Tag Archives: Beowulf

Jack the Beowulf Singer

Jason Craig and Dave Malloy have written a rock opera based on Beowulf, just what you didn’t know you never wanted. A. M. Juster describes it.

We meet the dimwitted hipster Beowulf and the snarkier Hrothgar, who are backed up by a chorus of four female “warriors” who resemble strapping Cyndi Laupers in football pads and Goth makeup. We hear pulsing but mediocre rock, which at least drowns out such dull refrains as “Hey, it’s that guy,” “It’s my body,” and “That was death and then they died.”

It has a few perks, but Juster was not thrilled by the whole.

On another horrific, somewhat more gruesome, note, Otto Penzler has compiled The Big Book of Jack the Ripper. Steve Donoghue says it’s very good. “This editor is an old, practiced hand at picking these kinds of stories; his anthologies are always masterworks of combining old favorites with carefully chosen new surprises.”

The real payoff of Penzler’s book is its opening section, “The True Story,” and the main reason is clear: the raw events of the true story are more bizarre, more sordid, and more horrifying than any concoction a writer could dream up.

(via Prufrock News)

‘Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

First of all, it should be made clear – and I wonder how anyone could be in doubt on this, but it’s possible – that J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is not a work of imagination meant for popular entertainment. It’s a translation of an already much-translated work, intended as a teaching aid, by a major scholar in the field. If you’re unfamiliar with Beowulf, you might want to try one of the modern verse translations, like Heaney’s, but I liked this version very much.

Personally, I prefer a prose translation. Tolkien probably knew Old English poetry better than any modern man, and here he attempts to provide some sense of the original metrical form, but he is not forced to alter the text in order to make the verse scan. Any translation is always a trade-off, especially in poetry, and for my own part I prefer some approximation of the original text.

Tolkien’s translation is a lively one. I can imagine him reading it to Lewis (and we’re told Lewis did advise him on bits of it) and then ignoring, as he always did, Lewis’ suggestions.

There are many notes. Some are by Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son, who is editor. Others are drawn directly from Tolkien’s own notes. Some of this material fascinated me, some seemed to me (approaching more from the historian’s than the language scholar’s perspective) pretty tall grass. It was interesting to read, for instance, that Tolkien thinks the Beowulf poem correct in crediting (in passing) the slaying of the dragon to Sigfried’s father Sigmund, rather than to Sigfried himself. The dragon-slaying fits in with Sigmund’s story, he thinks, and seems like an interpolation in the Sigfried-Brunhilde narrative.

Also in this book is a work called “The Sellic Spell,” which is Tolkien’s attempt to reconstruct how the Beowulf story might have been passed down as a folk tale, rather than as a heroic poem. He sees a separation between the “fairy tale” Beowulf and the “historical” (by which he does not mean to suggest he thinks Beowulf a real historical character) tale. Here Tolkien may be observed “reverse engineering” an imagined lost legend, something he later did in a larger, more powerful way with The Lord of the Rings.

Also appended to this book is “The Lay of Beowulf,” an attempt to reimagine story as a sort of ballad. That was pleasant to read, but the editor gives us two earlier drafts to read as well, at which point I’m afraid I lost interest in it.

I recommend Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary for people interested in the Old English poem itself. Less so for readers whose main interest is Middle Earth. I’m glad this work has come out in print, and I’m happy I read it.

‘A Companion to Beowulf,’ by Ruth A. Johnston

A few days back I posted a review of a book on the Viking Age which had disappointed me. Author Ruth A. Johnston, who happens to be a Facebook friend, then mentioned her own book on Beowulf, which I’d already read. I hadn’t noticed that it came from the same publisher.

Ruth’s book, A Companion to Beowulf, is much, much better.

A Companion to Beowulf is, as you would expect, an introduction to the poem, useful for students or history buffs or Tolkien fans. It’s well written and comprehensive, and includes a list of modern adaptations, a glossary of names, a list of works cited, and even a chapter on Tolkien.

For some reason, she fails to note my theory, mentioned on this blog, that Beowulf is “refugee literature.” I’ve also been inclined to give credence to theories that Beowulf’s “Geatish” tribe may have been someone other than the Gotlanders. Johnston states flatly that they were Goths. But that may be because she knows more about the subject than I do, hard as that may be to believe.

I did catch what I think are couple small errors. She says the spear was the symbol of a free man — I’m pretty sure it was the seax. A spear is what a slave would be most likely to carry. She also speaks of Vikings wielding “two-headed fighting axes.” That should be “two-handed fighting axes.” They never fought with double-bitted axes.

But those are the sort of small mistakes you’ll find in any book — even mine. All things considered, this is an excellent introduction to a wonderfully alien work of literature. I recommend it.

Movie Review: Beowulf

One line review: I didn’t hate it.

Long, long ago, when I was a small, unpromising child, my brother Moloch and I were given the gift of a ViewMaster for Christmas. If you’re one of our younger readers, you may never have seen a ViewMaster. It was a device for viewing stereoscopic images; pictures in 3-D. The pictures came on cardboard disks, and my favorite set of disks was the one portraying the story of Snow White.

This wasn’t the Disney version. Somebody had gone to great pains to carve and paint a number of posed character figures, and then to place them in dioramas and photograph them. Whoever did the job had a tremendous sense of composition and color, and I found the scenes fascinating and beautiful.

In a way, Beowulf is a lot like those ViewMaster scenes, with the added element of motion. I’ll confess right off the bat that I have a “gee-whiz,” little kid’s response to the novelty of watching a 3-D movie. Even when the effects take you out of the story (which, I must confess, they often do), I enjoy the ride.

The capture motion animation, in my opinion, is less successful. I think the response you’ll get from most people who come out of the film will be, “It was kind of weird.” I liked that the digital painting of the characters made them resemble the figures in my ViewMaster Snow White. And sometimes, particularly in the action scenes, I thought the animation was very effective.

But in the quieter scenes, especially, the ones that involved people interacting with each other, things were strangely off. Hands, facial expressions and body movements often seemed stilted, deformed or awkward, which is odd. If Disney was able to create elegant, naturalistic motions using drawings alone, how is it possible to make figures look less natural when you’re drawing right on top of actual filmed images?

I predict that this kind of animation will continue to be done, and will rapidly improve. Which means that Beowulf will not age well.

How did they treat the story? That’s also kind of weird, though it was far from reaching the low-end benchmark of the recent Canadian/Icelandic Beowulf and Grendel, which I reviewed here a while ago. That movie made the story a parable of European racism and imperialism, painting Grendel as the spotless hero and Beowulf as a Nazi, redeemed only by his profound self-doubts.

Beowulf treats the story with much more respect than that. The script, by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, follows the original poem in its general plot points, with the added bonus of including Beowulf’s last battle with the dragon, which most moviemakers would have omitted. In order to unify the theme, they make some major changes in the plot, though, mostly involving the character of Grendel’s mother, played (you must be aware by now) by Angelina Jolie without no clothes on. (I didn’t find this, actually, more pornographic, done in this kind of animation, than the skin-tight female uniforms so popular on recent versions of Star Trek. On top of that, Angelina J. has never been my idea of an appealing female. Unlike a dragon, she has not the least spot of vulnerability about her. Which, in a way, makes her perfect for the role. The stiletto heels, however, were a little too much; even if they were presumed to grow out of her feet.)

What intrigues me about the changes made in the story is that the authors have taken a Germanic heroic saga (in which the hero is bigger than life and essentially without fault, dying in the end merely because his fate-allotted time has run out) and changed it into a tragedy on the Greek model. The Greek tragedy centered on a hero with a fatal flaw—some weakness or appetite that compelled him to bring his own doom down upon himself. This plot pattern was eagerly taken up by Christian poets and playwrights, who recognized it as an ideal vehicle for expressing the Christian view of original sin.

This means that, in spite of the fact that most of the references to Christianity in the movie (anachronistic, by the way, as Christianity was hardly heard of in Denmark until at least a couple centuries later) are dismissive, and although the primary Christian spokesman in the movie is pictured as extremely brutal to his slaves, the writers have (probably without meaning to) essentially forced a Christian form and sensibility onto the pre-Christian story.

From a historical point of view, the costumes and sets were better than those in The Thirteenth Warrior (also based on “Beowulf,” and all in all a better film, but much debased by ridiculous, anachronistic armor), but not as good as those in Beowulf and Grendel (which tried to redeem its ruthless trashing of the whole saga by punctilious authenticity in its look). I saw some details, in helmets and swords and such things, that pleased me. But the designers, apparently, felt some compulsion to make a lot of the armor look sort of Greek or Roman (perhaps a subliminal nod to the Greek tragedy drift of the script).

I’ve never cared for bare-legged warriors. Real Vikings wear trousers (which leaves completely to one side Beowulf’s totally naked fight with Grendel).

Well, I could go on, but it all works out to the same thing. Beowulf is a bold and ambitious treatment of a classic epic. It’s entertaining and worth seeing (Leave the kids at home, though. It should have gotten a more restricted rating than PG-13).

If you’re not interested in this sort of thing, don’t bother. If you are, see it now before it becomes something we all look back at and laugh.