Monday, January 08, 2007

About Beowulf ... and Grendel

I stumbled over a good version of the old tale of Beowulf and Grendel on Friday - by accident.

For those of you unaccustomed to the story I'll give a short version (and direct you to a website on which you can find the original tale). Beowulf is a mighty warrior ... and a true hero ... of the northern tales. The story itself comes from Scandinavia and "Lord of the Rings"-author Tolkien did a very good translation of the original epos into English. Beowulf is actually considered to be the genuine hero all others were inspired by - at least by some people. There are two main stories told about him: how he defeated Grendel and his mother and how he did slay a dragon. The story about Grendel and his mother is more widely known.

In the story the king of what would later on be known as Denmark, Hrothgar by name, build a large hall - then a meeting place for warriors to celebrate their lives - in order to hold his many banquets in the right place. This hall was said to be larger and more wonderful than all the others and soon the heroes gathered there. But then the killing started. Every night something (Grendel, as you might have guessed already) came into the hall as silent as a shadow and killed the men there in their sleep (it was customary to sleep in such a hall after a banquet at that time). Hrothgar soon was at wits end, his people and his friends were dying and nobody knew the reason for this.

Help came in the form of Beowulf and his men, hearing about Hrothgar's misfortune and coming to his aide - very much as a hero should. The fact, that Beowulf was a king himself, surely helped matters. The new warriors were greeted most warmly by Hrothgar and his people. And in the night after their arrival Beowulf - who was said to be exceptionally brave and strong - killed the mighty monster Grendel ... and cut off it's arm to nail it to the hall, then a symbol of victory.

Unfortunately Grendel was not alone and in the night after he was killed - while Beowulf and his men were celebrating their victory (which took its time then, the people from Scandinavia were accustomed to long drinking) - another creature appeared, killing some of Beowulf's men and disappearing. It was Grendel's mother who had come to avenge her son. So Beowulf set out again, followed the creature into a swamp and killed her there. Grendel's father does not appear in the story, maybe he just wasn't in the mood to avenge his son, maybe he had been eaten by his wife ... who knows with monsters?

The original tale offers no real explanation for Grendel's motives. Maybe the creature was disturbed by the loud banquets, maybe it just was out for blood. In tales that old the evil does not need a reason to be evil. Grendel was - as he was later described by people writing about Beowulf - a "Natural Born Killer". He was - or seemed to be - nothing but a killing machine.

That much for the original tale. In recent years I've found two movie versions of it. The first one I found is a bit strange, to say the least. It's titled "Beowulf" and features "Highlander"-star Christopher Lambert in the title role. The whole story has been put into some sort of "Cyberpunk" fantasy world where the hall of Hrothgar has become an outpost under siege. But the people besieging it don't have to do much, the numbers inside dwindle every night because the creature is striking. Beowulf (in the story the son of a demon and a human mother and destined to find and kill all evil creatures in the world) of course kills the heinous creature. Grendel looks like some sort of walking mixture between various reptiles and a human. The mother comes in as well afterwards, first in the form of an alluring woman (something the original story has not mentioned at all), then in the form of something always reminding me of the Spider-Queen from Hell. It also turns out that Hrothgar does not only have a very charming daughter Beowulf falls in love with, but is also the father of Grendel (seduced by Grendel's mother in her human form). As she was there before the outpost was even build, she considers her son to be the rightful owner, especially as his father currently holds it.

As far as action movies go, "Beowulf" is not bad. It's not exceptionally good either, though. The whole story seems to fit too well. There's the hero, there's the first monster, there's the second monster and there's the final when he leaves the now deserted outpost with the lovely girl. Something you can watch - and should watch if you like fast-paced sword fights and other close combat -, but not something for the large audience. The effects of the 'invisible' Grendel in the large cistern of the castle and the change of Grendel's mother from a very attractive blonde into the aforementioned Spider-Queen from Hell are quite good - but nothing out of the ordinary either.

The movie I stumbled over on Friday is quite different. It's called "Beowulf & Grendel" and gives the story an interesting spin. For one thing a lot of the actors are Scandinavian and so is the producer. The whole story was produced somewhere in that area, too. The costumes look genuine enough and the whole movie as a good 'feeling' to me. Unlike Lambert's "Beowulf" this one feels like the people working on it took the original story seriously.

This story begins with Hrothgar making a grave mistake. Whether this mistake is killing one troll (trolls are monsters often found in Scandinavian folklore, but the original story does not indicate Grendel is one of them) or sparing the life of his child (Grendel), is very much up to your individual view. Grendel grows up learning about the humans, always remembering the day his father was slain. So when he has become a strong adult troll (and that's really strong), he comes to Hrothgar's hall and starts the killing. Unlike the original creature from the old tale - or the version from Lambert's "Beowulf" -, he only kills armed opponents, neither the women, nor the children, nor the old men. And he restricts himself to Hrothgar's subjects - which is why Beowulf and his men are not attacked - they are no members of Hrothgar's court.

Beowulf seeks information about this 'monster' which seems to mock him and his men and he does so by asking a 'witch' living outside the human settlements in the wild. This woman actually is a key to the story of the movie ... and a character you won't find in the original tale. She knows a lot about Grendel ... and is the mother of his only child, although you only find out about that in the end.

Instead of killing the troll, Beowulf tries to catch him - he has realized that the creature has been wronged and is 'justified' in hating the humans -, but Grendel, probably not realizing this himself, fatally wounds himself to get out of Beowulf's trap - cutting off his own arm. He flees to the seaside and wades into the water, letting himself drift. A pale hand we've seen appear (and trying to drag people under) before in the movie takes the dying Grendel away.

The next night - while Beowulf is 'visiting' the witch - the hall is attacked again, this time not by Grendel, but by his mother who is less muscular than her son, but far more aggressive. With the rest of his men, Beowulf follows her trail and enters her cave, finding a second one only reachable by diving. He is alone in that second cave, finding the dead Grendel, reunited with his severed arm (which his mother took from Hrothgar's hall). While he still tries to find out whether or not Grendel is really dead, his mother appears and Beowulf is forced to kill her as well. Suddenly he faces a child, red-haired and blue-eyed like the witch, but with some of Grendel's characteristics as well. Beowulf, realizing that this is Grendel's son, does not kill the child, but instead retreats.

When he and his men sail back home, he sees the child and its mother one last time ... hoping that this child will not grow up with nothing but the wish to kill its father's murderer.

The movie reminded me in some ways of "The 13th Warrior", an older movie with Antonio Banderas. Both are set in northern Europe, both feature two different 'types' of humans and both force the hero into an reluctant war against them (neither the Banderas character nor Beowulf really want to kill, no questions asked). Grendel and his family are described as trolls (as the other tribe in the Banderas movie is described as some form of cave-dwellers), but in essence they all seem human enough. They care for each other, Grendel for his father, his mother for him. That is not so far from the original tale when Grendel's mother comes to avenge her son. In addition this Grendel is able to father a child with a human mother, so he can't be too far from mankind biologically either. The design of the trolls (humans with more body-hair, a strong brow ridge and the limited ability to 'speak' human tongue) also suggests they are some kind of 'ancient' humans, some early form.

It's a novel approach to the story of Beowulf, but not a bad one ... and surely a lot better than Lambert's "Beowulf".

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