Wednesday 16 January 2008

Beowulf, Dragons & the Wilderness

Last month I went to see Beowulf, a rather odd film with slightly cartoonish modified characters that seemed facially wooden compared with straight acting but also with some dramatic special effects and a wonderful dragon. The film is based on the Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name that dates from sometime in the last centuries of the first millennium. The poem is set in Sweden and Denmark in the sixth century and tells the story of the hero Beowulf and his battles with the monster Grendel and his mother (described in the poem as a “swamp-thing from hell” but played in the movie by Angeline Jolie as a seductress”) and finally the “old harrower of the dark”, the dragon. The poem is a powerful tale of heroic warriors and evil monsters, the original of all “sword and sorcery” stories. Beowulf wasn’t taken seriously as a literary poem until 1936 when J.R.R.Tolkien, then a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, wrote an important academic work called Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics. The influence of the poem can be clearly seen in Tolkien’s own stories. In The Hobbit, as in Beowulf, a dragon is roused to violence when an intruder steals a gold-plated cup from its horde of treasure. In The Lord of the Rings there are even direct quotes from Beowulf in the descriptions of the land of Rohan and its people. The Golden Hall of the King of Rohan, Meduseld, sounds like the hall of Hrothgar in Beowulf, described as "radiant with gold". Meduseld is convincingly portrayed in Peter Jackson's film of The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, I think that Jackson's Rohan is more like the world of Beowulf than that portrayed in the Beowulf film.

Although Anglo-Saxon or Old English gave rise to modern English Beowulf can only be read in the original with difficulty. However there are several translations into modern English. Of the few I’ve read I like Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, which is powerful and compelling. All the quotations in this blog come from this version.

Much of Beowulf takes place in the outdoors, in wild country that is threatening and strange with “dismal woods” and “windswept crags and treacherous keshes, where cold streams pour down the mountain and disappear under mist and moorland”. The poem contains one of the first known uses of the word “wildeor” which means “wild animal or deer” and from which the word “wilderness” derives. Beowulf itself probably means “bee wolf”, that is a creature that eats honey, a bear. In my book Crossing Arizona I link Beowulf to Winnie-the-Pooh (who lives in a wilderness – a wood on a hill) and Beowulf’s quests to long distance walking. For those who love the literature of wilderness as well as the wild itself Beowulf is the place to start.

The photo shows a carved dragon in Weem Woods in the Tay Valley in the Scottish Highlands. Photo info: Canon EOS 300D, Canon 18-55mm lens at 18mm, f3.5@1/60, ISO 200, flash, raw file converted to JPEG in Capture One Pro.

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