Saturday, March 5, 2011

Animated Beowulf Film--Fatally flawed presentation, but great for D&D

I am watching the cgi Beowulf on FX HD right now.  This is the third version of the flick I've seen (the other two being in the theater, and the blu-ray director's cut).  Every time I see it, I notice things about the story that simply grate on me as a student of religion and mythology. I can't help but think that the late Norsemen who originally wrote this poem must never have stopped rolling over in their graves since the flick came out.

Actually, I think it was John Gardner who was the first grievous pisser on this legend, but that's a different blog altogether.  In this one I'll avoid ranting about what a shitty writer I think John Gardner is, and how awful his book Grendel was.

But back to Zemeckis, Avery, and Gaiman's treatment.  Anyone who has read the original poem knows how awfully and drastically this film deviates from the epic. Beowulf is presented in the film as a flawed, lying, boastful man who nevertheless is possessed of amazing physical prowess, but falls prey to the same trap of lust and seduction to which (apparently) all men fall victim. The idea of Grendel as Hrothgar's son is abhorrent to the themes of the poem.  And Wealthow claiming that she and Hrothgar have no sons is a big "WHA?"  This was clearly established to tie Beowulf to the Danes, whereas in the original epic the Dragon--which is entirely unrelated to Grendel in any way whatsoever--harasses Beowulf in Geatland after Beowulf becomes king of his own people.

Bonnie Wheeler, a scholar at Southern Methodist University, pointed out that the entire movie is a vehicle for men to get seduced by Angelina Jolie.  That's easy enough to see.  But the stated rationale of the writers is egregious.  I am a massive fan of Neil Gaiman--I think Neverwhere is one of the best fantasy novels I've ever read.  However, the man has a tendency to fall prey to pretty severe hubris when it comes to playing with classical myth and literary figures.  See his take on C.S. Lewis in his story "The Problem of Susan," for a glaring example of his failure to understand the motives and nature behind literary characters.  His and Avery's take on Beowulf and Grendel show their lack of understanding of the religious traditions in which Beowulf is rooted.  See the following quote from Avery, from Empire Magazine, December 2007:

"It occurred to me that Grendel has always been described as the son of Cain, meaning half-man, half-demon, but his mother was always said to be full demon. So who's the father? It must be Hrothgar, and if Grendel is dragging men back to the cave then it must be for the mother, so that she can attempt to sire another of demonkind." 

Avary has no clue who or what Cain was.  To put it in brief: Cain was NOT half-man, half-demon.  Cain would've been the HUMAN parent for Grendel, and in Jewish apocryphal tradition, the wife of Cain was Lilith, the queen of demons. So Avery and Gaiman commit a cardinal sin in grabbing onto one line, out of context, and trying to use it as some sort of scholarly justification to change the whole theme of the story.

Now, taken literally, this would mean that when Beowulf defeats Grendel's Mother, he in fact kills Lilith. However, in this context "son of Cain" could simply mean the latest in a long line of half-demons in Cain's lineage (just as Christ is expressly laid out in the New Testament to be a Son of David).  Grendel is nothing more or less than the latest in a long line of half-demons originally sired by Cain and Lilith. There are a few possibilities for this to be the case: one of Grendel's human parents was a full human sired by a line of humans descending from Cain at some point, both of Grendel's parents were half-demons (unlikely since his mother is said to be a full demon) or his mother is a full demon descended from the original half-demons sired by Cain and Lilith) possibly through generations of half-demons breeding with full-demons, the result would effectively be full demon.

The final possibility is that this was all just statements to emphasize the escalating nature of Beowulf's challenges and wasn't meant to be delved into too deeply.  Beowulf first kills a half-demon, then a full demon, then an ancient dragon.

In any case, the sheer idea of Beowulf, like Hrothgar before him, being seduced by Grendel's temptress mother, is ludicrous--reliable narrator or not.  The cup stolen from Grendel's Mother in the film was stolen from the dragon in the poem and forms the focus for the dragon's rage--Tolkien blatantly ripped off this scene in The Hobbit when Smaug goes on a rampage due to Bilbo stealing a golden cup. That the dragon was somehow taking vengeance upon his ancient father made me throw up in my mouth a little.

It should be noting that boasting amongst the Norse was not seen as blowhard posturing, lying, or in any way negative, but was expected of warriors in the culture. Beowulf was never intended to be seen as an unreliable narrator.  It is expected that the audience realized his boasts were exaggerated, but he was to be seen as the ultimate exposition of the perfect hero. He was brave, honest, forthright, physically and mentally superior, and in almost every way, flawless.  The only fatal flaw that proves Beowulf's end is that which kills all men...old age.  This latest film is intended to knock Beowulf off of that heroic pedestal and make him flawed, greedy, and lustful.  He is nothing more than a repeat of Hrothgar before him (and it should be noted that in the original poem, Hrothgar himself is a former great hero who is now simply too old and frail to challenge Grendel).  It ruins the characters and tries to paint the monsters as poor, misunderstood, sympathetic characters who have been driven out and tortured by humanity--a concept first explored by John Gardener in his disgusting existential piece Grendel.  I didn't need to see Grendel crying and begging for mercy at Beowulf's hands.  He killed people not because they tortured him, but because he couldn't stand to see humans happy, and it gave him joy to cause misery.  He was evil that way.  I didn't need to see Grendel's Mother's rage and sorrow at the death of her child.  I don't want to feel sorry for her.  She's a goddamn demon. Period. 

Let me be blunt: I hate Gardner's Grendel.  I have not read, and will not read McGuire's Wicked, because I find the premise disgusting.  I generally abhor any attempt to paint a horrific monster in classic myth or literature as a poor, misunderstood character.  It destroys the wonder and heroism of these stories.  Folks, this is a trend that needs to stop. It is okay for a monster to sometimes just be a monster. I say this especially nowadays, when our world is in dire need of real heroes. There's far too much ash, far too much gray, far too many fatal flaws in this world as it stands.  Let us have our great heroes of the past to look to.

There's another issue at work, here.  It seems to me that Neil Gaiman has a strong distaste for Christianity.  Like Philip Pullman and like far too many other blind haters of religion, he blames the faith for the acts of cruel men who used the faith as justification for evil acts, forgetting that if Christianity hadn't been there another justification for these acts would've been used just the same.  Gaiman's earlier referenced story, "The Problem of Susan," paints part of his problem with Christianity (or at least Christanity as Gaiman misinterpreted Lewis's version)--he claims that Lewis condemned Susan to Hell for becoming a sexually aware adult, and all but accuses Lewis of hating women.  This is not remotely what Lewis meant by "My sister is no longer a friend of Narnia," but again, that's a subject for a different blog. 

His disdain for Christianity shows itself again in Beowulf, where Gaiman first has Hrothgar refuse Unferth's request to add Christ to the pantheon of gods to which the Danes pray for help, and later explicitly has Beowulf sell himself to a demon out of lust and the promise of power. Whatever your feelings about a religion, it's wrong, disrespectful and (from a literary standpoint) irresponsible to alter and even reverse the entire theme of a cultural epic just to preach from your anti-faith pulpit.

Now, let's shift gears.  While Beowulf falls into this trap just as badly, the movie unto itself has a lot of high points.  It's a wildly fun romp. The battle scenes are pretty awesome all around--though I would've much preferred to see an epic battle between Beowulf and Grendel's mother.  The quest elements are awesome.  And now to tie this in to the theme of this would make a great D&D setting. 

If you think about it, D&D is already crawling with and overflowing with references to Norse mythology.  Why not relegate elves and dwarves to their proper place as shadowy denizens of the Underworld and focus on over-the-top muscular heroics?  There's even room for women warriors in the sagas.  Heck, they're all over the place in the myths of the gods and the idea of Odin's servants, the Valkyries. A D&D campaign based upon Beowulf might play out exactly as the movie did.  The movie rings true as the choices a PC might make who is determined not to "follow the script" of the poem.  The DM might decide that Grendel's Mother, finally faced with Beowulf in her lair, realizes she probably can't fight him, so she offers him a deal, taking a seductive form to cement it in place.

Nor is it unheard of for a DM to jump years or decades ahead in a campaign to start his next segment.  What if after the "defeat" of Grendel's Mother, the DM has the player age Beowulf to sixty-five to start the next segment, that of the battle with the dragon?   The great fun of this is that if the players dig it, you can always go back to the time right after Grendel's mother, and play out the intervening twenty years or so, knowing all the while the heroic death that Beowulf will eventually face.  This might rob the campaign of some of its impact (Beowulf's player will assume he will never be killed because his great death is yet to come) but it could still make for a great overall campaign arc. For a good DM and players, Beowulf's "plot immunity" for the intervening years is not an issue.

So, ignoring Gaiman's usual and all-too-expected (as he gets older) rants against Christianity, the film could make for a great basis for a Norse-themed D&D campaign.

Just some stream-of-consciousness rants and raves.  Make of them what you will.


  1. No, this all sounds spot-on to me, except that I've never thought that Neil Gaiman was any good at all, and that I'm not in any way a Christian. I walked out of the film just after that point at which Angelina Jolie appears for the first time - by then it had become quite apparent to me that the people making the film had no understanding of the source material whatever. But that which I found to be dreadful in a movie adaptation of a literary classic I could probably readily accept in someone's homebrew Viking game. On the other hand, that film charged money to see it, so the circumstances are not quite the same.

  2. I finally got back around to the tab with your post, which I opened while browsing blogs with...yes...Beowulf on TV! Beyond the synchronicity, your points have stayed with me. I myself don't mind an attempt to reconsider myths from radically different points of view: it might be interesting to me to ask, say about the propensity of so-called heroes to create the monsters that they battle. But when they are poorly done and contain obvious, poorly reasoned rants against Christianity? Meh.

    Here's a question: if the movie is a vehicle for men to be seduced by Angelina Jolie/Grendal's mother, then what does that say about its success? The monster outlasts the hero and continues to seduce other would-be-heroes into continuing the cycle. The only way to defeat monsters in any lasting way is to reject heroism? The more I think about the ending, the lamer it is. Even a flawed Beowulf seems more compelling.

    On another note, I'll always regret that I had Bonnie Wheeler's spouse and not her for a class. I can say that I've chatted with her at a cocktail party and found her just as interesting in person as she is on paper.