The Beowolf monster is a thousand years old, but his bad old tricks continue to resonate in the modern world

Beowulf face to face with fire-breathing dragon
Beowulf face to face with fire-breathing dragon Wikimedia Commons

What a giant Grendel must be. For supper he scoops up sleeping warriors 30 at a crack. Imagine the width of his jaws. Yet Beowulf the Avenger brings him down in single combat. Stripped of armor, Beowulf rips the monster’s arm off at the shoulder with his bare hands. Yet the hero is just a human being. Where does he get the leverage?

As invoked in the untitled, thousand-year-old manuscript from which we know him, Grendel has a voice to scream with, but no language; a presence to strike the heart with dread, but no clear form; a lineage going back to Cain, but no place in the fellowship of man. Dying, he escapes into the night. Later, it takes four straining warriors to carry his severed head. The blade that struck the blow melts like an icicle in Grendel’s boiling blood. His reign of terror has lasted a dozen years.

Who weeps for Grendel? Not the Old English bard who composed Beowulf around the eighth century, two centuries or so before two West Saxon scribes set it down. (The dates are hotly disputed.) The moral universe of the age was black and white. But to John Gardner, a novelist in the 20th century, it was natural to view the ogre with some empathy. After Shakespeare’s Richard III, Macbeth and Caliban; after Milton’s Satan; after the Monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Gardner’s attitude was hardly outlandish. After Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to say nothing of Dr. Freud of Vienna, moral relativism is the air we breathe. Beneath the glamour of the Alien or the transgressive romance of the Villain lurks someone we need to know. In the immortal words of Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

And in Beowulf we keep on meeting him, again and again. Lately, a rock opera and some puppet shows have been adapted from the poem. A study guide for a paperback edition suggests classroom skits of the hero’s exploits. Hollywood has adapted the material repeatedly, and is doing so again. Now, a grand opera is on its way. For all its years, this titanic struggle between good and evil is still very much of this moment.

Gardner wrote Grendel in the voice of the monster as existentialist: the enemy who is us. The 1971 book goes into his heart and mind, laying bare a soul-deep yearning for all the objects of human desire—and the disillusionment when they prove hollow. Read along with Beowulf, Gardner’s prose version seems to tease out things the poet left unsaid. And this is done in English that is fleet and colloquial, while marked with an alliterative, allusive poetry that recalls the Old English of Grendel’s origins: “Such are the tiresome memories of a shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall.”

In Gardner’s Grendel, composer Elliot Goldenthal and his partner, director Julie Taymor, hear a hero crying out for a home in grand opera. They got to work on the project after their chamber-scale Juan Darién: A Carnival Mass, nearly 20 years ago. The novel had the Wagnerian sweep they were looking for. What’s more, it shared with Juan Darién their favored theme of the outsider or the outcast: Juan, the jaguar cub raised as a boy; Grendel, the monster drawn to human society by the power of art. “The outsider, the detested one, ultimately he’s the most human of all,” says Taymor, a twofold Tony Award winner for The Lion King. “Shakespeare always gives the monsters the best poetry.”

Goldenthal (an Academy Award winner for the score for Frida) went ahead with the opening scene: a monumental aria for the title character followed by a choral lament in Old English. “My original thought,” Goldenthal says, “was that the title role would be a great vehicle for a bass baritone, working within a lexicon of vast contrasts.”

Over the years, a recording of the opening scene circulated among influential conductors and impresarios, generating much encouragement. But not until 2003, when a joint commission from the Los Angeles Opera and the Lincoln Center fell into place (and with it needed funding), could Goldenthal devote himself to the project in earnest. Along the way, the poet J. D. McClatchy had signed on as Taymor’s co-librettist.

Though Goldenthal has often written for the theater, Grendel is his first opera. True to the original conception, it encompasses extremes: Grendel’s bass baritone set against the piping voice of a boy soprano, the mass of an opera orchestra in full cry against the plink of guitar strings. The première is set for May 27 at the Los Angeles Opera, running through June 17. (In July, the show travels to the Lincoln Center Festival, in New York.) Eric Owens, a basso of huge range, plays the title role. Denyce Graves, a mezzo renowned as Carmen and Delilah, appears as the cynical, all-knowing Dragon, who lazes away the centuries on a hoard of accursed gold. Male in the book, the figure is a diva here: “glamorous in the late Joan Crawford mode,” says Goldenthal. She is trailed by Dragonettes, even as Grendel is doubled by a Child Grendel and a plurality of Shadow Grendels, and Beowulf’s part is sung by the chorus.

One senses the director’s guiding hand in such theatrical flourishes; and inevitably, with Taymor aboard, the production values are claiming the lion’s share of pre-première interest. Indeed, her extensive stage directions in the libretto read like storyboards for a post-Lion King spectacular. But the show that is materializing will be much, much simpler. “It’s not that I won’t do my job,” Taymor says. “But I would need a giant movie budget to pull all that off. What excites me more than anything about this project is the music.”

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.

“You,” the Dragon tells Grendel, “are the darkness in which they see their little light.”

Hard wisdom. How cold a place this world must be for a demon alone.

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