Requiescat in pace, Seamus Heaney

I just learned that Seamus Heaney died today. I realize that much of Heaney’s acclaim and fame is as a contemporary poetry, as one of the most important Irish poets since W. B. Yeats — and rightfully so — but he’s also near and dear to the medievalist’s heart for his translations of medieval poetry. On that score, he’s most known for his Beowulf, of course, which has allowed us medievalists the rare opportunity to teach a New York Times best-seller. But his Beowulf wasn’t just popular; it was beautiful and as moving for the modern general reader as for the studied medievalist. (Indeed, a friend of mine, who regularly claims she hates poetry, is a fan of his Beowulf, and wrote on Facebook: “I actually said out loud ‘oh no,’ when I heard on NPR this morning. I don’t usually do that for poets.”)  As many of my medievalist friends on Facebook have been noting, in many different ways, he realized that fidelity to the past and attentiveness to the present are not mutually exclusive positions. Here are his words from part of the funeral of Beowulf, which now seem fitting for Heaney himself:

They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,
for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
and cherish his memory when that moment comes
when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home.

But Beowulf isn’t the only medieval work Heaney translated. More recently, he produced a volume of the work of the late medieval Scottish poet, Robert Henryson. And one of my favorite of his translations has always been his “Pangur Bán,” a 9th century Irish poem that has been translated again and again by many a modern Irish poet. In fact, in his translator’s notes on the poem (which you can read here), Heaney talks about how it’s one of the canonical poems upon which Irish poets try their hand as part of their work to have “learned the trade.” And of course it is, because it’s a poem about writing — and what poet doesn’t like a meta-poem? — and it also might suggest a translator, or at the very least an interpreter, of ancient texts (although the speaker could also be a scribe who copies texts). So any translation of it adds another layer to the textual community across the centuries. Heaney’s translation seems to be acutely aware of that connection across time, that mirroring, mise-en-abyme effect. It’s that meaningful connection with the past that I want my students who study medieval literature to have for themselves, so I have sometimes started off the semester of a medieval lit class with Heaney’s “Pangur Bán.”  Strangely, Heaney says he might not have tried his hand at it if he hadn’t been commissioned to for Poetry magazine, which surprises me a little, because it seems so suited to him. Certainly, now, the final couplet — “Day and night, my own hard work / Solves the cruxes, makes a mark” — seems a fitting epitaph for his work as both a poet and a translator, solving the cruxes of medieval Irish, English, and Scottish poetry and life in Northern Ireland alike, and certainly making a mark.

But enough from me. Let me leave you with “Pangur Bán,” as translated by Seamus Heaney (although I can’t get the formatting right — either I lose the spaces between the stanzas or I lose the way Heaney indented the final two lines of each stanza):

From the ninth-century Irish poem

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.

More than loud acclaim, I love
Books, silence, thought, my alcove.
Happy for me, Pangur Bán
Child-plays round some mouse’s den.

Truth to tell, just being here,
Housed alone, housed together,
Adds up to its own reward:
Concentration, stealthy art.

Next thing an unwary mouse
Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.
Next thing lines that held and held
Meaning back begin to yield.

All the while, his round bright eye
Fixes on the wall, while I
Focus my less piercing gaze
On the challenge of the page.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.

Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,
Pangur Bán has learned his trade.
Day and night, my own hard work
Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.

>My super-awesome, brand-new early medieval lit course for the fall; or, something to be excited about!

>OK, I should be doing research work now—I still haven’t been as productive as I’d like to have been this sabbatical—but I’m excited about one of my fall classes and I wanted to tell you all about it, both in terms of its content (which the medievalists should be interested in and can give me feedback on) and in terms of its methods, objectives, and assessments, which just about anyone in literature or the humanities more generally might have something to say about. And can I just say that I’m glad I’m finally looking forward to teaching again? Some of you may remember a post from last semester in which I admitted I was burnt out as burnt out can be. It’s amazing what time away plus a revamped course can do to get you excited again!

First of all, let me give you some background on the revamping. Here in the RBU English department, we have one undergraduate course on the books for the broad medieval period (which, btw, is “slashed,” or combined with the lower-level MA course). We also have a Chaucer course. I can come up with other courses and offer them as special topics, but our students seem to be allergic to special topics, thinking they won’t count for anything, even when they will—even when we say so in the course description. (Problem number one is that they don’t always read the course description—the one written for that semester’s particular version of the course—and if they read anything, they read the brief, vague catalog description.) Anyway, in previous years I treated the everything-but-Chaucer course as a kind of smorgasbord introduction to the entire medieval period, from the Anglo-Saxon period through the 15th century and even a little into the 16th (if we count the performance history of medieval drama). I used to put up a timeline on the first day to show them that we’d be speeding through more centuries of literature than all of their other English literature courses combined! It was enough to make my head spin, and I’m used to thinking across large swaths of time. In the very beginning, I tried to get some Irish and Welsh literature in there as well as Old English, Middle English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin literature, but the one time I did that, the class was an amorphous mess of “If it’s Tuesday, this must be The Táin ” kind of sampling. Bleh. So after awhile I started whittling down to the texts I most loved to teach or knew best. And for awhile that worked, but I knew that my students and I were both missing out on so much other good stuff, and I was starting to feel my brain atrophy. So, two years ago, with the encouragement of the undergraduate studies chair and the vote of the faculty, I changed the course description in the catalog to say that subsequent semesters would alternate between the earlier and later parts of the 8+ centuries of the medieval period, with some semesters offering thematically arranged topics across the whole period; it also directs students to consult the course description on the department website to find out the current topic. We also made it possible for students to repeat the course for credit if the specific topics are different (this is especially important for any MA students who are interested in the Middle Ages, but may also be true of some undergraduates).

So. Here we are approaching book-ordering and course description-writing time for next fall and I have to make good on my promise! This fall I’ll be devoting the class to Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic (ASNaC) literatures, roughly those written or thought to have their origins before the full conquest of the Normans (for the Anglo-Saxon, Irish, and Welsh literatures) or from roughly the same period for the Old Norse literature—basically up to the 11th century for the Anglo-Saxon literature and up to the 12th and 13th centuries for the rest. There will, of course, be a little fudging, but the next time, I’ll start with the Norman invasion in England and stick to the British Isles. And then after that, having taught a bigger range of texts, I’ll know better what works for the students and what works together, and I’ll come up with a thematically arranged class.

Of course, my more historically arranged courses aren’t going to be without their themes, and one of the driving themes of this ASNaC course is the interlocking contact of these cultures. The Irish sent monks to England; the Vikings invaded England and Ireland; Wayland the smithy shows up in the both Old English and Old Norse contexts; shape-shifters appear in Norse and Celtic texts; the warrior-poet (or at least the articulate warrior) is a recurring figure across the cultures, and text after text brings the poet and/or the scribe into the narrative; the surviving texts are all written or written down by Christians but often draw on the pagan past even for explicitly Christian subjects; and so on. I know that it’s really difficult to show or prove direct influence between the vernacular literatures in these cultures, but I want to create a general impression of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, vibrant—even violent—state of flux for the insular and peninsular cultures of the North Sea in and around the British Isles. And so my syllabus isn’t going to be arranged in any neat geographic or chronological way (which would be really hard to do, anyway, given how many questions there are about dates and places of origin for so many of these texts). I don’t have it all sorted out yet, but on the first day I’ll show images of three material objects—The Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the Franks Casket (especially the Wayland/Magi side)—to stage the shared cultures and influences, and also to begin pointing out the blend or juxtaposition of pagan and Christian narratives and themes (well, in the Franks Casket, anyway). The next day I’m thinking of either doing “Widsith,” “Deor,” and the Eddic “Lay of Volund” (to continue the “Wayland is everywhere!” theme, and also to set up the poet-as-hero idea with the first two), or else jumping into The Táin (after all, the Celts were in Britain first!), and doing “Widsith,” “Deor,” and “The Lay of Volund” after Beowulf, which I’d do after The Táin (to contrast “epic” heroic tales from two cultures). At any rate, I’m definitely going to intersperse appropriately analogous Eddic poems throughout the reading of Old English and Old Norse texts, and I may assign Hrolf Kraki’s Saga right after the Beowulf -“Widsith” sequence, to get all those references to Hrothgar together. Usually I teach Judith after Beowulf, since they are manuscript neighbors, after all, and because I like to teach Judith as a response to Beowulf—especially as a rather critical response to the heroic drinking culture—which complicates the whole “yeah, we’re Christians, but we admire our pagan ancestors” idea. But Judith could be fruitfully put off until after Hrolf Kraki. And skipping to the end of my syllabus, I’m going to put the Welsh last just to honor the fact that they were the last to fall to the Normans among the Anglo-Saxons and Celts. Well, they’ll be sort of last, because on the very last day of reading, I’m going to assign “Pangur Ban,” which is an Irish poem (and one of the oldest poetic texts on the syllabus), but which uses a Welsh word (“pangur”) in the name of the poem’s eponymous cat. And I’ll be assigning it in Seamus Heaney’s translation in order to reinforce the continued and very present-day vibrancy of this very old body of literature. (I also think it’s a great poem to end with right before final exams since it depicts the scholar at work.) But The Mabinogi and Taliesin will get pride of place just before “Pangur Ban,” even though the Book of Taliesin and “The Tale of Taliesin” are later in their manuscript forms than the dates I’ve imposed above. Like I said, there will be fudging.

So that’s roughly the content of the course. I’ve got the list of texts I want to do and some rough idea where they’ll go in the syllabus, but I haven’t worked out the finer details yet, and in order to do that, first I have to, ahem, *read* some of these texts. I’ve never read most of the Old Norse material (or only in excerpt or summary form), but thanks to my friends on Facebook, I got a lot of good suggestions for stuff to assign and I’m going to sort through it this summer as I prep the class. And I’m excited to read it, too, because, hey, new stuff! (Well, new to me.) But I’m just as excited about the shape of the rest of the class—its assignments and their conception—as I am about the content. So lemme tell you about that, too, K?

For the undergraduates, there are going to be five graded components: participation, which counts a variety of ways of “participating” (10%); 8 one-page response papers (40% – 5% each); 10 submitted discussion questions (10% – 1% each); a 6-8 page essay in which they analyze at least three different translations of a text (20%); and a final essay-exam (20%). In the past I’ve taken exams out of my course assignments and replaced them with more writing assignments, but I’ve decided to put an exam back into the equation in this class for a few reasons. First of all, since one of the overarching themes of the class is the connections between the bodies of literature we’re reading (even if those connections are nothing more than thematic), I want assessment that emphasizes seeing and articulating those connections, analogies, and parallels. A final, cumulative exam does that better than discrete papers on individual texts. I’m also going to emphasize making connections in the ongoing short assignments—the response papers and the discussion questions—both of which will also serve to keep students engaged in the material. Between the response papers and the discussion questions, they’ll have to have thought deeply about at least 18 different texts assigned in the course (because they won’t be able to do a response paper and a discussion question on the same text), which will set them up well for the exam. Still, concentrated focus and sustained analysis of a text is important, too, and that’s what the translation analysis paper is about. And the response papers are about close reading, so those assignments are related in their skills, as well. But the other reason why I decided on a final exam rather than a final paper is something Tenured Radical said (though I can’t find the exact post now) about giving students different ways to succeed in a class. Some students get neurotic about papers; some get neurotic about exams. I’m hoping that the short and largely informal nature of the response papers will keep the paper-writing neuroses down to a minimum, plus students can write them quickly (like an exam) or fuss over them, if that’s their wont. And then the exam will be there for those who do well under pressure.

Meanwhile, the way I’ve set up preparation for the exam—especially since there’s only one and it’s cumulative—should help the students feel really invested in it and in the content of the course, as well as prepared for it. I’m really excited about this bit, because it’s the first time I’ve planned something like this. Instead of assigning any new texts to read in the last week, the students and I are going to use that time to collectively write the exam. Like the discussion questions (and to some extent, the response papers), this is planned to help students realize that in many way they make the course what it is and determine what they get out of it; what’s more, in both cases, I hope they’ll learn by doing, rather than by merely responding. But again, it’s also about the content of the course, about making connections. So, on the penultimate day of class, students will be charged with coming to class having reviewed the semester’s work (oh, and yes, I’m going to emphasize note-taking in this class) and being prepared to talk about the themes of the course and its texts. (I am partly inspired on this point by Jeffrey Cohen’s “Myths of Britain” class and their final review session, which he blogged about here.) And here’s where I go crazy: after that class, they’ll be charged with coming back on the final day with three potential final exam questions they’ve written themselves, based on the list of themes we’ve generated together. And we’ll use that last day of class to select and hone at least ten questions. They’ll know that the three final exam questions will come from that list of ten which they have helped to write, but I get to choose the final three. Now, I’m going to let them know this—and everything above—from the very beginning of the semester. In many of my classes, I give out the complete packet of assignments on the first day of class, and I intend to do that here, too (and schedule time to talk about each one on subsequent days). And so they’ll know from the beginning that they’re going to be responsible for helping to create the exam, but also that I reserve the right to do it myself if I think they’re slacking or trying to get away with something. And the discussion question assignment will help them learn what really generates essay-length discussion and what doesn’t. The pedagogical goal here is to get them actively making connections, cataloging, and sorting ideas as we go and in summary at the end of the semester. That’s what a final exam is traditionally supposed to get students to do, but I find my students often regard a final exam itself as an opaque and mysterious thing and don’t know how to go about making the broader-stroke connections it asks. If they have a hand in making it themselves, perhaps it will become more transparent to them—and that’s a lesson they can take to other classes, too.

That’s the undergraduate side of things. The graduate student side is a little different. First of all, I don’t expect many graduate students to take the course, but for those who do, they’ll have to do the response papers and discussion questions, too, as well as participate, of course. But instead of the short translation analysis and final exam, they’ll have a graduate-level research paper in three stages: preliminary abstract/research question; polished abstract and annotated bibliography; and final paper. And I intend to make them meet with me for one group session about how best to go about the research and for individual sessions as they tighten up their research plan. But in keeping with the meta-theme of making connections—as well as accounting for the fact that it’s rare that I have graduate students who want to be medievalists (the last two years bringing a plethora of exceptions, but still being the exception)—I’m going to allow them to write on issues of reception and revival if they wish. So if they want to write on Taliesin in The Idylls of the King, or Heaney’s “Irishing” of Beowulf, or neo-Norse paganism and American pop culture, or whatever, they can. It might be harder for me to help them do it, but I’ll enjoy learning something from their work.

So there you have it: a fall class almost ready to go on February 1st! Can you tell I was procrastinating? So, what do you think?

>Last word on Beowulf

>One of my students forwarded me the link to this article in Salon by Gary Kamiya, in which the author laments the failure of tone and spirit of the Beowulf movie by comparing it to Beowulf-scholar J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of that text. So far this is the best analysis I’ve seen of why Beowulf the movie was so disheartening for those of us who love the poem; and it’s a wonderful antidote to all those annoying reviews, good or bad, that start with a reference to “the poem you were forced to read in high school” or “the poem you hated in high school.” Here’s a sample:

“Beowulf” doesn’t fail because it changes the story: It fails because it is so busy juicing up the story that it does not create a mythical universe. It has no transfiguring vision. It seizes upon an ancient tale, whose invisible roots run deep into our psyches, and uses it to construct a shiny, plastic entertainment. It takes a wild fable and turns it into a tame story. But “Beowulf” is the kind of story that is meaningless unless it is part of a cosmology. It is, in short, a myth.

Thank you, Mr. Kamiya, for an elegant and thoughtful article.

>More on Beowulf

>If you want a less idiosyncratic review than mine, and one from an actual Anglo-Saxonist who likes comics, video games, and other genres of pop culture that I’m less versed in, but who still didn’t like Beowulf the movie, go read Dr. Nokes’ review. He also has a round-up of other medievalists’ reviews here.

Updated to add: I hadn’t checked my Sitemeter stats in some time and decided to check just now. Turns out I’ve gotten twice the normal number of hits in the last two days and all the new hits have to do with Beowulf, of course. But what’s really funny is that majority of the hits are from search engine searches for the following: “Beowulf nudity.” On Google, my Naked Beowulf? WTF? entry is the fourth hit for that search. So, to all of you searching “Beowulf nudity” who want to know why Beowulf is naked in the fight with Grendel and if that’s really “in the poem,” as Roger Avary claims, my post probably addressed your needs, right? But if you were looking to ogle either Ray Winstone or Angelina Jolie, I apologize for delaying your gratification. That is all.

>A diminished Beowulf, a shrinking Grendel, a wussy Wealhtheow, and Grendel’s MILF

>(Credit to Richard Scott Nokes for coining “Grendel’s MILF.”)

I hoped to have a hilariously good time seeing Beowulf with my students. I hoped that the movie would be of the so-bad-it’s-good ilk. Unfortunately it was more painful than that, and not because it was so terribly bad, but because there were moments that were smart and interesting and effective, but they were buried in a mess of a movie. And even in the mess, I could see some of the seemingly odder choices were still informed choices — they were attempts at doing something based on interpretation rather than the literal elements of the poem — but in going so wrong, those choices were all the more disappointing. The movie reminded me of a smart student’s B- paper. You know the type: the paper that has these wonderful moments of insight that show so much promise, but they’re buried in a sloppy disaster of disorganization, hastiness, illogic, and misreading.

It’s clear that Gaiman and Avary have taken the question about the interpretation of last word of the poem — lofgeornost, “most eager for fame” — and applied it to their characterization of Beowulf throughout. Fine. But in doing so they’ve also decided to ignore the other three descriptors applied to Beowulf in the last lines of the poem: manna mildust (mildest of men), monthwaerust (most gentle), and leodum lithost (kindest to his people). Gaiman and Avary’s Beowulf is an asshole. He’s a lying, cheating SOB who strangely likes to get naked in the dead of Danish winter (all the better to show off his six pack abs). He’s also not all that impressive of a fighter. In the poem he has the strength of 30 men in his arms, and he kills Grendel by acting like a human bear trap — clasping the monster’s arm and holding him there until the frantic creature yanks his own arm off just to get away. But in the movie, Beowulf first figures out a way to make Grendel shrink to regular man size (don’t ask me — it’s one of those moments in the film where I think the creators went on the “wouldn’t it look cool if…” principle — a principle operating way too often in this movie). Then he needs a combination of 2-3 simple machines to rip Grendel’s arm off: a pulley-wench combo and Heorot’s door used as a lever (or really, a slicing-mashing machine — a bit more Ronco than simple machine, I guess). And then he squeals like a kid when the severed arm exhibits postmortem movement. This is also the part, shown in the commercials, where Beowulf screams the non-poetic lines, “I am ripper, thrasher, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, I am Beowulf!” The description really applies more to the door he’s using.

All through the movie, especially every time Beowulf announced his own name, I thought, “I know Beowulf, and you sir, are no Beowulf.” And frankly, I kept waiting for Gaiman and Avary to *really* change the plot and kill the guy off, because he was annoying me so much. A hero — as he is called over and over in the movie (though I think they were going for some ironic ring there; it really wasn’t clear) — or even an antihero should be, above all, cool. I don’t mean hip or with-it. I mean cool. Steve McQueen cool. The movie Beowulf is anything but.

Wherever the movie goes wrong it’s in capturing the spirit and tone of the poem and its people. And sadly, they pretty much go wrong with just about every character, whether you’re looking at it as an adaptation of the poem or just as a movie in its own right. I had a hard time figuring out why I should care about any of these people, and only once did I feel a sense of great loss — the famously elegiac tone of the poem — and that was when Grendel’s Mother mourns for her dead son. That was one of the smart moments I mentioned above, because the poem only subtly suggests that the mother’s attack on Heorot has a motivation of grief and loss and not simply monstrous revenge — it takes a careful reader to see that — and it’s reflective of the blood feuds the humans of the poem are constantly engaged in. It’s one of the ways that the poem subtly critiques the vengeful behavior of the humans, by equating it with a creature they call a monster. But that point is lost in the movie, since the plot is stripped of human feuding. (To be fair, Gaiman and Avary tried to do something with the “monster within” idea through the plot — which I won’t reveal here — but again, they get it so tonally wrong that I wasn’t moved by it, intellectually or emotionally.)

And in stripping the human feud stories — many of them frequently referred to as “digressions” — they also remove a number of the women characters and their stories, including Hildeburh, Frearwaru (Hrothgar in the movie has no children — a point that’s necessary for Gaiman’s and Avary’s re-conceived plot), and Modthryth. And since Beowulf doesn’t go back to Geatland in the movie, there’s no Hygd, either. Wealhtheow and Grendel’s Mother are the only female characters from the poem to make it to the movie, and then a bevy of serving wenches are added for background and cleavage in Heorot, and a young hottie love interest/damsel in distress, cutely named “Ursula,” is tacked on at the end. (I find it amusing, by the way, that most of the screenwriters’ changes to the plot, including keeping Unferth around and introducing Wiglaf from the beginning, seemed inspired by a desire for continuity and structural unity, and yet when it comes to hot babes, it’s OK to introduce one in the last act.)

But my beef is not with the lack of roles for women in Hollywood, nor is it a simplistic “images of women” critique. Rather, the changes to the women characters is one of the many ways in which Gaimand and Avary get tone and character wrong, and apply a frat-boy sensibility to the story, both as an adaptation of the poem and in the logic of their own movie on its own. Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, is the first woman we meet in the movie, as in the poem. In the poem, she makes her entrance ceremonially presenting the mead cup to the king and to his guests, but not in an act of servitude; she’s not Wealhtheow the waitress. My students often make this mistake, and so I turn their attention to the words that describe her: she is radiant with gold (a sign of her status and wealth), wise, mindful of customs, of excellent heart. She also speaks to Beowulf as Hrothgar does, thanking him for the service he is about to perform for their people. Later, it is her ceremonial place to lavish gifts of reward on Beowulf for saving Heorot. In other words, Wealhtheow is queenly — a regal, dignified woman of status. Later she speaks on behalf of her sons, reminding both Hrothgar and Beowulf of their duties to them, and of the political and social ties that bind them. There’s a sense of futility in that wise advice, however, since the poem hints at the destruction to come in the house of Hrothgar, including the loss of its heirs. The one other hint that Wealhtheow’s life is not all that glamorous is in her name, which may mean “foreign captive.” The poem certainly gives us other stories of women married off to foreigners to settle feuds, and that may have been Wealhtheow’s fate. Such suggestions of what has been lost and what will be lost only makes her dignity, her “mindful[ness] of customs,” all the more poignant.

Not so in the movie. She has no dignity, nor respect from any of the men. She is in turns ignored, treated a servant — and here the cup-bearing is servile — and ogled. She reacts petulantly, with many sighs and eye-rolling. But she suffers in silence. This Wealhtheow has no regal speeches, and her radiance exists not as a sign of her status, but as a reward for the gaze of the men in the narrative and the audience. (And the other servile women with their Ren Fest wench cleavage even more so.) I think Gaiman, Avary, and Zemeckis are tying to say, “look how badly women are treated — don’t you feel sorry for them?” But all I felt was bored by yet another cliched version of domestic drudgery. And in knowing the poem I knew all the ways in which Wealhtheow was being diminished, and how Zemeckis and company were thus actually narratively mistreating this woman. The poem is already sensitive to the price women pay for the desires of men — for bloodlust, if not sexual lust — and expresses much of its sense of loss through the grief of women (including, significantly, the lament of the Geatish woman at Beowulf’s funeral at the end of the poem — another woman missing from the movie). In removing most of those stories, the movie misses their point as well, and does a bad job transferring it all to Wealhtheow, who not only barely puts up with and frequently rebuffs her drunken, boorish husband Hrothgar (another character robbed of all the dignity the poem gives him), but then is bequeathed to Beowulf, who regularly cheats on her. But Wealhtheow’s inarticulate poutiness through all of this does nothing to make this heartbreaking.

And then there’s Grendel’s Mother. It might seem at first blush that in expanding her role, giving her language and treacherous conniving, and casting Angelina Jolie, the biggest star in the movie, the creators are making her the center of the film and its most powerful figure. In the right hands this could have been really interesting, and I can tell that Gaiman and Avary are trying. There’s this bit in the beginning when Beowulf talks of the sea as his “mother,” and images of the dead being carried out to sea repeat throughout the movie — an adaptation, clearly, of the extra-narrative sea-funeral of Scyld Scefing that opens the poem. And, of course, Grendel and his Mother live in a cave at the bottom of a “mere,” a swampy body of water — both in the poem and in the movie. The movie makers are very obviously trying to make the mer/mere/la mere (sea/mere/mother) connection and perhaps positing that some matriarchal/female sexual power is the most powerful force of all, more powerful than warriors, heroes, and kings.

I think that’s what Zemeckis, Gaiman, and Avary think they are doing. But what they actually say is that woman is the downfall of man, especially through her sexuality. According to the movie, if men were left alone to fight naked with monsters, they’d be a lot better off, but when the woman enters and messes with things, everything gets bloodier and messier. There’s some of that in the poem — Grendel’s Mother is a greater foe for Beowulf than Grendel is. She does sneak into Heorot unseen and kill, and Beowulf has a harder time fighting her than he does Grendel. But in the poem he actually fights her and she very nearly kicks his ass. In the movie she’s naked Angelina Jolie, against whom men’s penises are helpless (cf. Brad Pitt). In the movie she doesn’t fight with Beowulf; something else happens, though it happens off-screen. And what happens has happened before, and will happen again, the movie shows us. The men will succumb to Grendel’s Mother again and again. Her super-MILFness will be their undoing now and for eternity. So instead of monsters descended from Cain, we get Eve. And I think we’re supposed to see this as some sort of “girl power.” Great.

I think the screenwriters were assuming we’d read this downfall as the product of men’s lust, not women’s seduction, but it reads both ways. And the puritanical streak this element of the movie exhibits is somewhat ironic given the weird little subtext of anti-Christianity the film also inserts into the narrative. There are lots of ways the movie went wrong as an adaptation of the poem or as a work in its own right — way too many to get into here, in this already long post — but its treatment of the female characters exhibits a lot of the problems (and also the potential) of the film. I may even use in the classroom, not as those silly “educational” promotional item suggested I do, but as a “sample” of reading and misreading, and a lesson in the ways that women’s history and the history of women in literature is not a necessarily progressive tale. Sometimes an Anglo-Saxon text is better for women than a 21st century movie.

>Hwaet the hell?

>Frankly, I think the three word title of this post is all the review Beowulf the Movie needs: it avoids spoilers and it perfectly expresses my disappointment in the movie as both a movie and an adaptation of Beowulf the poem. (It also features a weird mixture of Old and Modern English, as did Grendel’s and Grendel’s Mother’s dialogue. Though my post title is missing Angelina Jolie’s weird Transylvanian accent.)

But actually, I do want to say more — I just don’t have the energy at the moment and will have to save it until tomorrow. Since I’m sure there will be many other reviews across the medieval blogosphere, I’m also sure you’re not waiting with ‘bated breath for mine. But to distinguish mine, I think I’ll focus on the movie’s treatment and adaptation of the female characters. Believe it or not, there are actually *fewer* significant female roles in the 21st century movie than in the 6th-11th century (choose your preferred date) poem, and the poem gives them more dignity and importance than the movie. More tomorrow.

In the meantime, I leave you with one of my students’ responses. This particular student is writing her honor’s thesis with me on Grendel’s Mother, Judith, and Elene. When I asked her what she thought, she said, totally deadpan:

There were moments that I thought were kind of interesting…but I’m still trying to figure out how to work Grendel’s Mother’s stilettos into my thesis.


>Relax: let the movies explain it all to you

>[Update: See Richard Scott Nokes’s blow-by-blow account of one of the “activities” of this promotional item here. And he found the PDF of the poster online, so if you want, you can read the whole thing here.]

So yesterday in my campus mail I got a promotional poster/lesson plan (Meets National Standards! it says) for Beowulf the Movie. It urges me to let the fine folks at Paramount help me introduce a “classic of English literature” to my students. It has “activities” for K-12 and discussion questions for high school and college classes. I’ve got to scan part of this and post it here because it’s too freakin’ hilarious and troubling at the same time. One of my students, by the way, was outraged and offended that they’d send such a thing “to a specialist!” And it does seem that they sent it to me precisely because I’m a medievalist.

But aside from the whole problem of “Just show the movie — they’ll like it more!” issue, or the issue of the conflation of film adaptation and poem, I got fascinated by the “character description” of Grendel on this thing. They tried really hard to do an old-fashioned, 8th-grade level “character sketch” for him, which is funny in and of itself. But the weird bit was the “origin” section, which said Grendel was the offspring of Hrothgar and a succubus (a half-woman, half-demon, they said). Isn’t that the same “back story” that the Beowulf and Grendel movie gave Grendel? Or no, wait, was it that Hrothgar and Grendel’s human dad were friends and Hrothgar raised Grendel as a foster-dad? At any rate, I’m fascinated by the fact that both films need to give some cause-and-effect explanation for Grendel’s murderous rage, a la a slasher film villain’s motivation. Why? Doesn’t that domesticate him a bit? Isn’t he scarier without motivation other than his seething hate?

I had a similar experience when I watched the 13th Warrior* with a screenwriter friend (not the famous one, for those who know). This friend couldn’t understand where the Grendel-inspired creatures were “coming from” (in the motivational sense) and found it a flaw in the film that there was no motivation for them. Given that Crichton (author of Eaters of the Dead, the basis for the movie) and the screenwriters had made Grendel into a race of proto-homo-sapien wild men, I thought it was pretty clear that they were supposed to express some atavistic quality in humanity or some primal element that we weren’t as evolved from as we thought (much as Grendel and his mother work in the poem itself), but that wasn’t enough for my friend, who needed a reason, preferably with psychological motivation to it.

Everyone wants to explain why bad things happen to good people, and to say that the things that go bump in the night have some logical explanation (even when it is a murderous monster). But the scariest works of literature and film — including Beowulf the poem — are the ones that realize our most irrational nightmares have great impossible truth to them.

*This is currently still my favorite movie inspired in part by Beowulf‘s plot, not counting the Beowulfian elements of Lord of the Rings. But I’m much more a fan of The 13th Warrior than Eaters of the Dead, which also has too much of that need to be deadeningly explanatory.

>Naked Beowulf? WTF?

>This week’s Entertainment Weekly features an article on the mini-trend in recent movies of men fighting for their lives in the buff. One of the upcoming instances of nekid wrasslin’ they cite is the CGI version of Ray Winstone in Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of Beowulf. Winstone plays our eponymous hero and the nakedness, er, reveals itself in the fight with Grendel.

Um, why? Well, explains co-writer Roger Avary in the ET article (#956, Sept. 28, 2007, p.55):

In the original epic poem, Beowulf decides that swords and armor are just going to slow him down. So, he strips and waits for Grendel to come and then does some medieval ass-kicking in the buff. When we were first working on the script, Robert Zemeckis said, “Guys, does he have to fight him naked?” We were like, “Yes, actually he does — it’s in the poem!”

You know, I always half suspected that Avary was just riding Tarantino’s coat-tails with his co-writer credit for the Pulp Fiction screenplay (and the Oscar it won) and now I’m more than certain. Where on earth does he get “naked” from without sword and shield (or armor, as he mistakenly claims)?? Does he think that because the men are sleeping when Grendel arrives that they’re necessarily in the nude? All I’ve got at home is the Roy Liuzza translation, so if there’s something in the Old English that suggests nakedness let me know (though somehow I doubt that Avary was reading Old English!). Or, more plausibly perhaps, is there a bad translation or adaptation he’s getting this from? Or is it from one of the looser and interpretative parts of the Heaney translation? Here’s what the Liuzza translation has in the relevant passages:

I have also heard that this evil beast
in his wildness does not care for weapons,
so I too will scorn — so that Hygelac,
my liege-lord, may be glad of me —
to bear a sword or a broad shield,
a yellow battle-board, but with my grip
I shall grapple with the fiend and fight for life
foe against foe. (ll. 433-40)

[H]e knows no arts of war, no way to strike back,
hack at my shield-boss, though he be brave
in his wicked deeds; but tonight we two will
forgo our swords, if he dare to seek out
a war without weapons (ll. 681-5)

Hm…you know, maybe Avary thought that “so that Hygelac, my liege-lord, may be glad of me” could mean something a bit more risqué than the usual lord-thane bond.

In fact, I’d have no problem with Avary and his Beowulf in the buff if he’d said something like, “we wanted to emphasize the hyper-masculinity of this society, right down to male bodies, so that when Grendel’s Mother appears and they’re not ready, it’s clear they didn’t think a female creature was a threat” or something cool and interpretative like that. That I could buy. I could even buy a total queering of the poem if the interpretation had the courage of its convictions (and that would totally surprise me, too, coming from a mainstream Hollywood movie!). In other words, Roger, dude, don’t be a boring literalist and a slave to your source material while also getting it literally wrong! Don’t claim “it’s in the poem!” if it’s not; or, if what you mean is ‘the poem suggests this’ then say so. Learn the difference between text and subtext, if only so that those of us who teach the original poem won’t have to deal with a generation of fan boys and fan girls who think they read that Beowulf was naked in those fights because he was in your movie version and you claimed “it’s in the poem!”

But I have to say, now having gotten that rant out of the way, I’m really intrigued by Avary’s misreading. Maybe it even falls into the category of Harold Bloom’s “strong misreading.” I mean, as I suggest above, it could work. (It only really bugs me that Avary lays the ‘blame’ on the poem, instead of taking credit himself — though that’s kind of interesting, too, in an arm-chair psychologist way. Roger, dude, why are you afraid to take credit?) Heck, I may end up using all of this a way to teach my students the difference between summary (whether accurate or inaccurate) and interpretation. Like many teachers, I spend a lot of time reminding them that they have to back up their arguments with the text, so that what I often get from the less strong students is an “argument” that “proves” the plot, and they end up doing something like Avary and saying “It’s in the poem!” (albeit usually more accurately than he does). I could someday take the movie and say, “Look, naked Beowulf is not literally in the poem, but how might this make sense as an interpretation?” And then maybe we could talk about the hyper-masculinity of the poem, of the nakedness of Winstone’s really buff body as the cinematic equivalent of the boasting, etc., etc. Who knows. As long as they know that the nakedness is not literally in the poem!

>Hey, scholars like dismemberment, too!

>No, this isn’t another silly zombie post.

The NY Times Book Review has a review by Charles McGrath of two new and one year-old adaptations of Beowulf for children and young adults. They sound pretty cool and if I get to teach a graduate seminar on the original poem and its adaptations and translations, I may add these books.

But what inspire the post’s title is the opening paragraph of the review (bold mine):

“Beowulf,” a 3,000-line epic poem composed early in the eighth century, is the first significant text written in English, or in what eventually became English. What interests scholars about the story is its place in our linguistic development, and also the way it blends both Christian and pagan details. But what recommends “Beowulf” to children — and to older readers who haven’t lost a child’s delight in stories that are both scary and gory — is that it’s also a first-rate horror yarn, featuring slaughter, dismemberment and underwater sword fights.

OK, first of all, that “What interests scholars…” sentence should be in the past tense; that’s what interested scholars half a century ago and more. But more important: what’s with the false dichotomy between scholars on the one hand and “older readers who haven’t lost a child’s delight in stories that are both scar and gory” on the other? Doesn’t he realize that’s precisely why many of us became medieval scholars?


But the books sound pretty cool. Surely they have to be better than Beowulf & Grendel or that Grendel movie on SciFi that Dr. Nokes so hilariously skewered.