Posted Sunday morning, February 25, 2018.
A CGI-ed Ray Winstone as the hero of Richard Zemeckis’ motion capture adaptation of the Old English epic “Beowulf”. Unlike the epic, the movie includes lots of sex and romance. Took great strength of will on my part to resist the temptation to use a still of a CGI-ed Angelina Jolie as the monster Grendel’s seductive mother “naked.”
Great. More homework.
I forgot Robert Zemeckis made a movie out of “Beowulf”.
A quasi-cartoon, actually. Motion capture. Like his “Polar Express” and “Christmas Carol”. Features the voices and faces---eyes and mouths at least---and, to greater or lesser degrees---in Anjelina Jolie’s case, much greater---bodies of Jolie, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright, Brendan Gleeson, John Malkovich, and Crispin Glover as the monster Grendel. Great cast but I don’t want to watch it. But I feel obligated. I’m reading Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of the Old English epic and watching the movie seems like part of the assignment.
My review copy of “Beowulf” arrived the other day and I was so excited I took to Twitter to announce the news and make all my followers jealous. Instead of being jealous, though, two of them gave me homework.
My assignment, they said, was to compare Mitchell’s translation to Seamus Heaney’s.
Unlike when I was in high school and college, I do my homework. Dutifully, I put Heaney’s “Beowulf” on reserve at the library. And just a little while ago I reserved the movie.
You might think I’d have owned Heaney’s translation. Well, you might if you know Heaney’s one of my favorite poets and, as a regular reader of this blog, you’re aware of my fascination with myth and legend. But you wouldn’t if you knew I hate “Beowulf”.
Unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey, the stories of King Arthur, Dante, and the Bible, Beowulf is not an epic I return to again and again. I’ve read it once. In college. As homework. (I always did the reading. It was the written assignments I let slide. I shaped up in grad school.) And I didn’t like it one bit.
There’s lots of action but little adventure, if you know what I mean. It’s one moment of brutality and slaughter after another. It’s basically a horror story. A monster story. The proto-monster story. You can practically draw a direct line from it to “Alien”, and, since it exists, you might as well watch “Alien”. At least the human characters are, well, human. There’s very little humanity in “Beowulf”, which means there’s no romance and no sex. Think about the role sex plays in Homer, Mallory, Dante, and Genesis, Exodus, Judges, and Kings. (Looks like Zemeckis and his screenwriter, some nobody named Neil Gaiman, set out to remedy that.) The characters have no hidden depths. They speak in the simplest, gruffest declaratives with less nuance than Frank Miller’s Batman.
No poetry. A funny thing to say about a poem but what I mean is that there’s no figurative language. No metaphor, no symbolism. It’s as literal as can be. Precise is the contemporary critical term. Stark. Stark and spare. There’s another favorite of the critics. I didn’t know those terms back in Elliott Rich’s Intro to English Lit class. I’m not sure they’d have persuaded me. To me it was just bleak. Bleak, dark, colorless, and ugly.
Time moved quickly. The ship was moored
under the cliffs; the warriors, eager,
climbed aboard it, the surf crashed
onto the sand, the men stowed
weapons and war-gear, then shoved off
with oars out into the open sea.
Over the waves, with the wind in her sails
and her prow in foam, she flew like a bird
till in due time on the second day
the bold seafarers sighted land:
Shimmering cliffs, sheer crags,
and jutting headlands. The journey was done.
Lightly they leaped out onto the shore
and secured the ship with a strong cable.
Then they shook out their heavy mail-shirts
and battle gear and gave thanks to God
for the smooth crossing on a calm sea.
Actually, that’s a pretty good passage. But the language---spare, stark, precise---is Mitchell’s and he’s known to take liberties. In fact, I suspect that relatively excessive “shimmering” is his own contribution.
Which is why I wanted to read his translation. It’s not “Beowulf” itself I wanted to read. I wanted to see what Mitchell had made of it. I’ve been a fan since I read his Book of Job way back when. Since then I’ve read (and made a point of owning) his “Tao Te Ching”, “A Book of Psalms”, “Iliad”, and “Odyssey”. My favorite translation of the Iliad is still Robert Fagles’ but what I like about Mitchell’s is the narrative velocity. It reads like a continuous adventure tale. Fagles’ reads like a collection of related poems which for me makes it slow going and a work to spot-read rather than read straight through from Achilles brooding in his tent to his making Priam beg for the return of his son Hector’s body. I figure if anyone can make an appealing adventure tale out of Beowulf, it’s Mitchell. But maybe Heaney did too. I’ll find out and report back.
One more thing.
Another reason I haven’t re-read Beowulf since I read it but didn’t write about it for Elliot Rich---and I still don’t understand how I managed to get a B in the class anyway---is that shortly afterward I read John Gardner’s novel “Grendel”, the Beowulf story told from Grendel’s point of view. Actually, the Beowulf part of the novel takes up just the last couple of chapters. Grendel, of course, sees his own story as starting well before the arrival of the murderer who will kill him and he tells it to explain how he got himself into trouble with that bloodthirsty villain. It was one of my favorite novels back in the day. There’s plenty of humanity and poetry in it. The language isn’t stark and spare. Now that I’m thinking of it, it’s about time I reread it and...damn!
Just gave myself more homework, didn’t I?