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.)
What the movie cheats its viewers on is the spirit of the original work. There can't be many literary masterpieces as non-3-D, as un-enhanced, as de-Dolbyed as "Beowulf."
"Beowulf," the poem, is more about darkling silhouettes than three-dimensional anything. Where the movie aims for a powerful digital glow, the poem is entirely twilit. Where Zemeckis gives a crystal-clear vision of a world of striking lights and shadows, in the poem it's the vision itself that is dark and troubled. Everything about the poem is clouded in mystery, from its diction to its imagery to its mix of pagan and Christian ideals. The movie, on the other hand, believes in keeping every little hair and drop of blood and plot detail in perfect focus, leaving nothing to a viewer's imperfect imagination.
Weirdly, the film is most faithful to the poem when it fails most as a movie, at least by normal Hollywood standards. When the script veers from topic to topic, character to character, event to event, digression to digression, it apes the poem's methods, following the course of a relentless fate without trying to understand it. When the film manufactures all-new, no-loose-ends explanations for events, as when Beowulf's eventual bane turns out to be the spawn of his youthful encounter with a digitized Angelina Jolie (cast, incredibly, to play Grendel's "hag" and "hell-dam" of a mother, as the poem describes her), it fails utterly to capture what's unique to a Dark Ages epic. The bards who composed "Beowulf" had no place for our cliches of "narrative arc" and "psychological motivation" -- and the poem is all the better for that lack.
That's because reading "Beowulf" takes us to a new place, where people think about the world and its stories in terms that don't make sense to us. That's why it takes a year and more to come to terms with it (at least in Anglo-Saxon) and why the effort's worth it.
I don't buy the tired old cliche that "Beowulf" is great because it touches universal themes. What's great is that it isn't universal; that it's its own thing; that its bards managed to build a world for us that's so complete a package, in its verse and tale and coloring, that we can still get lost in it all these centuries later. Whereas watching the movie leaves us absolutely in the place and present where we started out. It's just "Die Hard" in chain mail.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of "Die Hard" and "Spider-Man" and even trashier fare. (Did someone just say "X-Men III"?) It's just that I'm also a fan of "Beowulf" as something very different from all that -- as a work that truly makes you put yourself into the skin of an ancient Germanic marauder. What could be more thrilling than that?
In all their many interviews, it's clear that the creators of the film could barely stomach the strange "Beowulf" they started out with. They didn't dare imagine that, even with a little cinematic help, their audience might ever come to terms with its foreignness. Instead, they had to bring the poem fully "up to date" and make it easily digestible.
My own first encounter with "Beowulf" came as a kid, in a surprisingly uncleaned-up version from "The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends." I still think the spare modernism of the book's images, hand-drawn by the great American illustrators Alice and Martin Provensen, comes closer to capturing the intensity of the ancient original than the $150 million movie's industrial light and magic ever does.
At McGill, Prof. Martin Puhvel was Beowulf's accomplice in torturing me. Puhvel had the voice and build of a bear, along with the general demeanor of an unusually misanthropic berserker. (One rumor among his students -- at least the three of us dumb enough to stick around after the first week of class -- was that, on winter nights, Puhvel could be spotted hunting in the suburban woods of Montreal. With a crossbow. Another was that he had gotten out of his native Estonia, just across the Baltic from Beowulf's homeland, on a wrestling scholarship.)
Puhvel didn't recite"Beowulf" the way an actor might, drawing out the drama so as to camouflage the demands of its verse. He intoned it, in his Viking-accented Anglo-Saxon, line after line, page after page, class after class, as though "Beowulf" the poem, like Beowulf the hero, were a force of nature that could only be borne, not fought or ever overcome. Or as though its verse were a path through a dark wood where the only outlet would be found by plunging forward, but would be sure to land us somewhere absolutely new and strange.