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Jeffrey Kramer

I'd say it's more of a superhero story than a monster story: the poor town is helpless, all hope seems lost, until a stranger comes to the rescue. So I found it exasperating when the movie set out to destroy that central element of the tale. In the text, Beowulf has really performed superheroic deeds in the ocean against sea-monsters, and the man who sneers at this (Unferth, the John Malkovich character in the film) is justly rebuked for his malicious envy; in the movie, these deeds only exist in Beowulf's (presumably lying) tale, and Unferth is pretty much the voice of rational skepticism. And instead of Grendel being brought down by Beowulf in one-on-one combat, he's ensnared by some medieval rope-tech and dies of a thousand cuts inflicted by all the soldiers. Because, after all, we modern moviegoers are much too sophisticated to believe in dumb stuff like superheroes, right?

Even though I've taught Beowulf, I don't think there's any point in telling anybody they ought to like it. But give those translations a try and see if they change your mind.


I remember reading Beowulf in high school and rather enjoying it. Granted, it was in translation. Still, I had a lot of sympathy for the monster and his poor mom. I've had friends who've read it in Old English, and they had similar reactions. Poor Grendel just wanted some peace and quiet, like the gods of Babylon before they sent the flood.

Clearly, Grendel is a monster who must be destroyed, but in our modern sensibility, we have conquered so many monsters that we can afford to pity them. It's like Raymond Burr's cynical remark about what we call civilization at the end of Godzilla, King of the Monsters or those old buttons declaring that King Kong died for our sins. In Japan, the monsters were elementals, features of the land like hot springs or volcanoes. They could destroy or be called on for help, as in an anti-American propaganda film from the 1940s where they were called to life from an old book to fight Micky Mouse clones in US bombers.

I like the more recent 3D version of Grendel. It was wonderfully lurid, but the monsters were much less sympathetic. From the horror, you realized that Grendel and his mother both had to be killed. There was no place for them in the world of men.

P.S. My favorite word for a very taut, minimalist style is "lapidary", as in "Mathematics texts often have a lapidary style. They'll begin, 'Let A be a finite, unbounded commutative co-set.'" Everybody with me?

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