The Intersection

i-0345225f3485329bf82eaa710a645447-beowulf.jpg[This post is for sci-fi fantasy geeks only. If you’re not a sci-fi fantasy geek, read no further.]

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.


  1. #1 blf
    November 6, 2007

    Heaney also recorded his translation as an (abridged) audio book.

  2. #2 Dunc
    November 6, 2007

    Well… While it’s true all those elements from LoTR are present in Beowulf, they’re also present in lots of the other material from that period. It’s a single good example from a well-established mythic tradition, and I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to argue that it in itself is more significant than, say, some of the Norse, Finnish or Celtic material (much of which it seems to draw on in its turn, although it can be hard to tell which direction the influences have flowed in). Still, the Anglo-Saxon was Tolkein’s speciality…

    All I can say on the movie is that I really hope they’ve done a good job on it.

    I might have to have a look at that Heaney translation though – the only one I’ve got on the shelves is R.K. Gordon’s prose version… Another one to add to the list!

  3. #3 J-Dog
    November 6, 2007

    Putting Angelina Jolie in it is a good start.

  4. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 6, 2007

    I also adore the Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. And am also in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America. And uneasy that my unfinished coauthored screenplays (including FIAWOL, about miyrder at a science fiction convention, starring Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov)and teleplays are to have been turned over to the Guild by my coauthor.

    But what’s the status of the 1,000+ page annotations on Beowulf, found a year or two ago, in the handwriting of Tolkien? Is there an estimated pub date?

    And any comments on Grendel, the 1971 parallel novel by American author John Gardner? Quoth wikipedia: “It is a retelling of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf from the perspective of the antagonist…”

    Elsewhere in Wikipedia: “In July 1997, New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Roger Avary wrote a screen adaptation of Beowulf. They had met and started working on the project while working on a movie adaptation of Gaiman’s The Sandman. One goal of the project was to offer episodes which do not appear in the original poem. This was done in order to give the filmmaker’s interpretation for the motivation behind Grendel’s behavior as well as for what might have happened during the time when Beowulf was in the cave of Grendel’s mother.”

  5. #5 Lance
    November 6, 2007

    Ack! I remember grinding my way through the original Old English version for a high school English lit class. Perhaps the most painful reading experience of my life.

  6. #6 G. Williams
    November 6, 2007

    There is an interesting, though by no means completely loyal, film adaptation that came out a couple of years ago, called Beowulf & Grendel. It’s got Gerard Butler and Stellan Skarsgard in it. One of my favorite things about it is that whenever the Geats are sitting around together, one of them will spontaneously start reciting bits from the poem. (Another is that there’s a lot of very dry humor in it.)

    I had a similar experience to yours the first time I read the Poetic Edda, in which among other things one runs across the name Gandalf, as well as almost all of the dwarfs that appear in The Hobbit. (More surprising, though less relevant to the current discussion, is that Attila the Hun is also in it, and is apparently Brynhild’s brother or cousin or something. Yes, really.)

    Likewise, when I read the Kalevala, I noted several similarities between Vainamoinen and Gandalf, which it turns out were probably deliberate.

    I’m re-reading LotR right now. November is a good month for it, especially here in the misty Pacific Northwest.

  7. #7 Emily
    November 6, 2007

    Put me down as another fan of Heaney’s translation. On a side note, I had never imagined Grendel’s mother to be quite so attractive as Angelina Jolie (I do support the casting choice, though)…seeing the commercials on television, I get chills as her voice echoes through the cavern “Are you the one they call Beowulf?”

  8. #8 cameron
    November 6, 2007

    There is a live action film from a couple of years ago called Beowulf and Grendel, starring Gerard Butler (of 300 fame). Not great, not terrible. You might like to watch just as a comparison to the original and the upcoming movie.

  9. #9 Justin
    November 6, 2007

    Ugh. Have you SEEN the trailer for the movie?

    They wrecked it. All the did was put in cool animations.

    Thank you hollywood, for ruining, ONCE AGAIN, something good.

  10. #10 Jennifer Ouellette
    November 6, 2007

    I read BEOWULF way back in college before the Seamus Heaney translation; I liked it then, but loved it once I read Heaney’s version. He brings out aspects of the meter and language and makes it into a living, breathing thing. And I hadn’t even considered it as a precursor to LOTR. :)

    I’m afraid I share some of the other commenters’ skepticism about the film version, based on the trailers I’ve seen. I think I’ll give it a miss, and re-read the novel GRENDEL instead. :)

  11. #11 Colugo
    November 6, 2007

    Have you ever seen The 13th Warrior, a “realistic” but anachronistic reinterpretation of Beowulf starring Antonio Banderas as an Arab warrior? It’s somewhat entertaining. Better than Costner’s version of Robin Hood, with which it shares some similarities (Muslim fish out of water, warpaint-wearing northern savages), at least.

  12. #12 G. Williams
    November 6, 2007

    The Banderas character in that movie is based on a historical figure, though it’s doubtful that his travels took just that form. 😀

  13. #13 Jeff White
    November 6, 2007

    I have a hard time looking forward to the movie. It looks terrible, aesthetically at least. The animation looks to be technically impressive, but at the same time it looks completely lifeless.

  14. #14 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    November 6, 2007


    You know I like this post. All I can say is, I’m excited for Beowulf with some trepidation…

    I expect that most Classicists would agree that Hollywood did a miserable job depicting The Iliad (Troy) and Alexander… leaving us little hope for adaptations.

    However, I can’t deny there was magic in LOTR. And HBO’s ROME even incorporated some literary and historical nuances into the story that were extraordinary.

    So there’s hope… and of course, Angelina Jolie.

  15. #15 Doc Bushwell
    November 6, 2007

    My 16 year old kid recently bought Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, loved it, and I just polished it off. It’s a fabulous translation and gets five pant-hoots from me.

    The influence of Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon culture on Tolkien is much more striking in The History of Middle-earth. These twelve volumes(1), edited by Christopher Tolkien, contain JRRT’s writings as he developed his mythos. Sections of The Notion Club Papers (much closer to sci-fi than fantasy) and The Lost Road (involves time travel no less) contain a very heavy nod to the Anglo-Saxon poetry tradition, most notably, King Sheave (see last section of the Wiki entry).

    (1)Between owning the hardcover volumes of The History of Middle-earth (in addition to the usual Tolkien volumes of The LotR, The Silmarillion, etc.) and having a Chimp Refuge entry nominated for a “Middle-earth Fan Fiction Award 2007” in the non-fiction category (I know, contradictory, but the group apparently nominates essays and such), I think I may have you out-geeked.

  16. #16 Scott Belyea
    November 6, 2007

    Also, try Benjamin Bagby’s performance of Beowulf – .

  17. #17 scote
    November 6, 2007

    The trailers for the movie seem to show that the movie’s Beowulf character has none of the humility or honor of the ancient legend as shown in Heaney’s translation. The movie looks to be awful in comparison. Perhaps “on its own” it will be alright–if such a thing were possible. But Beofulf’s mother as a hottie? I dunno. I also don’t know if the dream-like quality of certain ancient mythology translates well to a literal representation like a movie. I wonder how they’ll handle the under water battle? And if if will seem stupid?

  18. #18 toby
    November 6, 2007

    I went to university in Galway (Western Ireland) in the early 70’s … Lord of the Rings had been famous for about ten years or so … but there were still Old English examination papers been shown around with Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien listed as the external examiner.

    Tolkien’s translation (or commentary on) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a set textbook on the Old/Medieval English course(

    Come to think of it, a new translation of Sir Gawaine came out this year or last. Now, there’s one for a film. The Green Knight is literally green.

    In the story, Sir Gawain must travel to the Green Knight’s castle and submit to certain death, after answering the Knight’s challenge, on the way meeting with many temptations, such as a besutiful woman. Bit like Frodo?

    Unusually, the Gawain story has its origins in Celtic myth, not in Norse or Saxon lore. The origins can be traced back to the Irish Cuchulain legends.

  19. #19 Brian
    November 6, 2007

    Put me down as a fan of the Seamus Heaney translation, also. I thought the old translation (which I read in high school) was torturous to read, but the new one was beautiful. You make me want to read it again.

    As for LOTR, I think Tolkien got more of his inspiration from the Volsung Saga, which Wagner also made into his famous Rings Opera.

    Talking about Beowulf movies, does anyone remember the 1999 version with Christopher Lambert? One of the worst movies of all time, IMO.

  20. #20 Aaron M
    November 6, 2007

    So. I want to read the Heaney Beowulf, but I just started on the Fagles Iliad, and I’ve got too many books in front of me already. I need to get rich so I can quit my job and read more. That is one good plan.

  21. #21 Dano
    November 7, 2007

    I’m a Heaney fan, period and I have a number of his books. He is influenced by GM Hopkins, who inspired the Beat poets and is my favorite poet.



  22. #22 Oliver
    November 8, 2007

    Chris, I think this is seriously funny. I remember a piece by you ages ago in which, while applauding Tolkien’s writing, dissed his poetry fervently.

    Second, you seem to have missed the greatest parallel of all: In Beowulf, the same is labeled, at IIRC two points (but at least one), as “hringa thengel”, as “Lord/Master of the Rings”, because he wears mail armor.

    Lastly, I am not quite sure why this Hollywood rendering of Beowulf gets you so on your toes, given that “Beowulf and Grendel” came out in 2005. Admittedly, it told only half of the story. But it wasn’t complete over-the-top “300”-style action as scenes from the trailer for this Hollywood “Epic” look like. I have a feeling that -much like Jackson with LotR- they never really understood the philosophy the story was written in.

  23. #23 blf
    November 8, 2007

    I want to read the Heaney Beowulf, but I just started on the Fagles Iliad

    Add the Fagles Odyssey to yer list (if it’s not already there)!

  24. #24 Chris C. Mooney
    November 9, 2007

    This surprisingly long USA Today story goes in depth about the technologies used to make the movie

    Basically: It could suck, or it could be awesome. Wait and see.

  25. #25 Oliver
    November 14, 2007

    They had a trailer over here in which Beowulf yelled “I am invincible! I am Beowulf!” If that is not just bad dubbing, they seriously portray Beowulf as believing himself to be greater than the Norse Gods, who are far from invincible….

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