Monday, January 07, 2008

beowulf (spoilers)

One of the many pleasant surprises this Christmas past was a novelization of the movie "Beowulf."
I'm not particularly partial to novelizations, as they're usually derivative and less interesting than the movie, but in the case of "Beowulf" I'm willing to make an exception. The book is based on the recent Robert Zemeckis movie, which screenplay is written by Neil Gaiman. I've read exactly one book by Gaiman that disappointed, and many other stories that amazed me, moved me, inspired me, and just plain creeped me out. He is easily one of the foremost storytellers of this generation, and if he's involved with a project, I'm interested.
The story is based on the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem of the same title, which tells the tale of a fearless hero who delivers a Danish kingdom from the monster that has been terrorizing its ruler and his subjects during their revels. Following that, he also must fight the monster's mother, who comes to avenge him; and at life's end, a dragon.
The book begins immediately prior to the monster Grendel's first attack, as the Danish King Hrothgar and his thanes are celebrating the peace and stability in the land, in the newly constructed hall, Heorot. Hrothgar is something of a monster-slayer himself, having dispatched several of the beasts in order to claim the land for his people, including a dragon.
Still, all is not well in Heorot. Some of the thanes are concerned about a new Roman god they've heard about, named Jesus Christ. This is in itself a nice touch, as the original poem is largely pre-Christian in its praise of mortal strength and glory, although it contains a nice Christian gloss, as though the poet who recorded it either was trying to preserve the old ways and felt this approach would make it palatable to a new generation; or he was himself a convert and simply was trying to preserve the story within the new framework his people had received.
More important than the encroaching influence of Christianity -- which, predictably, gets a bad rap as a hateful and repressive religion, as though fanaticism and fundamentalism typify the beliefs and behaviors of Christians -- is the trouble near the throne. Hrothgar's young queen is cold to him, and not just because the king is an old, sodden mess who will never get the hero's welcome to Valhalla. The king has a connection to Grendel that only she and he know about, that largely constrains him from taking any meanngful action himself against the creature.
That connection, as the reader discovers when Beowulf confronts Grendel's mother, is that Hrothgar is Grendel's father. The monster's mother is an ancient mere-wife who, one presumes, has been engaging in the same destructive cycle of weregild for ages. A hero comes and slays a monster, then she comes and avenges her child's death. The hero then trails her to her lair, as Beowulf does, and she offers to make him a king whose every foe will quail at the sight of him -- if he gives her a son to replace the one that he slew. (She fails to mention that he will never sire another child.)
Hrothgar killed a dragon, then sired Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel, then sires the dragon who will beset him at the end of the story and nearly leaves his kingdom in ashes. The cycle leaves the throne of each king tainted by a bargain with the devil, and turns each hero's lust for glory and power back upon him so that he wreaks the mere-wife's revenge on himself for her, while robbing the hero of any chance at Valhalla, since anything less than a hero's death leads to Hel.
It is, in the end, an interesting treatment on the bargains we make to gain power and the prices we pay to seal those agreements. No one in the story who seeks glory or power ends well; every one ends badly. The only exception is the man who succeeds Beowulf. He has slain no monsters, brokered no deals with the merewife. He is named Beowulf's heir and receives the crown, and thus the cycle is ended.
And ironically, despite the book's stereotyped depiction of Christians, this is one area where I think it does the faith justice, though (ironically) through Beowulf, who remains a pagan until the end: It's Beowulf's struggle against the dragon, not for glory but for love of his people, that breaks the cycle. Hrothgar hid behind other heroes, many of whom Grendel killed, and so never confronted the monstrosity of his own sin and deal with the devil, and in the end he committed suicide. Beowulf acknowledges his relationship to the dragon, and makes it his burden and no one else's to put things to rights.
I hadn't expected the book, but it was worth the time it took to read. When it comes out on DVD, I plan to watch the movie as well.

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