Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Who's Your Monster?

If nothing else, the 3-D version of Beowulf is thought provoking. Grendel the cannibal comes across as more pathetic than terrifying, a misshapen deformity, the product of sin. The hero, Beowulf, while a dashing hunk of a savior, is nonetheless human and his own sin comes back to haunt him in the form of a golden dragon. The real evil one is Grendel's mother, seductress, serpent, beast, combining all the old archetypes of the witch and the evil snake. The film alters the tale and makes it a more coherent morality play, but still half pagan, half Christian, like the original. Heroes will be replaced by martyrs, Beowulf laments.

The critics are many. Salon's reviewer compares Beowulf unfavorably to the successful film version of Lord of the Rings.

Others echo a 1970 article by Roger Rollin, "Beowulf to Batman," that praises any pop version of epics that brings people to the epics themselves.

The film deserves credit for its poetic vision. The digital Anthony Hopkins is a marvel. Grendel speaks Old English. At times I thought of the film Excaliber and Merlin. Contrary to the claim of Salon, the film did create a mythical realm.

The film raises the age old questions of how monsters come to be, their relation to sexuality, the vulnerability of the hero, and all the Freudian and Jungian archetypes attending these questions. Making the dragon Beowulf's own spawn goes to the heart of the story. Like Goya's Titan devouring his son (above), Beowulf must destroy his offspring and thereby be mortally wounded himself. Meanwhile, Grendel's mother, the demon of the deep, of the sea, the Yin to Beowulf's Yang, lives on to tempt another and repeat the cycle.

Beowulf , the film, is dazzling and much more than mere entertainment.

A Sample Review:
Here is an especially good review:

Never Mind Grendel. Can Beowulf Conquer the 21st-Century Guilt Trip?

The new film version of Beowulf is upon us, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and starring Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie, and Crispin Glover, with Ray Winstone as Beowulf.

Zemeckis, whose earlier films include Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump, and The Polar Express, has always explored cutting-edge technologies in his work, aiming for emotional storytelling rather than just eye candy. In Beowulf, he has once again fashioned a stunning visual world by using "performance capture" computer animation — real actors are digitally mapped and reconfigured in a virtual environment. Winstone, for example, who employed his real body to play the paunchy Gary Dove in Sexy Beast, here in Beowulf appears as an impossibly cut miracle of human anatomy. And the dragon? Well, let's just say I highly recommend the 3-D version that's being released in select theaters.

Much has been written about how Beowulf looks, but less about what it means, partly because that meaning is difficult to articulate. We live in an age of radically different values than those of the original Beowulf culture, yet it still speaks to us. Many of its explicit statements of power, violence, and gender relations are forbidden to our more gentle, egalitarian, and diplomatic society. But something in the primitive story resonates deeply in the modern audience as well — embarrassingly so (or ironically so) for intellectuals, but more sincerely I suspect for lay audiences.

At first Beowulf seems to join the ranks of other recent films that champion pre-Christian masculine virtues. History-based blockbuster hits like Zach Snyder and Frank Miller's film 300 (about the battle of Thermopylae) or HBO's series Rome, are unapologetic celebrations of macho competence. The popularity of these pseudohistorical films took many media pundits by surprise, but the audiences who felt the testosterone buzz from the hero stories (myself included) were not surprised in the least. And the experience is not just the visceral Freudian holiday of aggression that one finds in inferior action and slasher pictures. Rather, there is a distinct sympathy for honor culture in these films — brute strength, tribal loyalty, and stoic courage actually get things done.

Academe finds all this loathsome and backward, and, of course, our liberal culture is ostensibly opposed to the social hierarchies, patriarchy, and chauvinism of older honor cultures. But narratives and representations about heroic strength (even flawed and misdirected) remain deeply satisfying for many people.

The story of one of the great monster-killers of all time, Beowulf is an epic poem that comes to us in the form of the Old English manuscript called the Nowell Codex by archivists (but titled Beowulf after its main character). Most scholars put the date of the manuscript around 1100 A.D., but the story certainly existed in oral form for centuries before that. The text and the tale are considered British national treasures, despite the fact that the story is about a Scandinavian hero fighting monsters in Denmark.

In the original, Beowulf is the name of a young warrior from the land of the Geats (southern Sweden), and his story unfolds sometime around the turn of the sixth century. He comes to hear of a troubled Danish king, Hrothgar, whose subjects and feasting hall (Heorot) are being menaced by a monster named Grendel. Beowulf offers his services as a monster-killer.

Beowulf and his band of Geat warriors are welcomed with open arms by the Danes. They drink mead together and plan for battle against Grendel. But Unferth, a mischievous Dane among them, calls Beowulf's power into question, by reporting a story of Beowulf's loss in a swimming competition against his friend Breca.

Beowulf sets Unferth straight and establishes his monster-killing credentials when he explains that he and Breca swam side by side for five nights until an "angry sea-flood broke out above us — blackening sky and freezing northwinds forced us apart, towering salt-swells struck between us. Strange sea creatures surfaced around me....To the deep sea-floor, something pulled me — hard gripfingers hauled me to sand with grappling tight claws. It was granted to me to reach this devil, rush him to sleep with sharp sword-point — swift blade-slashing, strong in my hand, haled him deathward."

We can already see that Beowulf, for good or ill, is a man's story — told by men, about men, and celebrating manly virtues. Even before the encounter with Grendel, for example, we have heroes in chain mail, emptying mugs of beer and trading boastful stories of violent victories against formidable enemies. The testosterone level only rises as the story progresses.

Zemeckis's version, as we'll see, departs significantly from the original, but the visual fireworks certainly strum the strings of thumos, or spiritedness, during the action sequences. And the trustworthy friend Wiglaf refers to Beowulf in the film as the "prince of all warriors."

The monster Grendel (descendant of the biblical Cain) regularly breaks into the large feasting hall at night to kill and eat the sleeping Danes. This time the beast snares a victim immediately. Grendel "tore frantically, crunched bonelockings, crammed blood-morsels, gulped him with glee." But when Grendel grabs his second victim, the warrior Beowulf grabs back. A horrible battle ensues and Beowulf, by sheer willpower, rips Grendel's arm off, delivering him a death blow.

But the following night, Grendel's hideous mother comes to the hall to avenge her son. The mother turns out to be an even more dreadful foe, and Beowulf must follow her to her watery lair. In a cave underwater, Beowulf tries in vain to crush the "sea hag," but she is too strong. Finding a huge sword in the monster's cache, he manages finally, "with rage in his heart," to slay the creature.

After much celebration, the Beowulf of the original poem returns home and eventually becomes the king of the Geats, living happily for many years as a noble ruler. Late in his life, however, the peaceful interval is broken, and Beowulf must rise again to meet a monstrous enemy. This time he fights a giant dragon and manages to finally carve up the serpent — but not before he is bitten badly by the venomous creature. Beowulf finally dies, is cremated, and is buried on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

I've just committed the mortal sin, according J.R.R. Tolkien, of summarizing the plot of Beowulf. Tolkien argued, in his influential 1936 lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics," that critics had failed to see the seriousness and the depth of Beowulf, because they frequently abstracted the simple plot from the actual poem. There seems to be some truth in this. If I say, for example, that Beowulf is about a guy who fights three monsters and then dies, I've pretty much covered the actual plot. And thinking about the poem in this way led many scholars to see it as an important linguistic artifact, but otherwise unsophisticated.

Tolkien showed us that the actual poetry of Beowulf was indeed powerful stuff; haunting and eerie on a line-by-line basis, and emotionally edifying when taken as a whole narrative. Tolkien, in a passage that unknowingly augurs his own importance as an inspiring writer of monster fantasies, defended Beowulf and its "low" monsters, saying "the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men's imagination....Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm."

But more than just a champion of the fantasy/horror genre, Tolkien weighed in on the substantive debate as to whether the poem was a work of Christian or pagan imagination. The poem is ambivalent about its hero — making him an inspirational figure, but also tragic. His strength and his reliability make him a champion, but his pride and conceit make him flawed. Traditionally, scholars read this ambivalence as a sign that the poem itself is a mongrel offspring — written originally by a Northern pagan, steeped in Norse legend, but copied and interpolated by a Christian monk who "baptized" the text with minor Christian additions.

The relationship between heroes, monsters, and gods can be said to experience a sea change in Beowulf, if we realize that the important pagan virtue of pride has become the principal vice for Christianity. Monsters, in both the pagan and biblical traditions, were usually used as symbols of arrogant hubris, among other things. But monster-killers, or heroes, were celebrated in pagan culture as the strong men of action who always seem necessary to save the family or tribe or village. Monsters give men an excuse to do the things they were built (by nature and nurture) to do; fight, protect, take, and defend. Hero-pride was a favored impulse in the pre-Christian era, even if it came with flaws of excess and immoderation. But the biblical tradition brought a new ethic — the counterintuitive assertion that "Blessed are the meek." Humility and submission became praiseworthy postures. The "hero" of Christianity, Jesus, even ends in the "ignoble" position of suffering on a cross. This is not exactly fertile cultural soil for growing good monster-killers. Norse he-men of Beowulf's era would not have understood this new kind of victory through humility.

In Christianity, victory no longer comes when the hero is standing over the slain monsters. It comes in the next life, after one has lived humbly and proven oneself by enduring great suffering. Traditional heroes, like Beowulf, Hercules, or Odysseus must be acknowledged for their strength and achievements, but their prideful humanity — their attempts to personally bring justice into the world — is devalued in the new Christian paradigm. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, we don't need monster-killers when we trust in the Lord. After all, God, not man, punishes the wicked. Heroic faith replaces heroic action.

Beowulf embodies what Tolkien calls "Northern courage," which puts the "unyielding will" at the center of heroic narrative. The Norse imagination, filled with the philosophy of absolute resistance, was properly tamed in England, according to Tolkien, by contact with Christianity. Tolkien, overplaying his hand, says that the poet (or the scrivener) of Beowulf saw clearly that "the wages of heroism is death." The Christian looks back over the course of pagan history and finds that all the "glory" won by heroes and kings and warriors is for naught, because it is only about this earthly temporal world. The medievalist Andy Orchard, in his book Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript, also echoes Tolkien's view that Beowulf is part of a shift from honor culture to humility culture. He quotes, for example, Aelfric's 10th-century Lives of the Saints, which asks, "What holiness was in that hateful Hercules, the huge giant, who slaughtered all his neighbors, and burned himself alive in the fire, after he had killed men, and the lion, and the great serpent?"

The writers of the new movie seem well aware of this transformation of values when they have Beowulf deliver lines like "The time of heroes is dead. The Christ God has killed them."

While proponents of the Tolkien argument have focused on the tragic hubris of the Beowulf character, I detect a more recent change, equally interesting, in the monsters of Beowulf. The monsters of the original story were portrayed as odious and evil to the core — triumphed over by manly courage and strength. A truly Christian monster, however, will not really be a monster at all, but only a confused soul who needs a hug rather than a sword thrust. Christianity seeks to embrace the outcast, not fight him. Christianity celebrates the downtrodden, the loser, the misshapen.

Zemeckis's more tender-minded film version suggests that the people who cast out Grendel are the real monsters. The monster, according to this charity paradigm, is just misunderstood rather than evil. The blame for Grendel's violence is shifted to the humans, who sinned against him earlier and brought the vengeance upon themselves. The only real monsters, in this tradition, are pride and prejudice.

In the film, Grendel is even visually altered after his injury to look like an innocent, albeit scaly, little child. In the original Beowulf, the monsters are outcasts because they're bad (just as Cain, their progenitor, was outcast because he killed his brother), but in the new liberal Beowulf the monsters are bad because they're outcasts. And while the monsters are being humanized, the hero is being dehumanized. When Beowulf asks Grendel's mother, "What do you know of me?," she replies, "I know that underneath your glamour, you're as much a monster as my son Grendel."

The film cleverly ties Beowulf's final monster fight to the earlier episodes with Grendel and his mother (something the original fails to do). By transforming Grendel's mother into a femme fatale seductress, they've found a way simultaneously to further demonstrate Beowulf's flaws, give the female lead more dimensionality (albeit uncharitably), and connect the denouement to the earlier story.

But more interesting than these plot changes is the character adjustment. In the original, Beowulf is a hero. In the new film, he's basically a jerk, whose most sympathetic moment is when he finally realizes that he's a jerk. It's hard to imagine a more complete reversal of values from the original Beowulf story.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster." Nonetheless, he argues in Beyond Good and Evil that the pagan cultures of nobility arose out of barbaric, even beastly, sentiments of power, strength, and pride. Unlike Tolkien, who was happy to see such power hunger tamed by Judeo-Christian virtues, Nietzsche famously missed the old days and wished we would bring back a little bit of our heroic and monstrous selves. Nietzsche, who spoke affectionately of the "proud Viking," would have liked the pagan Beowulf, a tribal-minded monster-killer.

This pagan sense of virtue certainly dominates the original poem. But even now it is not just a quaint historical relic, nor is it an embarrassing impulse that must be tempered and cured with Christian humility. It's a sense of honor that is alive and well, thankfully, in many of our soldiers currently fighting in Iraq. It's a soldier's code that still lives inchoate in citizens, but is fully actualized in the warrior class.

Contrary to the original Beowulf, the new film wants us to understand and humanize our "monsters." Moreover, the film seems to follow Tolkien's view that proud "heroes" should see themselves as part of the problem rather than the solution. Zemeckis's Beowulf repeatedly indicts himself, telling his long-suffering wife, "I'm sorry, I was weak."

Many academics will probably appreciate the new emasculated Beowulf (thinking it more psychologically sophisticated and more appropriately critical of machismo), but I'm not convinced this new version transcends and nullifies the heroic original. I suspect we need both Beowulfs — the Tolkien version and the more Nietzschean version. As morality plays, the old and new versions deal with different aspects of conflict resolution. On the one hand, a diplomat, or an intellectual, or politician should try to better understand his enemy, sympathize with his gripe, and defuse his aggression. On the other hand, a soldier in the field, like the original Beowulf, does not find nuance in his enemy — he's too busy fighting him.

Perhaps the Zemeckis film has found a way to have its cake and eat it too. At one level, our reptilian brain gets to thoroughly enjoy the triumphant ass-kicking of a take-charge hero, but up in our neocortex we pay our penance for this thrill by morally condemning the protagonist — scolding Beowulf and ourselves for the momentary power trip.

Beowulf might survive Grendel. But in going up against the 21st-century guilt trip, he may have met his match.

Stephen T. Asma is a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. His books include Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums (Oxford University Press, 2001), and he is working on a book about monsters, also for Oxford University Press.



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