19th century novelist’s interpretations of diseases of the nervous system even predated formal medical classification, some by more than a century.
I sit in a house that’s both quiet and not quiet. It’s quiet in the sense that I don’t have Hugh Hewitt on, as is my custom this time of day (he’s interviewing Andrew Sullivan, and who needs that at suppertime? Or is it Andrew McCarthy?).
But the house is noisy because I’ve got a half-dozen guys crawling around my roof replacing the shingles, hammering away and occasionally dropping what sounds like sleeper sofas. The Day has come at last. In theory they’ll get the job done tonight, though it looks to me like a lot of work remains.
The previous owner was in love with green. The walls of Blithering Heights are a mottled green stucco, and the shingles were bright green. Up till now I’ve been able to end my directions, when telling people how to get here, with, “And my house is the green one, third from the corner.”
I am not in love with green. It’s my least favorite color, in fact. I chose a solid, conventional brown for my new shingles. I have no objection to standing out from other houses, but I don’t want to stand out in terms of greenness.
My impulse was to shingle the place in red, but I figured it would end up looking like a Christmas decoration.
Restraint is my watchword.
Restraint and “chocolate.”
Hence the brown shingles.
I think I’ve got one more post on subjectivity and stories in me. I’ll just open up the old brain-box and see if anything’s in there…
Ready as I ever am, in other words.
I was saying that stories are a powerful means of teaching, because they engage both reason and emotion, thus bringing the whole person into the project.
But this is a sword that cuts both ways (“The Amazing Crossover Cutlass! Only $49.95 in three easy payments, from K-Tel!”). You can use a story to nail truth down in a person’s heart. But you can nail a lie down just as easily.
I read some time back about a phenomenon in cinema called “Movie Logic.” The wonderful thing about movies is that people believe what they see. If you show a car leaping over a twenty-six foot gap in a bridge, you believe it because you just saw it happen, right before your eyes. You don’t think about the fact that one end of a car contains the engine and is therefore much heavier than the other end. For that reason, when a car goes over a gap like that in real life, it tends to nose down (if the engine’s in front) pretty quick. Stunt arrangers load the rears of stunt cars with counterweights to permit them to make such jumps.
How many times in recent years have you seen somebody in a movie run out of an exploding building, ahead of a blast that just barely manages not to catch them?
Care to try that in real life?
It’s similar in stories, though not as vivid. But most of us trust writing more than movies, so I suspect literature may have more staying power in the long run.
How many kids have learned one of their first profound life lessons from Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book? Dr. Seuss explains it all. The Yooks eat their bread butter-side-up, and the Zooks eat it butter-side-down. And that’s all the difference between them. All this war stuff, it’s based on a misunderstanding. All our differences are trivial. If we’d just sit down and talk it over reasonably, why, we’d discover we all want precisely the same things.
Remember M*A*S*H*? The TV show especially. The North Koreans, when we were allowed to see one, were always scared, confused young men who only really wanted to go home. They weren’t interested in killing anybody. The only people who wanted to kill anybody were stupid Americans like Frank Burns and Col. Flag (apparently the rule that we all want the same things doesn’t apply to Americans).
It’s all a misunderstanding! We just haven’t talked enough! Can’t we understand that the North Koreans were always our friends? Even today, Kim Jong Il is just posturing with those nukes. What he really wants is for George Bush to put his arm around his shoulders and tell him how proud he is of him.
We all want the same things. We Americans want our children to grow up happy and healthy. So the Islamic jihadists have to want that too. If they instead strap bombs to their kids and send them out to blow themselves up in crowded markets, well… well, we must have driven them to it by not understanding them enough. And anyway, George Bush signed death warrants in Texas, so it’s all the same.
It must be, because Dr. Seuss told us so.
We need stories that touch our hearts, but we need stories that exercise our brains too. Stories informed with knowledge of the real world.
Remember the movie “Being There” with Peter Sellers? At the beginning Sellers, playing a retarded man who has spent his entire life watching TV in a rich man’s house, is turned out on the street, with nothing but a nice suit and his remote control.
When some young muggers confront him, he tries to use the remote to change the channel.
There’s a story we can learn from.
Let’s see. We were talking about fiction and the problem of subjectivity. It’s a problem for me anyway. The moment I hear somebody saying, “It’s all subjective,” I can feel the cholesterol clumping up in my arteries. I hate subjectivity with Schaefferian zeal. I remember an argument I had with my college roommate for hours one Sunday at lunch (we were eating with girls and could have spent the time more profitably). After going around and around forever, I finally figured out that my roommate had his own private definition of “subjective,” one which bore no resemblance to any recognized definition anybody else used.
He’d defined “subjective” subjectively.
So I’m reflexively resistant to all talk of the “S” word.
But that’s a wrong response. (Blame my subjective reaction.)
Look at it this way:
Imagine two colored vertical bars, like the design on the French flag. On one side you’ve got a red bar—all passionate and fiery and subjective. Emotional. Think of Barbra Streisand’s political philosophy.
On the other side you’ve got cool blue. Clinical. Reasoned and proportional. “Just the facts, ma’am.” Systematic.
Personally I’m a lot more comfortable with the blue side. What good did emotions ever do for me?
But like I said, that’s wrong. (My reason tells me so.)
What do you suppose you find in the middle, between the two bars? A wide white no-man’s-land (again like on the French flag)? An impassible barrier, where never the twain shall meet?
No, it’s not like that at all. What you have is a very wide band of purple, graduating from red to blue.
And that purple area is where you and I live. We live in reason and emotion, spirit and body.
Some days we’re closer to the red side. Other days we’re closer to the blue. Some people try to live all the way over on one side or the other (think Sherlock Holmes contrasted with Rosie O’Donnell).
But we all have to live in the purple area. So our communication—our really effective communication—has to be a blend of red and blue, passion and reason.
That’s why stories communicate so well. When God wanted to tell us about Himself, He didn’t dictate a book of Systematic Theology (as I would have advised Him if He’d asked me). He gave us a book full of stories, stories about people’s real lives and how He’s dealt with them.
That’s why a human being in a photograph provides the best overall kind of scale. A concrete post with words “SIX FEET” painted on it might work, but it wouldn’t work as well. Because the story of the waterfall is not just a story of measurements. It’s a story of experience too. The feeling of the spray on your face, the roaring of the water in your ears.
That’s why fiction speaks to people as science and philosophy (essential though they are) never can.
Man is not the measure of all things.
But man is the best measure of some things.
In my last post I included a photograph, and noted the fact that adding a staged, theatrical element to the scene actually resulted in a more realistic (and impressive) picture, one that gave a truer impression.
I burbled something fuzzy about the paradox of a fiction increasing realism. I wasn’t up to thinking about it much more at the time.
I’m not actually up to thinking much tonight either, but I’ve been pondering the matter off and on over the weekend and have come up with the following hypothesis.
What the tourist people did, when they added the fictional elf-girl to the scene, was a sort of visual counterpart to what I do when writing novels (especially since I write fantasy).
You had a prospect, a “view” which was most impressive in real life, but didn’t translate well to the photographic record. The problem with the photograph was that scale was lacking. You saw a picture of rocks and moving water, and you couldn’t tell if you were looking at a small mountain stream or a mighty waterfall.
So the tourist people added a human being. She gave it scale. Suddenly you take a picture and you can see how large the waterfall is in comparison to her. The falls comes alive (not to mention that the girl is nice to look at in her own right). You can almost hear the roar of the water now.
Fiction is like that. History (contemporary or older) provides data, data that can overwhelm and bore the consumer. There are a few talented historians who can bring the stories alive, but even their work doesn’t ring bells for many people. Because the historian (generally) follows strict rules. He can only use the documented evidence. He may not invent things. And there’s a lot he can’t know.
His narrative, therefore, often lacks human scale on the emotional level. We miss the drama of the story because the historian can’t tell us how it felt to the people involved—the things they feared, their hates and loves.
The novelist adds the personal element. He tries (with more or less success) to transport us into the skin of a historical character (real or imagined or composite). He tells us how things looked and sounded and smelled. He shows us (doesn’t just tell us) how the issues being contested affected the people involved. The flat photograph acquires proportion.
The subjective human element provides scale.
The irony of this is that subjective things generally make poor yardsticks.
I shall consider that problem tomorrow.
Unless I find I’ve thought myself into a corner and turn to drink instead.
My mind is sterile, tonight, clean as a boiled sheet. All I can think of to do is to post a picture and tell you about it.
This comes from my last trip to Norway. There’s a place called Flåm, on a beautiful fjord. A funicular railroad runs up to a mountain station from there. Some people take the train for practical purposes, but much of its business is tourists (like me, on two occasions).
This picture shows a place on the route where they stop the train so people can take photos of the waterfall. The first time I took the trip, with my dad, we got out and took pictures, but they were a little disappointing. In two dimensions, it just wasn’t as dramatic as it is in real life.
This last time the tourist people had jazzed it up. When a crowd comes out to gawk, a girl in folk costume comes out and stands on the rocks. She mimics singing while a loudspeaker plays a haunting folk song. At one point she disappears behind the rocks, and another girl dressed just the same pops out of a building nearer by, as if she had magically transported herself. Clearly she’s a huldre, an elf maiden, trying to lure us to our deaths in the fast water.
It’s hokey and corny, but you know what? It works. Not just for the drama, but because including the girl in your photo adds perspective to the whole thing and makes the waterfall look much more dramatic. In other words, the fake thing makes it more real.
I don’t know what the moral of this is. Perhaps it means it’s OK to go over the top now and then, as long as it works and nobody’s fooled.
I got this link from the New York C.S. Lewis Society’s newsletter. Sort of.
Apparently the BBC has reconfigured its website, and the precise link I got from the newsletter didn’t work. But, in my selfless zeal to provide the best resources to you, the valued reader, I worked my way through the maze and found the right place.
What you’ll get here is two sound files made from voice recordings of Lewis himself in his career as a BBC broadcaster. One is from 1944, part of the broadcast talk that became the book Beyond Personality, later a section of Mere Christianity. The other is his introduction to The Great Divorce from 1948.
I’ve often dreamed that original recordings of Lewis’ BBC broadcasts might be found. Apparently these bits are all that were actually saved. (Yes, I know about the Four Loves recordings, and I have them. But I’m told those aren’t his best work.)
But personally I don’t believe the recordings are lost. I believe the BBC is sitting on the original wax disks, terrified that the release of the full series would singlehandedly bring Britain back to God.
Thoughts thought while preparing to go to church for the meeting last night:
“Looks like rain. I’d better wear my trenchcoat.
“If I wear the trenchcoat, I’ll have to wear a tie.
“You cannot wear a trenchcoat without a tie. If you do, you look like a pervert hanging around a playground, not the International Man of Intrigue you bought the coat to resemble.”
Dave Lull sent me this link to a Reason article by Jonathan Rauch which explains Honor Cultures (one of my current obsessions) pretty clearly.
I don’t have much time tonight. I’ve got to go to church to participate in a long, boring, meeting. I know it’ll be long and boring because that’s the only kind we do.
I agreed a couple years back to serve on a constitutional revision committee. Since then we’ve held zero meetings. I came to look on the obligation the same way we Boomers think back on the atomic bomb scares of our childhoods, something we feared then but need not worry about now (oh, wait…)
But the call finally came.
I’m pondering whether to attend the meeting or just kill myself.
Being dead is an acceptable excuse for non-attendance, right?
I drove up to Fargo, North Dakota on Saturday, for a meeting of the Sverdrup Society (I edit their journal and newsletter). It’s about a four hour drive, with stops. Getting to Fargo from here involves passing through Fargo’s sister city, Moorhead, Minnesota. That reminded me of a story told by my brother Moloch (whose birthday it is today, by the way. Remind me to call him).
Moloch and his wife were visiting Concordia College in Moorhead, their mutual alma mater. They took a guided tour led by a young female student. As they passed by a small hill on campus, Moloch said, “There’s where the biology lab used to be. They tore it down and put in that hill.”
The student said, “No. That hill has always been here. The students talk about it. There’s an Indian legend about it and everything.”
Moloch and my sister-in-law assured her that the hill was modern and man-made, and they’d spent a fair amount of time in the old biology lab on the site.
Afterwards Moloch said to his wife, “You know what this means, don’t you?
“It means we’re older than the hills.”
I thought I’d link to a couple more Viking photos. Since I’m constitutionally incapable of balance in thinking about myself, I need to alternate my nihilist and pessimistic posts with posts of a more full-of-myself, “look at me!” nature.
This first picture is from the Viking Meet in Elk Horn, Iowa. The sinister gang I’m posing with is not my own Viking group, but the Skjaldborg guys from Omaha. And no, I did not tease the big guy about his pink tunic.
This one is from two weekends ago, in Dallas, Wisconsin. Here we see me demonstrating graphically to the others exactly how far my fame and fortune as an author take me in terms of… well, fame and fortune.
Credit to Eric and Shari Anderson for the pictures.
I have to say thanks to all the people who took the trouble to encourage me in yesterday’s Comments. My natural response is to wonder what I’ve done to deceive you all so egregiously. But I appreciate the sentiment.
Forgot to mention the big news in my life yesterday. My street is open again! Not the actual street I live on, but the street that runs past the park into my neighborhood and makes my house easy to get to. In the absence of that access, finding my place involves a rat’s maze of creeping through torn-up streets around a strip mall and a park.
What this means, aside from my own greater convenience, is that I’ve lost my last excuse not to advertise my spare room for rent.
I am not a wealthy or a highly paid man. I’ve already spent all the money I’ll probably ever see from my published books. I made the down payment on this house with the money I inherited from my dad and my aunt. I was still left with a mortgage that’s just a little more than I can reasonably carry, barring emergencies (and emergencies always happen, as any homeowner knows). I knew from the beginning that I had the options of a) selling another book or b) renting my spare room. And I haven’t sold a book.
I put up a poster at the seminary where I work, but those people know who I am, so small hope there. I delayed advertising more widely because of the torn-up street, figuring anybody who came to look at the place would probably never find it. But that’s fixed now.
I regard the prospect of sharing my personal living space with another hominid with all the enthusiasm of an Ivy League university president reviewing an application for professorship from Jimmy-Bob Hawkins, Arkansas Boy Evangelist. I can think of a whole list of likely drawbacks and very few advantages (except for the money). I plan to place the ad in the local Christian giveaway newspaper, in hopes that I can get someone reasonably congenial in lifestyle. Still, I expect that paper is read regularly by gay activists looking to find Christian landlords they can drive into evicting them, then sue for the benefit of society.
Still, the worst might not happen. Having someone around would probably add accountability to my life, and I can’t deny I could use that.
I hate it when that happens.
Yesterday’s post drew more attention than I expected, and I guess it would be in order to address the issue of My Single Blessedness in a post. I try to avoid this sort of thing (I know it doesn’t look like it, but you’d be amazed the things that never get uploaded) because I have a well-founded suspicion that the rest of the world doesn’t share my fascination with the precise configurations of my emotional viscera.
I’m not upset with yesterday’s comments. Shoot, for a passive-aggressive like me, that kind of attention is like mother’s milk. But I want to explain the reasons why I’ve essentially given up on finding a soulmate.
I’m open to correction. I’ll tell you how the world looks to me. You tell me where I’m wrong. I’m self-aware enough to know that having an emotional disorder means precisely seeing the world wrong.
My perception is that women want “bad boys.” Not bad men. Very few women really want a bad man. But they want a man with something of the bad boy in him. They want all the proper things too, of course. They want him to be supportive and nurturing, and they want him to be a good provider and a good father. But they also want to know that now and then Rhett Butler will come out in the open, kiss them hard while they pummel his chest with their little fists, sweep them into his arms and carry them up the staircase. They yearn a bit for the motorcycle gangster, for Billy the Kid. (See my review of Shotgun Alley the other day, and the descriptions of nice guy Weiss and bad boy Bishop.)
I’m not a bad boy, Heaven help me. When a woman encounters me or any of my (fortunately few) eunuch brothers, she immediately reads, in our eyes and in our body language, that we possess all the thrill potential of a virtual checkers game. She sees the word “BORING” inscribed on our brows. If she’s generous enough to grant us a date, she quickly regrets it as the hours drag and she smiles stiffly and mentally composes excuses for an early escape. She knows instinctively that if she married such a man, she’d have to initiate intimacy herself, because he’s too emotionally fragile to run the risk of a physical rejection.
All in all, she’d rather treat herself to a day at the spa. Or just adopt a cat.
I do not blame her for this.
And if there is, out there, some woman who’s actively looking for a man who’d be easy to dominate, I don’t think I want to meet that woman.
I feel kind of lousy tonight, and it’s not just because it snowed today.
I get to feeling under the weather once or twice a year. Usually a good night’s sleep has me feeling better again by the next morning. I’m rarely sick enough to take a day off work. Also I self-medicated with Chinese food tonight. I haven’t gone out to eat much for a while, due to budgetary constraints, but my body said to me, “You need Chinese food.” So after work I went to a buffet which isn’t very good, to be honest, but has the virtues of being near my home and employing an attractive hostess. When I don’t feel well, I do what my body tells me. If it doesn’t actually help, it’s at least a defensible excuse for self-indulgence.
The snow came down thick and fast this afternoon. It only did so for about fifteen minutes, and then the sky cleared again. But it was enough. Notice had been served. Our annual Siberian exile has begun.
The only man I ever knew who hated winter more than me was my dad. All his life, as he ran a Minnesota farm, he dreamed of moving to a warmer clime. Sometime in the late 1950s (I think) he began working for that dream by signing up with a Florida land development company that had a booth at the state fair. He paid ten dollars a month for a lot in the Sunshine State. People joked with him about swamp land. He smiled and joshed back, but it wasn’t really funny to him.
Through the years he paid off one lot, then another, then a third. Then he sold one lot and used the proceeds to build a house on another. The idea was that he’d rent the house out and use the money to make payments, until he was ready to retire down there.
And it came to pass, on a winter day in 1980 (I think) he paused while shoveling snow in the farmyard, tucked his frozen fingers under his armpits, and said to himself, “I own a house in Florida. Why the heck am I doing this?”
So he put his farm up for sale. This was at the peak of the agricultural real estate boom. I believe he got the highest price per acre that any farmer had ever gotten in our community (and it wasn’t that great a farm). It may have been the highest price anybody ever got, since the boom didn’t last much longer. Dad moved to Florida with a nice nest egg to finance his early retirement.
I don’t think he ever saw Minnesota in the winter again. If one of his sons had died up here during the winter, I think he’d have thought long and hard about whether to fly up for the funeral or just send a card.
Hard-boiled detective stories are one of my favorite genres. So it was good news for me when I learned that Andrew Klavan, my favorite contemporary author, had begun a detective series (I love series! It’s almost like having real friends!).
And I wasn’t disappointed. If Klavan’s Weiss and Bishop series isn’t moving Hard-boiled into fertile new territory, it’s at least discovering new treasures in the old fields.
You gotcher tough-guy protagonist. You gotcher smart-guy protagonist. You gotcher psycho killers and your dangerous dames. You gotcher dead bodies and threats and violence. You gotcher subtextual deconstruction of postmodern philosophy. What’s not to like?
The continuing main characters in the series are Scott Weiss and Jim Bishop. On first glance they kind of resemble Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, in a dim light. But they’re more complex than Wolfe and Goodwin (whom I also like), and they inhabit a grittier, more perilous world.
Scott Weiss is an ex-cop. He is tall and fat and lonely. His loneliness comes from his over-romantic view of women—he puts them on a pedestal, and they respond by wanting to be just friends. Although he’s smart, his success as a detective comes from an emotional-imaginative quirk. He’s an empath. He has the ability to get into people’s heads, understand their thinking patterns, and predict their actions. It’s good for business, but he can never be a happy man.
Jim Bishop is his alter ego. A burned-out Special Forces veteran, he nearly became a career criminal before Weiss pulled him out of the mud and gave him a chance. He’s physically strong and a dangerous fighter. He rides a Harley and flies planes and helicopters. An adrenaline-junkie, he uses women and throws them away and they adore him.
The two of them make a fascinating moral study. Weiss is a good man who does bad things (he drinks too much and uses prostitutes. He also allows Bishop to operate his own way, though it offends his ethics). Bishop is a bad man who does good things—sometimes. Often to his own amazement.
The stories are told by an anonymous narrator who presents himself as the author. We are apparently meant to believe that Klavan himself worked at the Weiss Agency as a young man, and that these stories are his reminiscences (oddly though, there is no indication that the stories took place in the past. All the technology seems completely up to date. It’s almost as if these are memoirs from the future).
I liked the first book, Dynamite Road, very much, but I liked Shotgun Alley even better. Weiss and Bishop are hired by a very wealthy man, an aspiring political candidate, to find his daughter, Honey. Honey is only seventeen years old, but has run away from home and gotten involved with an especially vicious motorcycle gang. Weiss turns Bishop loose on the case, knowing that Bishop will do a number of things that he (Weiss) doesn’t want to know about.
There’s also a subplot about a case that Weiss works himself, with the help of Our Narrator. It involves a doctrinaire feminist college professor who hires them to trace the identity of a man who’s been sending her obscene e-mails.
Shotgun Alley is a love story, when you lay it all out, only the love is pretty messy.
You need to be warned about sex, violence and bad language. This book has them all, in pretty strong doses. Klavan is a confessed Christian, but he does not—repeat, not—write CBA fiction. I have a stomach for this kind of stuff, especially in a good cause, but it may not work for you.
I for one eagerly await the appearance in paperback of the next installment, Damnation Street.
I find myself in an ambivalent position in regard to Christopher Columbus.
As a Viking nut, I have to be a Leif Eriksson supporter. Leif was here nearly 500 years before the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and we’ve got artifacts to prove it (unless you believe that the Viking stuff at L’Anse aux Meadows was planted by the world-wide Norwegian conspiracy, headed by the Sons of Norway. Wait! I said too much!).
By the way, here’s a picture from L’Anse aux Meadows, taken during my visit there in 2004. This is not the site itself, but a reconstruction of some of the original Norse buildings, erected just a few paces away. I was standing in the archaeological site when I took it:
But I feel I have to defend Columbus too, considering the number and nature of his current enemies. One book I recommend on the subject is Columbus and Cortez, Conquerors for Christ, by my friend John Eidsmoe. No doubt Eidsmoe takes positions that are open to dispute, but if you’re going to argue with a defense, you might as well argue with a strong one.
One thing Eidsmoe argues is that Columbus (contrary to current canards) did not make wholesale war on the native inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands in order to enslave them. What he did was take sides. He found two tribes in his original area of discovery—the peaceful Arawaks and the warlike, cannibalistic Caribs. He chose to defend the Arawaks from the Caribs, and felt himself morally justified in enslaving the Caribs, who were themselves enthusiastic slave-hunters. After he was replaced as governor, his successors failed to make the same distinction between the tribes, and that’s a great tragedy. But it’s not Columbus’ fault.
It’s true, however, that Columbus had more luck than wisdom in his original discovery. Washington Irving wrote an influential book which sealed forever in Americans’ memories the falsehood that Columbus set out to prove the world was round. He did no such thing.
Columbus did think the world was round. But his critics thought the world was round too. Everybody with any education already knew the world was round (I have a book in my library called The King’s Mirror, a Norwegian book of advice for a young man written in the 13th Century, which contains a passage employing sophisticated means to demonstrate that the earth is “round like a ball”). The difference between Columbus and his critics was that Columbus thought the earth was small, and his critics thought it was large.
And his critics were right. The calculations Columbus trusted were way, way off.
Fortunately he bumped into America and found alternate career opportunities.
Let’s face it—Leif Eriksson and his relatives came and went, and nothing changed much. Columbus, like him or not, was the cause of big, big changes.
So enjoy what’s left of your Columbus Day.
(At last I’ve got my desktop back, and substantially operational. Now I can post the movie review I promised last weekend.)
I’ve been waiting for Beowulf and Grendel for some time. There was an official website, where they posted photos and production information, but as is the case with so many movies, there were problems in the distribution phase. I had high hopes for it. The costumes, in particular, looked to be far more authentic than anything we’ve seen in a Viking movie to date. (Technically it’s not really a Viking movie, since it takes place in the 6th Century, and the Viking period didn’t officially start until the 8th Century. But I doubt if a Northman living in those times would have seen any important difference.)
The film never did get meaningful release. It played in a handful of theaters in the U.S. and Canada, and now has gone to DVD. This is unfortunate in many ways, since it’s a well-acted, visually fascinating piece of work.
But I don’t like it much.
It was great to look at. The costumes, as I said, were outstanding. The armor and weapons were (thankfully) done with exacting care, barring some not-unthinkable improvisations (in contrast to the ones used in The Thirteenth Warrior, apparently the result of a scavenger hunt through the props department). The Icelandic locations were grimly beautiful as only Iceland can be–though a little disorienting, since the story is expressly set in Denmark, and Denmark has never–now or then–looked much like Iceland (it was heavily wooded in Beowulf’s time).
But Beowulf and Grendel is a preachy movie, and what’s worse, it’s a sort of preaching I don’t like.
If you read the Beowulf poem, you read the story of a heroic young man (played by Gerard Butler in the movie) who kills a mighty monster in order to protect the people of a family friend, King Hrothgar of Denmark. It’s a black-and-white story. Grendel, the monster, kills because he’s bloodthirsty and evil. Beowulf kills him (and later his fearsome mother) because he’s brave and strong and good.
The movie turns all this on its head. The new slant isn’t really revolutionary, because we’ve heard it all before, time and time again. It merely spoils the story. Grendel is now the heroic social outcast. He’s the utterly innocent victim of racial prejudice. He never kills anyone except those who’ve injured him (he’s able to pick those precise ones out through his superhuman sense of smell). It’s the Danes (typical imperialist, bigoted Europeans!) who have killed his father for sport.
I have no objection to humanizing villains. It’s something I take pains to do in my novels. A villain is more effective, more believable and more morally useful when the reader can sense our common, perilous humanity and recognize once again Solzhenitsyn’s profound dictum that “the line between good and evil passes through every human heart.”
But it can be overdone. The filmmakers (director Sturla Gunnarson and screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins), instead of offering insight into human complexity, have essentially switched sides. Now it’s the Danes who are mindless, bloodthirsty monsters, and Grendel who is the pure and unsullied Ideal.
Aside from being a cliché, this approach makes the movie a lot duller than it might have been. Beowulf, pretty much the only Dane with a lick of decency or compassion, fights without enthusiasm, and his victory is a hollow one. Suddenly The Thirteenth Warrior (which was based on the same story) looks better as a movie. At least there was serious fighting with important stakes in that movie, not to mention a hero who cared about what he was doing.
The whole thing is summed up in a line at the end, where one of Beowulf’s men, listening to a friend composing the first draft of the epic poem, says, “[His] story is sh*t.” That’s what this movie all boils down to. It’s a movie about Beowulf done by people who despise Beowulf.
It’s rated R and deserves it. Lavish use is made of the “F” word, and there’s some gore (though not as much as there might have been) and sexual situations. An Irish priest (unimaginatively named Brendan) shows up in order to demonstrate how impotent and misleading Christianity is. The real voice of wisdom in the film (again, predictably) is a witch played with offputting smugness by Sarah Polley (who was the little girl in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen).
I’d planned to buy this movie. I’m glad now I rented it first.