May 22, 2008

This will burst your bone-locks

Look: I'm not going to debate Beowulf translations with you, because either you know a hell of a lot more about it than I do, or you absolutely don't give a crap. I see myself as being in the sweet spot between those two extremes. Perhaps a lot closer to one extreme than the other, now that I think about it.

But: isn't this an absolutely awesome sentence (from the Seamus Heaney translation):

In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.

I ask you.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Rose tells me she thinks this was posted just to yank my chain, but I'm a fan of the Heaney trans myself.

But while I'm on the subject, rather than write my own blog, I'll just respond to Wordshed, addressing the recent Beowulf film, the one which yarmando recently described as "the one with a naked Anthony Hopkins" (gee, I wish I knew how to make links on this thing!).

Written largely by Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman comics, among other things, this retelling of Beowulf attempted to make sense of some of the most troubling aspects of the original poem: why Beowulf brings Grendel's head from the mere after his attack on Grendel's mother, how the final third of the poem connects to the first two-thirds, the heavy-handed parallels between Beowulf/Geatland and Hrothgar/Denmark, and so on.

Gaiman's solution to these difficulties (and it was a clever one) was to place the parallels between Beowulf and Hrothgar at the center of the narrative, relocating Beowulf's encounter with the dragon to Denmark and eliminating Beowulf's return to Geatland in its entirety. The result is a narrative that (once you strip away the obligatory cgi effects that lead to a quite awful final battle scene) has a certainly pleasing symmetry, as well an increased unity of setting.

Even more, if we see the original Beowulf as a traditional work, part of a multiform tradition, we can understand that Gaiman's revision is utterly suitable in some ways.

But it's not the poem, and I think it is useful to use the film to see the poem more clearly. What Gaiman sacrifices for the symmetries and parallels of his version can be summarized under two headings: Hrothgar's children and the Swedish wars, neither of which play any role in the film. Both issues crystallize the poem's investment with problems of dynastic succession (the problem also raised by Beowulf's own death at the end, I might point out), and as far as the final third of the poem is concerned, the poet actually spends more time on the Swedish wars than he does on the dragon fight (just count the lines, if you don't believe me).

And that's the really telling thing: Gaiman's film (like most modern retellings) seems to understand the monsters as central to the story. No: let me put that another way: modern readings of the poem often seem to understand the monsters as the story.

But the poem itself uses the monsters, I think, to tell a story that is essentially not about monsters. Monsters are what we get when political succession is uncertain; they're a symptom, or a symbol, of the poet's real concerns.

And maybe that's why we should read the poem, rather than watch the film.

Now--let's just hope I don't see these ideas in any of my students' papers next term.