Magazine article The Spectator

Beowulf: A Digital Hero from England's Lost Culture

Magazine article The Spectator

Beowulf: A Digital Hero from England's Lost Culture

Article excerpt

'Beowulf! How's your father?' shouts Anthony Hopkins as Ray Winstone steps out of the boat which has brought the Geats' tribal leader from Sweden to Denmark. As a way of grabbing attention it probably works better than 'Hwaet!' -- the narrator's initial injunction to sit up and listen in the original text. This may be English literature's first epic, but even its admirers concede that the multiple plots recounted in 3,182 lines can confuse. These are shaggy dog stories of a somewhat bloody kind rather than Virgil or Homer, and in the absence of a unifying artistic vision we need to be kept engaged.

Digitally enhanced live action brings a novelty to Robert Zemeckis's newly released film of Beowulf and the undulations of Grendel-fighting Winstone's six-pack (courtesy of 3-D animation technology) constitute a pretty arresting sight.

Hopkins as beleaguered Hrothgar, king of the Danes, digs deep into his own tribal past and opts for a South Wales valleys accent. Those rolling 'r's and big vowels seemed just right, says Zemeckis, after 'long debates about how Welsh might have grown out of Old English' -- a droll notion since the native literature of the former predates the latter.

In the millennium or so of its history as written literature Beowulf has meant different things to a great many people. The Victorians who were its first scholarly interpreters delighted in the difficulty of the language. Beowulf showed that academic 'English' might be quite as tough as Greek and that the language's earliest texts could reveal attitudes as satisfyingly archaic as any creed expressed by Ajax or Achilles. This, therefore, was a worthy English successor to the Homeric tradition since it too showed layers of oral tradition accruing around the campfire. Its original composition, perhaps some two centuries before the epic was transcribed in about 1000 AD, bears the marks of Anglo-Saxon attitudes in the centuries when Christianity was still a new English religion.

The Scandinavian setting with its feasts of meat and mead, gleeful slaughter, and firebreathing monsters is a pagan riot with later scribes adding a few self-consciously Christian asides to redeem the sanguinary action.

Beowulf is a hero of the European north's snowy wastes, and the poem spoke to an original audience of Anglo-Saxons conscious of their links with the Germanic ancestors who had invaded southern Britain and named it 'England'. Although the work is more often invoked than read, its 'epic' status is more than just a literary categorisation. Beowulf survives as a portrait of determined leadership against an apparently invincible foe -- qualities that have turned it into a founding myth of English identity. Bede had been the first to tell his compatriots explicitly (in his early eighthcentury history) that they were an elect nation specially chosen by God for a providential purpose, and Beowulf too can be used to provide literary evidence for that English 'exceptionalism'. But the poem's allusions also show a late first-millennium country aware of its cultural connexions across the northern seas. Those who maintain that an insular geography need not entail insular attitudes can also pray in aid Beowulf.

Anglo-Saxon civilisation is England's submerged culture and it tends to be interpreted in the light of the conquest that followed. The idea of a 'Norman yoke' that had introduced feudalism and thereby destroyed a primitive English egalitarianism is a feature of republican debate in the 1640s. …

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