Saturday, 24 November 2007

Beowulf wæs bealu: Editorial comments upon the new film.


(strong neuter noun)
Bale, harm, injury, destruction, ruin, evil, mischief, wickedness, malice, a noxious thing.

(strong adjective)
Baleful, deadly, dangerous, wicked, evil.

Beowulf in name only.

This author supposes that, were the film to be titled
"Thanes and Heroes",
"Beo the Arm-Ripper",
"The Curse of Hroðgar", or
"Beware the Watery Tart",
the film would have seemed more appropriate. The screenplay is like looking at the original poem through a glass darkly -- very darkly.

The screenwriters have added several features arguably to increase appeal to (apparently) young male audiences:

-- bosoms; some heaving
-- shapely water-demons
-- love interests for Beowulf
-- unnecessary character flaws in major characters which add to the drama

Features added for (apparently) young females in the audiences include:
-- computer-generated abs, glutes, &c
-- love interests for Beowulf.

And while any or all of these additions would be fine in their own right, putting them in to the venerable story is akin to, say, putting up a Picasso on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: the original was fine the way it was.


The Uncanny Valley.

As the reader has likely heard, the film was "shot" with motion-capture techniques, using actors against a green screen, and all visuals rendered via software. This film likely represents the state of the art in computer-generated film-making. However, even the best this age has to offer comes up short.

A psychological phenomenon called the "uncanny valley"
describes how the human mind perceives representations of our own kind. As the realism of the human figure and motion increases, from stick-figures on a cave wall, though XVIII century realism, to the CGI cartoon era, the viewer's acceptance of the images increases. However, viewer reactions change when the rendering is nearly-but-not-quite perfect. Words such as "creepy", "eerie", and "repulsive" are used to describe that which is almost human, but with something not quite right.

Progress has been made since the recent film adaptation of "The Polar Express", which required a fair amount of suspension of disbelief to view, as it appeared to be not quite live action, but not animated either. "The eyes," one critic noted, "were the giveaway. The eyes weren't natural."

In Beowulf, the lack of realism in the extras is most apparent. One reviewer noted that the extras were on-par with "Shrek" characters. To this author's eyes, the extras look like stock Poser characters. The main characters naturally received more fine-tuning attention, but there are times when motions, faces, and, yes, the eyes, provide clues that something is rotten in Denmark, literally.


Rewriting the Motives of Grendel.

The screenwriters used the film to advance their ideas of Grendel's motivation for attacking Hereot. Based on (1) the thesis that Beowulf is an unreliable narrator, self-aggrandising, and (2) that the poet does not provide any explanation for Grendel's singling-out of Hroðgar's people and hall, they concocted the following:

-- Grendel is the son of Hroðgar by a water-demon; the king had no sons by Queen Wealhþeow
-- the illicit coupling of man and demon cursed Hroðgar
-- Grendel acted out of scorn, against the father who in his mind abandonded the son

In the poem, the only motive Grendel has is his own curse; he bore the 'mark of Cain' as the descendant of the Biblical character. The reader is left to supply any further subtext, though this author does not see any reason to look into the motives of the beast. Grendel serves as a manifestation of evil and the unknown, against which (even in the relatively 'civilised' VI century) still persist. Things still walk outside the circle of the campfires at night, and the civilised world looks for heroes to rid that dark of demons.

The concept of a king cursed by his own weakess for the flesh, and a hero who also has congress with the same succubus, makes for a good story. The hero who interally is haunted by the flaws no one else sees, also good. Likewise with the propogation of the Curse of Cain via mankind's flaws. They are just not meet and right to paste into the epic poem. (One may also say the same about the probable insertion of the well-known Christianised portions of the poem into an earlier pagan Germanic story. But that's a whole other topic, best left for scholars other than your writer today.)

The Victories of the "styrigendlica onlícnessa of Beowulf".

"Tonight, we dine with ... Beowulf!"
The Beowulf film (moving pictures of Beowulf, poorly translated above) does have some valuable content and redeeming qualities. Some actual Anglo-Saxon dialogue appears, mainly between Grendel and his mother. The words are accessable to the modern listener: "min cild" (meen child) my child; "modor" (modther) mother; and so forth. The reader may be aware that there is a core of words that have remained little-changed in Modern English from Old English. This author was able to pick up that dialogue fairly well; more so than, say, English via a strong Welsh or Scots accent.

What appears to be a snippet of the original poem in Old English is heard during a celebration of the older King Beowulf's earlier exploits with Grendel. Your author was not immediately able to tell which lines were used, but it sounded authentic enough. A scop was narrarating a staged demonstration of Beowulf (played by a midget) attacking a Grendel complete with break-away arm.

While the digital actors were unsatisfying, other visual effects were top-notch. The glint of torch-light from snow, rapid flight through a winter forest, the blue glamour of an cavernous pool -- all very well-done.

This viewer was able to screen the film in digital 3D, with RayBan-esque glasses. While probably not as good as IMAX 3D, the effects were nonetheless acceptable, and only briefly descended to cliche (Oh no! Look at the spear's tip at my nose!). Fortunately (for this commentor anyway; the reader's opinion may vary) Ms Jolie's anatomy was not rendered in 3D, lest it drive the Average Woman to fits of dispair and inadequacy.

Hwæt: se endestæf.

So, in conclusion: This adaptation of Beowulf is an effective demonstration of the state of the art in motion-capture filmmaking. Despite all the advances, though, the images still ring un-true in distracting ways. It is unfortunate that the filmmakers chose to play with these new cinematic toys whilst trampling over the most important epic in the English language. Had they divorced the story from any connections with the poem, the movie might have gained this Anglo-Saxon-enthusiast's admiration. But as it stands, the experience sullies the good name of Beowulf, and its anonymous scribe. To remove the aftertaste, yours truly will re-visit the original tale this afternooon.

Be well; Beoð ge gesunde, mine hlafordas ond hlæfdigan!

Monday, 19 November 2007

Mediæval performance: An Updated Beowulf


There has been much talk in the popular press of late regarding the venerable Beowulf, the thousand-some-year-old epic that underpins all English poetry and literature. In particular, I am told there is a new dramatic adaptation of the story for the cinema.

Not having yet seen this new production, I can say that I have been told that there have been some liberties taken with the plot, characters, and the relationship between Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel's Mother (interestingly, played by the ubiquitous and bi-accessible Angelina Jolie).

For the scholars of mediæval performance, Anglo-Saxon, oral tradition, and folk instruments, I offer this report of a modern performance of the ancient poem.

The original manuscript is un-named, but known for its protagonist. One manuscript is extant (Cotton Vitellus A. XV, British library). It is dated to somewhere between the VIII and XI centuries, and written in Anglo-Saxon ("Old English", not to be confused with the faux ren-faire stylings properly belonging to Early Modern English). While written in England, the content covers a period of Danish and Swedish history, somewhere in the VI century. In what is thought to be a common feature of epics of the era, truth and fable are inexorably intertwined.

The scop, a minstrel, would have performed the poem, likely set to some accompaniment. At 3183 lines long, a performance of Beowulf would have been epic just for the effort needed. Anglo-Saxon poetry relied not on rhyme, but on alliteration:

Hƿæt! ƿē Gār‐Dena / in geār‐dagum
þēod‐cyninga / þrym gefrūnon,
hū þā æðelingas / ellen fremedon.

ƿ = "w"; þ = "th" as in thick; ð = "th" as in the

Note the repetition of sounds across the caesura: Gār‐Dena, geār‐dagum, and so on.

So, while Beowulf is a staple of the student of English, the poem doesn't see much of the light of the modern day. One recent exception to that was in Professor Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, where Anglo-Saxon is used as the language of the Rohirrim. The Peter Jackson film version contains a dirge sung by Éowyn:
Bealocwealm hafað fréone frecan forth onsended
giedd sculon singan gléomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest and mæga deorost.

'An evil death has sent forth the noble warrior
Sorrowing minstrels shall sing a song
in Meduseld that he is no more,
to his dearest lord and kinsmen most beloved.
An evil death...'

The beginning of this newly-written piece recalls line 2265 in Beowulf:
Bealocwelm hafað fela feorhcynna forð onsended...
'Baleful death has many of my living kin sent forth...'

Whilst catching up on my reading today, a particular conversation in an Anglo-Saxon scholar's forum on the æthernet caught my attention. Added to a lively discussion of the film adaptation, was a link to a video performance of one man performing the poem with a reconstructed period harp.

This modern-day scop has memorised(!) the entire poem, and set it to appropriate period music on a harp. The six-stringed instrument was built by a German firm, based on artefacts found in a 7th century Alemannic nobleman's grave in Oberflacht (south of Stuttgart), and corroborated by Sutton Hoo findings.

The instrument is tuned to six tones across an octave which make up three perfect fifths, and two perfect fourths, which gives the scop a useful modal palette with which to work. The sound is rustic, pentatonic, ancient, and haunting.

The effect is astounding, and I am given to imagine that this was what one would have heard a thousand years ago, around a campfire in West Saxony.

References, other than noted above:

(my current favourite translation) Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition) W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. ISBN 0393320979.

History of the English Language at Virginia Tech:

Old English at the University of Virginia:

Beowulf Translations:

Soundtrack analysis of languages used in the Lord of the Rings film:

Peter S Baker, Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. ISBN 0631234543. Electronic edition at

Englisc composition listserv:

Beoð ge gesunde!