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‘The Revenant’: What is that, besides a movie?

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It’s risky business to title a film after a word many will have to look up in a dictionary, unless as a way to get news organizations to publish stories explaining what it means, thereby publicizing the movie.  Twentieth Century Fox tried to help in one of its promotional images by explaining that the word “revenant,” as in “The Revenant” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is a noun, meaning, “one who has returned, as if from the dead.” It’s from the French, revenir, to return.

Still, the Telegraph’s Rebecca Hawke wrote, “All things considered, it’s an astoundingly apt title for a film about a character who survives a bear attack … and, to all intents and purposes, comes back to life, hungry for revenge,” not against the bear, but against his fellow fur trappers who left him for dead to save themselves.

[‘The Revenant’ is turning Leonardo DiCaprio into a legend]

But historically speaking, to say a revenant is one who has returned “as if” from the dead is cheating, an expedient perhaps required because in the movie and in the novel of the same name on which the movie is based, the revenant (fur trapper Hugh Glass) does not die but is merely perceived to have died.

There was no “as if” about it in the immensely popular French TV series called “Les Revenants.”

As described at Frenchflicks:

“In an idyllic French Alpine village, a seemingly random collection of people find themselves in a state of confusion as they attempt to return to their homes. What they do not yet know is that they have been dead for several years, and no one is expecting them back. Buried secrets emerge as they grapple with this miraculous and sinister new reality, struggling to reintegrate with their families and past lovers.”

In medieval times, when some of the earliest “revenant” stories appeared, they were the “undead.” They died and got out of their graves in full fleshy form, albeit sometimes the worse for wear, according to Nancy Mandeville Caciola, an associate professor of history at the University of California at San Diego and one of the world’s leading experts on such matters. Her new book, “Afterlives, The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages” will be published in May.

A revenant, she said in an interview with The Washington Post, is “a corpse that comes back to life,” meaning death preceded it.

In Icelandic sagas, the word is “draugr,” also meaning “undead,” she said.

Among draugrs, “the most famous, perhaps, is the revenant Glam of the ‘Grettis’ saga,” she writes in her paper, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture.”

“In life, Glam was a widely disliked shepherd who was killed violently — possibly by another (unnamed) draugr. After Glam’s body was buried, it nevertheless wandered from its grave at night, stamping on the rooftops and storehouses and terrifying the local inhabitants. Eventually, Glam’s corpse killed two living men. The draugr was only put to rest after a terrific battle with Grettir …who beheaded the revenant and reburied it with its head between its legs.”

That sounds about as bloody and not-for-the-squeamish as DiCaprio’s “The Revenant.” But Glam was an aggressive revenant, apparently with much to be aggressive about, being so unpopular. Some other revenants in medieval Europe “come back to life and mind their own business,” she said, and may even be well-intentioned.

Consider the tale of the baker in medieval Brittany, a kinder, “gentler” revenant, Caciola writes “who comes back ostensibly to help his widow knead the bread.” The woman “is frightened rather than gratified by its assistance. After several nightly visits, some young men chase the cadaver through the town, and it throws stones at them to ward off pursuit.” But he makes it back to his grave. To keep the baker in his place, the locals first try heaping “heavy stones on the grave, but the nightly wanderings only cease after the community later dismembers it.”

Widows and jealousy play a prominent role in some medieval revenant stories. One, told by William of Newburgh in 1196 goes like this, as described by Caciola:

“A wicked and choleric man died suddenly in a fall from his rooftop, after he spied his wife in bed with another man. He, too, wandered at night, attacking all he met and leaving them on the point of death, while a pack of dogs followed after him, howling and whining. The locals, in fear of the revenant’s malice as much of a possible pestilence from the corruption of the air caused by the rotting corpse, began to leave the district in droves. Finally, two brothers dug up the cadaver and burned it to ashes.”

By now, with all the burning and dismembering, it should be clear that a revenant is distinguished from a ghost, which cannot be burned or cut to pieces. A ghost, Caciola says, generally “doesn’t have a physical body.” A ghost, she says, is “less effective than a revenant” because, having a body, the revenant “can attack you.”

There may have been a certain amount of spin — times don’t change that much — in the later retelling of these medieval tales by missionaries who, in spreading stories of the dead departing their graves, Caciola says, were trying “to introduce the Christian idea of resurrection.”

“The reasons these stories exist is they’re part of an ancient religious system that is in the process of being displaced,” she says.

Of course, she notes, Jesus was by no means a revenant. “He comes back fully to life as a person, not in a death and destruction kind of way, and he then goes to heaven.”

But the reason they exist now in the United States is the movies. Clint Eastwood was a revenant in the 1973 classic, “High Plains Drifter.”

[Meet the author of ‘The Revenant’ — except you can’t because of his federal job]

In more recent movie lore, the zombie, derived from Haitian culture, “most resembles the revenant,” according to “Encyclopedia of the Zombie: The Walking Dead in Popular Culture and Myth.”

“This reanimated creature is typically the corpse of a deceased person who returns from the dead to haunt the living, usually the individual(s) who wronged the person while in life,” it states.

That’s not Hugh Glass. That’s Freddy Krueger, “covered in scars after he was burned to death who seeks revenge against the children of his killers.”