Press releases promise “a darkly comic retelling of the Beowulf epic from the monster’s viewpoint.” But perspective is everything. Serve a Tom Stoppard Hamlet, and he parries with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: less a retelling of Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy than the excavation of the Waiting for Godot embedded within. Move Grendel to the center of the Beowulf tale, as the novel and opera do, and you enter the shadow realm of an awakening consciousness, laden with the moral perplexities of our time.
Nothing in the poem suggests the least hope of rewards beyond the grave—one reason among many to view the hero as pagan. Yet the Beowulf poet was not, and his faith in the Christian God is stamped on the story. God’s is the glory of every victory, of which there are many. Grendel is but the most famous of Beowulf’s conquests. The hero arrives on the scene with notches in his belt for nine whale beasts left dead on the ocean floor. From Grendel, he moves on to Grendel’s formerly reclusive mother. When the Dragon goes on his rampage, Beowulf, now a king who has ruled bravely and wisely for 50 years, takes up arms for the last time.
As conceived, the poem is an allegory about Good versus Evil: that naive, never-ending Manichean dance. Conversely, much in the poem implies that might makes right: a lesson in ruthless realpolitik, with fatalistic interludes of lamentation. We have come a long way over the last millennium.
It may seem that Beowulf ought to have vanished in the mists of time by now. Even for specialists, reading the original has become a nigh-hopeless task. Scholars wrangle inconclusively over the interpretation of the difficult words, coinages and kennings (“giver of rings” for king or chieftain; “whale’s way” for the sea) with which the manuscript bristles. Happily, translations abound, the fruit of fantastic exertion. “It was labour-intensive work, scriptorium-slow,” according to Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel Prize winner for literature, whose new Englishing of the Old English at the start of our millennium actually clawed its way onto the New York Times bestseller list, where it hovered south of Harry Potter but north of Bridget Jones.
That was only one indication among many that Beowulf’s adventures still exert their hold on the collective imagination. Strumming his six-string lyre, the bard Benjamin Bagby vocalizes the poem in the old West Saxon, and uncomprehending hundreds are enthralled. Screen versions? Take your pick. There’s an animated TV short, with Joseph Fiennes as the voice of the hero (1998); a sci-fi update distinguished by a gargantuan straight razor that serves as a sort of guillotine (1999); a Beowulf and Grendel atmospherically shot in Iceland (2005, awaiting U.S. release). In the pipeline: feature films from the newcomer Scott Wegener and from the live-action and animation wizard Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Polar Express), with Angelina Jolie announced for voice work.
What accounts for Beowulf’s enduring popularity? Partly, it may simply be that heroics never go out of style. The young in any culture need heroes as role models, whether from Homer or Marvel Comics. The child in the man (or woman) needs them too. Past adolescence, of course, we tend to worship our heroes with tongue in cheek. (Think James Bond, Barbarella, Shrek.)
At least we did until our rude awakening on 9/11. Instantly, the entertainment industry started holding the mirror up to an altered zeitgeist. Into the stream of fantasy that crested in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy poured new torrents fed by serious military history (Oliver Stone’s Alexander) and mythology for grown-ups (Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy). However imperfectly, the movies were receding into an antique heroic age. In its various transmogrifications, Beowulf reflects the anxieties we feel today, and perhaps offers a kind of reassurance.
But artists may be prophets of a kind, and the choice of Grendel as an operatic subject now seems strangely prescient. Rather than the Outcast or Outsider Goldenthal and Taymor originally had in mind, Grendel now assumes the subtly different guise of a fellow much on our minds: the Other, epitomized by suicide bombers who shatter our world for no reason we can fathom. Yet if humankind is to evolve beyond its present miseries, what choice is there but to try?
Of course, political implications are in the eye of the beholder. Do they register with Goldenthal? “No,” he says, “or only in the sense that Grendel has been confronted with various aspects of the human condition: art, politics, religion, love. And every time, his personal image has been rejected and feared.” True enough. Take the scene early in the opera, as Grendel listens outside the great hall of the great king Hrothgar. Within, a bard is paraphrasing Genesis.
“But this man has changed the world / Changed it into make-believe,” Grendel muses. “Brutal facts put in a poetic place.” Overpowered by loneliness, he steps into the torchlight. Horror-struck, Hrothgar’s men brand him the Enemy. He becomes what they behold, and he is changed.