'Beowulf' Movie Magic Can't Conjure The Poem's Bare-Bones Enchantment

Alice and Martin Provensen's spare illustrations strike a blow for the power of simpler storytelling.
Alice and Martin Provensen's spare illustrations strike a blow for the power of simpler storytelling. (Illustration By Alice And Martin Provensen)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007

The great hero Beowulf, wrestling with the monster Grendel, split the sinews of his foe and snapped his arm off at the shoulder. Going up against the monster's mother, he slammed her to the earth, then sliced her neck through with a sword.

That's nothing to what Beowulf did to me, about 20 years ago. He forced me to memorize the full beon and wesan forms of the Anglo-Saxon verb "to be," even in the preterite subjunctive. He made me write out cue cards for most of the 3,200 different words of his tale, so that I'd remember such useful terms as haeft-mece ("hilted sword"), sex-ben ("dagger wound") and galg-treow ("gallows tree"). He got me to recite the declensions of five noun classes in three genders across four cases. (After I'd crammed on what a case was, how to decline across it and what the Anglo-Saxons did to end up with three genders.)

Unlike Grendel or his mom, I gained from the assault. By learning Anglo-Saxon, I got to sink deep into the strangeness of "Beowulf," the poem composed in England sometime before 1000, and enter the imagined universe of Beowulf, its 6th-century hero. I learned to enjoy the allusive elusiveness of its circumlocutions, the drumbeat of its rhythms, the spell of its endless alliteration:

Hot pain anguished the shape of terror; on his shoulder spread

a great gash bursting, gaping sinews,

breaking the bone-case. Beowulf was granted

glory in battle; and thence Grendel fled

fatally wounded . . .

(Even the most determined translation barely captures the original's effects.)

I got to explore the power of the poem's minimal descriptions and the force of its one-thing-after-another plot. After a year of living with "Beowulf" in Montreal -- as McGill University's lone student in medieval studies -- I found myself falling for the martial code the poem is built around and the pagan world that it depicts.

Then this week I saw "Beowulf," the new Robert Zemeckis movie, screened in Dolby 3-D Digital with booming surround sound and the latest in high-tech-enhanced, live-as-life animation.

It wasn't at all bad, as such comic books go. And it was surprisingly, even perversely faithful to the poem, in details large and small. (Critics everywhere have complained that Beowulf chooses to show off his digital six-pack by fighting Grendel naked. But, as a scholar might put it, there's textual support for that reading: The poem takes 20 lines to describe Beowulf stripping off his armor as he goes to bed before battle. It never mentions him getting dressed again.)

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