Ancient combat myth now a movie

2007-11-21 00:00

Those who keep a finger on the Internet pulse of forthcoming films will have heard rumblings about the new Beowulf, due for release around the world this month and opening in South Africa on Friday.

The film should be intriguing. It has received a 9/10 rating on the Internet Movie Database. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring a formidable collection of talent, including Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovitch, Robyn Wright Penn and Brendan Gleeson, it is an animation movie but one which, like The Polar Express, has its animated characters made to resemble, closely, the actual actors.

The original story of Beowulf is a real “voice from the past”, and a disturbing one. Its conviction is that, although heroism is a glorious thing, it is temporary and human societies are ultimately doomed to destruction - mainly brought about by human greed and violence rather than by supernatural beings such as the monsters which the hero Beowulf defeats.

The first known version of the story is a 10th century CE manuscript containing about 300 lines of poetry in Anglo-Saxon and referring to events that supposedly happened in the 500s (i.e. about a century after King Arthur is supposed to have lived).

Beowulf is a prince of the Geats in southern Sweden and he goes to the rescue of King Hrothgar and his people in Denmark. The Geats, Beowulf and Hrothgar may well have been historical figures. But myth then takes over: Hrothgar's hall is being subjected to nightly invasions and his people are being attacked and eaten by the cannibalistic ogre Grendel. He is a creature of the fens and marshes, that uncanny no-man's-land lying between earth and water; and Grendel has a fearsome hag of a mother who lives in the depths of a haunted lake.

Beowulf confronts Grendel and tears his arm off (a fatal injury), and then has to deal with Grendel's mother, who comes to seek vengeance. Later in the poem, Beowulf fights and kills a treasure-guarding dragon (like Smaug in Tolkien's The Hobbit).

Interestingly, the poem was written at a time when Christianity was gaining ground against older pagan religions in northern and western Europe, and Beowulf has a number of references and connections to material in the Bible. But these links are to the Old Testament only, as the salvation message of the New Testament is too positive for the dark world-view dominating the poem. For example, Grendel is said to be a direct descendant of Cain, the world's first murderer according to the Old Testament and the first (although not the last) man to kill his brother.

In spite of its superficial nods in the direction of the Bible, Beowulf is essentially an ancient, pre-Christian myth of the type that has been labelled the Combat Myth. This type involves a conflict between a great hero (sometimes a god) and one or more giants or monsters (as with Gandalf versus the Balrog in Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring or the tale of St George and the dragon). In this conflict the hero is normally victorious, but he may be injured. In Beowulf's case, his encounter with the dragon much later in his career leads to his being mortally wounded (as is the dragon).

Beowulf is a superb example of this myth type, depicting in a vivid and dramatic way the battle between light and dark, human and monstrous or elemental, and good and evil. The scholar Joseph Fontenrose in his book Python sees the Combat Myth as being mainly concerned with the battle between primordial Chaos and divinely-ordained Order - a battle which, in “pessimistic” mythologies such as early Norse, is seen as ongoing, with Chaos forever threatening to rise up again and overthrow Order.

It remains to be seen what the film will do with this ancient material. The trailer suggests that Grendel's mother (as played by Angelina Jolie) has been transformed into a seductive water-spirit, which should cause some interesting complications.

• Another fascinating take on the story is John Gardner's 1971 novel Grendel, which looks at the tale through the bloodshot eyes of the monster. It is a brilliant, mind-bending trip through this dark material.

• David Pike is a retired Classics professor.

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