To solicit from a medievalist a review of Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf is to pick a quarrel unlikely to be evaded. The eminent Cambridge classicist Richard Bentley famously put down Alexander Pope’s translation of Greek epic with a single sentence: “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” “Pretty” is not the first adjective I would choose to describe Zemeckis’s Beowulf. Fantastic, amazing, preposterous, corny from springing leaf to ripening ear, technically brilliant perhaps, enjoyable after a fashion--but “pretty,” no. This Beowulf is all about the animated monsters. Grendel appears to be a very large version of Freddy Krueger made of Kevlar papier-maché. (His submerged “identity” as Crispin Glover is too faint to deserve mention.) He roars, rips, eats people head-first, then drools in probably symbolic fashion over the supine body of Robin Wright Penn. I mean, like, gross. The huge final flying dragon, wing-flapper, maiden-threatener, buttress-buster, more flame-thrower than fire-breather, is one mean worm. Years from now the film may well claim at least an honorable mention in cinematic history for its increment in the effects of animation through “motion capture.” So far as more ordinary history goes, it has a lot to answer for.
The film’s signal originality, and the occasion of its most grotesque travesty of a great poem, is its “vision” of what should have been the second and most terrifying monster: Grendel’s mother, who dwells in the depths of a haunted pool. But that’s no monster, that’s Angelina Jolie--and, boy, swiche wenche was never ere now found in mere, tarn, lagoon, or hwaelsweg, let alone in the giant fishbowl dreamed up by our director. In light-hearted mood, medieval scholars debated such questions as this: “If you are to be married to a mermaid, which half do you want to be fish?” Zemeckis appears to have the implied problem all figured out, since Grendel’s Mom has been most fecund in her many matings with, apparently, every king in town. We have always known who Beowulf’s father was. We now learn that actually, like poor old Job, he is a brother to dragons. This is too silly for words, but, alas, not for pictures.
The famous historian Dorothy Whitelock taught us years ago that the first hearers and readers of Beowulf were Christians and that the cultural context of their poem was one of the great Christian literary efflorescences of medieval Europe. Just as the poem presupposes on the part of its audience familiarity with a body of Germanic legend crucial to the poet’s purposes but present in the poem only through fleeting allusion, it presupposes a fundamentally Christian perspective on such matters as Boethius’s distinction between Fate and Providence. Without the first the narrative loses its coherency, and without the second its ethos. The author of Beowulf was a great historical novelist. Like Dante and Chaucer after him he was fascinated by and admiring of many aspects of pre-Christian culture; but like them he viewed a world without Christ as necessarily an arena of historical tragedy. The poet has tried to imagine the ancient, heroic past and to discipline, so far as possible, his own religious perspective. His biblical allusions are few. But he does tell us early in the poem (104-108) that Grendel is of “the kin of Cain,” and that his banishment from the joys of men is part of God’s punishment for the murder of Abel. This is a clear invitation to view the action through the lens of Augustine’s “two cities”. To grasp some sense of providential history is to acknowledge that the monsters cannot be some wholly supernatural “other,” but must be related to a timeless human evil--timeless, but not irredeemable. Against such malevolence the epic hero must deploy two indispensable virtues: fortitudo and sapientia. These the poet dramatizes in his two very different Beowulfs: a young warrior strong as thirty men, and a wise old king who dies a self-sacrificial death in reclaiming a lost treasure for his people. The film elides the episodes and thus cancels the genuine “character development” they dramatize. As opposed to the Christian perspective of its author, institutional Christianity has no place in the poem. How could it? It has not yet arrived in Scandinavia. But it pointlessly arrives midway through the film in the form of the usual Hollywood rent-a-monks with long faces and industrial-size crosses.
Perhaps in an action-animation film, most characters are bound to be stick figures. We can give Ray Winstone (Beowulf) and Jolie a pass, since they have such great sticks, but the version of King Hrothgar inflicted on Anthony Hopkins, and by Hopkins on us, approaches the criminal. The poet means Heorot, Horthgar’s win-sele (feasting hall) to stand for the warrior community, tragically flawed, to be sure, but noble of aspiration. Zemeckis gives us an Animal House, with dithering Hrothgar half frat president and half ineffectual chaperone. The only actor who leaves us with a sense of acting, as opposed to moving body parts, is John Malkovich as Unferth (“Mar-Peace” in Old English).
This movie would have been weird enough even had I been viewing it elsewhere than the Gaumont Montparnasse, with French subtitles as a constant distraction. Yet even there, it was obvious that somebody put some thought into linguistic matters, though perhaps not enough. The ancient Geats speak modern English; so do the ancient Danes. The monster Grendel, however, seems to be a monoglot speaker of Old English. He speaks Old English monstrously well, though in an anachronistic West Saxon dialect of about the year 1000. Another very nifty thing is that in the scene in which a scop (singer of tales) is reciting Beowulf’s wrestling match with Grendel, we get a delightful snatch of real Beowulf, with sinews snapping and joints bursting (...seonowe onsprungon, / burston banlocan...817-18). The film’s concept of “Old English” is capacious. Occasional Chaucerian and Elizabethan words pop up in odd places. Beowulf himself enthusiastically uses to swive, the filthiest verb in Chaucer. The subtitles handled that with culbuter, which seemed to gain the sniggering approval of three French youth seated nearby.
If artists were not allowed to revisit the great works of the past, we would not have Dante’s Commedia, or Joyce’s Ulysses, or, for that matter, John Gardner’s Grendel. But surely we could hope for a more intelligent and respectful visitor than this one. Beowulf is the oldest epic in our mother tongue, something very valuable yet by accident of time made accessible only to arduous study. This is the reality that gave us the King James Bible, Chapman’s Homer, and even Heaney’s Beowulf. But if one sets out to compete with genius, one must be either be armed with genius oneself, or win absolution through a redeeming humility. For every person who will ever read Beowulf, a thousand will see this film. Any teacher must feel a sense of lost opportunity.
Still, it’s an ill animation that doesn’t capture a few new moves. Old English literature offers a great deal, but it is notably deficient in humor and wholly lacking in broad comedy. Zemeckis’s Beowulf has changed all that.
John V. Fleming is the Louis W. Fairchild, '24 Professor of Literature and Comparative Literature, emeritus, at Princeton University.
By John V. Fleming