Who Was Beowulf?
It took twice through, but I’m finally convinced; Beowulf is a wonderful film. There is plenty to recommend it, even if it had stuck to the original plot line.
Nearly every frame is beautiful and riveting. The visuals seemed to have borrowed from the field of gaming, so you can never quite tell if what you are looking at is real or animated. The music is a kick. Beowulf is himself thrilling to watch, as are the monsters, dragons, swords, and, above all, the time: it is set in the 6th century Scandinavia. The viewer is convinced that it must have been something like this.
Having read the newest translation several years ago, by Seamus Heany, I was not prepared for how the film would change the plot, which is rather linear and boring in the original, but, hey, it’s the 10th century, so who can complain? A monster vexes a town. Beowulf arrives and kills it, kills the monster’s mother, and becomes king and then does other amazing things before he dies a heroes death.
In the new film version, this is a remarkable undercurrent. Hrothgar, the king that comes before, has a hidden secret and it deals with the monster’s mother. It seems that Grendel is his offspring, and the witch, played by Angelian Joli, is irresistible to him, and, later, to Beowulf. Beowulf kills Grendel and then sets out for the mother, who seduces him into giving her yet another offspring that will return to torment the community many years later. Beowulf lies, however. He had given in to her, but only tells everyone that he killed her.
His secret is known only to a few: his wife and his closest associate. Both decide not to pass it on. He is a hero and generations will sing his praises. So declare these court historians, and so it was to be, in the official version. And so the official version has stood.
There is a profoundly moral story here, much like Faustus. What we see are the dreadful consequences of sin visiting themselves on many more than just the sinner. The family is destroyed. The community is destroyed. The path of history is distorted from its rightful journey toward justice and truth onto another path of betrayal, hurt, suffering, violence, degradation, and ruin.
Yes, the moral can be described as Christian, and rigorously so. Indeed, there is an overtly Christian theme in the movie. In an early scene, the king is asked whether they should pray to the new Roman God named Jesus Christ. No, he says, they don’t need Jesus; they need a hero. Later in the film, the man who asks the question carries a crucifix, and, even later, becomes a Christian monk, working to convert the community and successfully so. (Why the Christian Right isn’t heralding this movie is unclear.)
Is this just another case of hero debunking in an age of cynicism, in which authentic virtue is a myth and there is no one to admire? I don’t think so. What’s at stake here is the reputation of leaders, who are a special breed. The state organizes itself in order to celebrate itself. It rules with the consensus of society, which also desires to celebrate the state and its leaders. The head of state has to work very hard not to emerge from this conspiracy as a hero.
We don’t have to look far for examples. See Mount Rushmore. Are we really suppose to believe the maniac, power-mad Theodore Roosevelt is godlike? And let’s consider people who in private life would be considered gangsters, thieves, liars, and murderers, men such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. How is it that they came to have their images on our nation’s money, that their glorious stories are taught to all American schoolkids? That their lives are held up to us as models of virtue and glory?
The underside of government leadership is the primary subject of all revisionist history, and this form of history is something we should always give some benefit of the doubt. It is the official story of the heroism of leadership that we should suspect. This is true even with such untarnished demigods like George Washington, who, by all revisionist accounts, was an incompetent general, a man who had no sympathy for the original American idea, who jumped at the chance to send in the troops to put down a tax rebellion. The father of our country? Come on.
Have you visited the Lincoln Memorial? Pure paganism, wrapped in state worship. There he sits in the Temple of Democracy, with his hands on the fasces, ruling us from the Heavens to which he clearly ascended after his martydom – the glorification of power on display for all to us. The tourists come and the tourists go. They figure the Lincoln must have been pretty marvelous and think nothing more about it.
So it might have—must have been—with Beowulf, the great warrior who became the king. We know and do not question the version of history handed down to us. We take his ancient hagiographers at their word. But what was the truth? The film provides a credible alternative history, but whether or not this is the true story, the message is one we need to hear: power corrupts. If we care about truth, we need to look at this corruption in its face, and learn from it, and not merely believe what the court historians, from our time or the 10th century, have told us.