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

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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....

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