Hungry Like the ‘Wulf

Rising from the deep murkiness of the dark, soulless lake in Denmark or possibly Norway, I think, Beowulf returns. Just in time, I suspect, for the Christmas movie season.

When the classic poem Beowulf was written lies suspended in the swirling mists of historical inaccuracy, the target area of composition being in that questionable range of “between the eighth and tenth centuries,” a level of exactness I am used to hearing from weather forecasters and potential girlfriends when asked when our next date may be. Though to be fair at least the historians don’t leave one of the ends as a standing infinity.

It also has a rather unfortunate distinction of being, like Jessica Alba and Derek Jeter, of indeterminate origin. While apparently a strictly Anglo-Saxon composition, it’s clearly of Scandinavian influence, with extraneous slashes and a lot of talk about fishing boats and cell phones.

As a story, Beowulf is equal parts fascinating and rather unremarkable. A kingdom is ravaged by the monster Grendel, ironically one of the few characters of the poem that does not sound like it was composed out of the reject Scrabble letters. The monster, it seems, is unhappy with all of the singing and the celebration of the king’s warriors and subjects, Grendel apparently being a likely candidate as next year’s Resident Assistant. He patiently waits for the men to sleep, then sneaks in and eats a majority of the army.

Now at this point I have to stop and ponder. It seems rather odd that a monster would be able to sneak into a castle and eat a majority of the warriors. Even the drunkest of soldiers would probably elbow up perpendicular to the ground wondering what the fuss is about. I have to assume that either the king’s men were recruited during a shift change at the local Denny’s or someone was dropping Aqua Dots in the mead.

Beowulf, a warrior from a neighboring people, hears of the king’s plight. He offers his services, which the decimated king quickly accepts, and overcomes the beast by tricking the monster and ultimately killing him. Grendel’s mother, filled with an estrogen-fueled rage, assuming medieval Scandinavian monsters produce estrogen, comes to avenge his death, using pretty much the exact same game plan—waiting for the king’s men to sleep, then eats one of them. At this point one begins to suspect that the king’s men weren’t exactly resting up for the SATs. Beowulf quickly dispatches the matron by beheading her after being pulled down into the bottom of the lake and fussing about with +10 swords and immunity spells and a bunch of other weird crap like that.

Beowulf is named king of his own people in recognition of his bravery, and lives a long, boring life that is stretched out for what seems like two thousand couplets. Late in the stages of his life, though, one of Beowulf’s subjects and potential Mensa president sneaks into a dragon’s lair and steals a goblet of indeterminate worth. The dragon, awakening from his slumber, finds the object missing and reacts by burning half the world while tracking down the thief. Beowulf and a red-shirted accomplice with the extraordinarily non-masculine name of Wiglaf go after the dragon, since the remaining population is too frightened to join in the fun, and ultimately are victorious. Alas, Beowulf is mortally wounded and demands that he be buried with all of the dragon’s sizable treasure, ostensibly since the treasure is cursed but you and I both know it’s a not-so-subtle way of an elderly king being forced to fight a dragon saying to his subjects, “piss off, you ungrateful cowards.” And everything ends peacefully, except for Wiglaf, who somehow gets nothing but the shaft out of the whole deal.

Like most ancient literature, Beowulf is scarily one-dimensional. He is a warrior first and foremost, and, to be honest, second, third, and fourth. There aren’t any extended scenes where he describes his feelings to his therapist or higher being, no long talks with a sensitive brother or submissive female. It’s all about hacking, slashing, and the oft-alluded to hedonistic pleasures he will be granted to him upon his successful return, assuming that occurs.

Beowulf’s roster is full of oddly-named characters, as if someone spilled orange juice in the keyboard of the anonymously creative Saxon who wrote it centuries ago, and all the consonants stuck together every time he tried to type something. There’s Hroogar, Wealhpeow, Hygelac, Ecgtheow, Hrunting, and Yrs, none of which I am 100% positive aren’t actually swords or amulets instead of monsters or people.

Of course, there is a lot of interest in this poem recently, which is generally disregarded unless you are attempting to pass, or teach, 10th grade English. The reason, of course, is that a big-budget 3-D version of an ancient, extremely boring poem was released this weekend. Granted, this is an epic poem tailor-made for Hollywood—monsters and fighting and sci-fi-franchise-style money-making potential and a slot for a strong female lead that gets to both 1) seduce and 2) kill someone. The latter is filled by the box-office draw Angelina Jolie, who recently made headlines at the premier when she noted that she was “startled” about how naked she looked all big on the big screen, the actress apparently not having access to the Internet.

Anyway, hopefully the effect of the movie will at least have some positive effect on literacy, much like what Lord of the Rings did for getting students interested in the fantasy genre and High School Musical did for staying home from the theater and reading something. When you have a gripping story, a classic and rich cultural heritage, and an actress with a fantastic rack, it’s amazing what literature can do.

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