“I’m here to kill your monsteeer”: Beowulf, Ray Winstone, and the Re-Creation of the Text
Ten years have passed since the release of Robert Zemeckis’s motion capture Beowulf film starring Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie. There were grumblings at the time that certain liberties had been taken with the source material, that the film bore only a tangential relation to the poem. For those familiar with the text, eyebrows were certainly raised with the revelation that Beowulf married Wealhtheow, or that the dragon was in fact Beowulf’s son. ‘Hollywood taking liberties yet again’ came the response from some section of the crowd. This, I feel, is quite unfair on Zemeckis’s 2007 movie. Given what we know about the Old English text and its possible method of production, I argue that these later retellings – emendations, if you will – are just as valid and authentic as the poem itself.
Surviving in a single manuscript source, Beowulf is rightly considered to be a key text in the canon of English literature. An epic poem in alliterative verse comprising 3182 lines in length, it charts the travails of our titular hero, who crosses the sea from Geatland (modern-day Götaland, Sweden) to Denmark to fight and kill the monster Grendel and, latterly, his Mother. Returning to his homeland a hero, the second part of the poem sees a now aged Beowulf face off against a fierce, fire-breathing dragon. He defeats the enemy but succumbs to his battle injuries. It is by far the longest of five Old English prose and poetic works included in a miscellany known as the Nowell Codex, alongside The Life of St Christopher, The Wonders of the East, Alexander’s Letters to Aristotle and Judith. In the seventeenth century Sir Robert Cotton (d.1631) combined the Nowell Codex with another Old English miscellany, the Southwick Codex, creating a larger volume known today as Cotton Vitellius A.XV. Handwriting evidence suggests that Beowulf was transcribed around the turn of the eleventh century, ostensibly by two scribes. Of course, an absence of evidence does not necessarily mean evidence of absence. Just because the text was copied c.1000AD does not mean that the story originated at this time. It is possible that the text circulated orally for generations before being committed to the page. As we shall see, it is equally possible that a quirk of circumstance led to the chance survival of just one of many iterations of the text. Our Beowulf may not have been the only Beowulf.
Anglo-Saxon England was a predominantly oral culture. Beowulf was meant to be read aloud. Hwæt! (‘Listen!’) our narrator announces in the opening line. ‘Scops’ (oral poets) seem to have been a central part of Anglo-Saxon courtly culture. To paraphrase John Niles, the oral-poetic origins of Beowulf are borne out by the poem’s structure and the use of literary formulas. To memorise an epic poem was no easy task. There were certain mnemonic techniques a scop could employ to heighten their performance. For example, the Beowulf Poet reuses certain key descriptors (‘Beowulf, son of ecgtheow, spoke’) themes (monster fights; good and bad kingship), and improvises patterns built upon set words or phrases (e.g. through the use of compound words or ‘kennings’). The use of interlinking ring structures – wherein the first and last element of the speech, scene or segment mirror each other, the second and penultimate are connected, and so on – lends the poem a sense of narrative stability and flow. This is a style also used in Greek epic. Of course, as any modern day stand-up comedian knows, a public performance is a two-way process. The reactions of the audience are equally as vital for the telling of a good story. Unable to engage the punters and you’re booed off the stage. Performance was not just about repetition, but about amending the story – the interlinking formulas – to fit the expectations of those sitting in the mead hall or, in later periods, the cloister. The version of Beowulf we know from the Nowell Codex, copied down and interpolated by two anonymous monks, may represent just one of many variations of the Beowulf ‘formula’.
This brings us back to the 2007 Beowulf film. As a performance piece it maintains the main narrative thrust of the poem but rearranges the elements ever so slightly: Grendel’s enmity for the joys of Heorot derives from his hypersensitive hearing; Grendel’s mother is named explicitly as a water demon; Grendel and the Dragon are the illegitimate offspring of Hrothgar and Beowulf. Like the oral poet and the scribes of the Nowell Codex, the film’s writers, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery, have taken the base building blocks of the poem and amended them to suit new audiences. Maybe similar narrative changes were made in an unrecorded meal hall performance, or in a manuscript that was lost to the fires of the Reformation? Who, then, is to argue which is the most authentic version of the text?
John D. Niles, ‘Understanding Beowulf: Oral Poetry Acts’, The Journal of American Folklore 106 (1993), 131-155
John D. Niles, ‘Ring Composition and the Structure of Beowulf PMLA 94 (1979), pp. 924-935