So anyways, there’s something of a paradox in my life right now. Even as I’m supposed to be supporting the Writers’ Guild strike, I’m also anxiously awaiting the November 16 release of Paramount Pictures’ blockbuster version of Beowulf. I mean, sure, I may boycott some entertainment industry products as the Hollywood labor conflict rages on. But this just ain’t one of them. I’ve been in Lord of the Rings withdrawal since…well, since 2003 or so. And now, we get the motherlode that inspired Tolkien to begin with, finally brought to film. How can I hold on to my picket sign for that?
Solemnly, to prepare for the upcoming movie, I got out Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. I had last read it something like seven years ago. So I went through it again, and this time even more than before, found it simply amazing stuff. Consider the opening, which has the single best first word of any epic, ever, in my opinion:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
Sort of feels like this story is itself being told in a mead hall–or by an old cabbie with a strong Brooklyn accent, doesn’t it? This isn’t highfalutin stuff. It’s colloquial–downright earthy, and powerful in its simplicity.
Soon, as I got deeper into Heaney’s translation, I started finding bits and pieces everywhere that Tolkien had taken up and, in his own way, also translated in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The poem starts right off with a dead warrior being pushed out to sea in a funeral boat filled with his possessions–like what happened to Boromir. Later, there’s a thief who sneaks in and steals a goblet from a dragon, enraging the beast, which then promptly begins rampaging all over the kingdom. Soon the thief becomes the guide for a gang of thirteen.
Something else that struck me is that there’s a character named Eomer in Beowulf. Indeed, the whole world of Tolkien’s Rohan, with its great wooden halls and (apparent) copious mead drinking, is that of the Shieldings. And here’s another parallel (though don’t tell PZ): The poet who wrote Beowulf was clearly a Christian, though the characters of the story just as clearly are not. In the same way, Tolkien was clearly a Christian but his characters were not. In both cases, we instead get ruminations about a pre-Christian vein of heroism from a writer who knows of something “better,” but refrains from judging what had come “before.”
So I guess what I’m getting at is, Beowulf is really a kind of skeleton key to The Lord of the Rings. So it’s about time that Hollywood brought it out. So I can’t wait–and if you’re anywhere as eager as I am, you too should go pick up the Heaney translation to while the time away.
Let’s hope the movie isn’t just so-so.