Saturday, December 15, 2007

Back to the Classics (2): Beowulf

I went to see the new Beowulf movie recently. In 3D at London's Imax cinema it was quite impressive and I do think it captured the feel of an Anglo-Saxon warrior epic, even if it did depart somewhat from the storyline of the poem, composed sometime between the 8th and 11th century - sorry to say the sub-plot of heroes being seduced by an elf-shining Angela Jolie character doesn't feature in the original.
The poem and the film do though both emphasise the centrality of the mead hall, a combination of royal court with drinking, banqueting and music hall. A place of wine, women and song, or mead, maidens and minstrels. We are told that Hrothgar, the king, set his mind on 'a master mead-house, mightier far than ever was seen by the sons of earth'. The hall, 'high, gabled wide' was named Heorot - 'the Hart' or 'Stag', subsequently to be the name of many pubs down to the present day. The monster Grendel was prompted to attack out of jealousy for the pleasures to be had in the mead hall: 'with envy and anger an evil spirit endured the dole in his dark abode, that he heard each day the din of revel high in the hall: there harps rang out, clear song of the singer... So lived the clansmen in cheer and revel a winsome life'. Grendel launches a murderous assault when the Danes after a long night 'outreveled to rest had gone'.
It is probable that an epic like Beowulf was originally recited to music and for the warriors in the poem to pass into the lays of minstrels as heroes was a form of immortality - to be sung about and remembered, as the legendary Beowulf still is over a thousand year of later. But the musicality of Beowulf is not confined to the deeds of harpists and minstrels, but is embedded in its language, especially the kennings - poetic descriptions of the everyday by which, for instance, the sea becomes 'the whale road', 'the swan road' or 'the gannet's bath'. These are the kind of figures that recur in English folk song over the centuries.
Quotes from Francis B. Gummere's translation from the Old English.

1 comment:

patrick said...

Beowulf's animation was all around impressive, though the characters' movement reminded me a lot of Shrek. I appreciate the fact that this movie gives a pseudo-education in ancient literature (never had to read the book as a child)