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Beowulf the Book and Movies
Author's note: research paper
AP English 12
Beowulf the Poem and the Modern Movie Adaptations
Throughout the ages many books have been produced, in many different languages. The problem with theses books is the translation. For an American to read a Hebrew text such as the Koran their must be a translator who translated the work into a different language. Seamus Heaney was born in Ireland and grew up learning old Gallic and a more modern Gallic, as well as English in his later years. With this knowledge Heaney translated one of the most epic poems ever written from Gallic to English about a man who goes to extremes to prove his strength, as he battles impossible odds. The epic poem is called Beowulf. “In addition to being generally recognized as the earliest full-length heroic to have survived in any Germanic language (Greenfield, 1).” The poem itself was written as an entertaining piece, full of fantastical stories of heroism and triumph over evil as the main character Beowulf battles monsters and demons sent straight from underworld. It was written by an Anglo-Saxon that never marked their name. Other epic poems came from Anglo Saxon literature however Beowulf is the most notable piece of literature. Anglo Saxon literature uses a lot of literary elements to describe the surrounding as well as the characters in the books. Kennings are prevalent throughout Anglo Saxon literature. “Death’s dominion” (Heaney, 2454) this is another word for Hell after Beowulf was slain after killing the dragon, and the people were describing where he would be going. “Ground-burner (Heaney, 2713).” The ground burner is a reference to the dragon as it went into the countryside after realizing its treasure was missing, and went to the fields and attacked the people. “Shadow-stalker (Heaney, 704).” The shadow stalker is Grendel thus named because he attacks in the night while the men are drunk and sleeping. These are all examples of Kennings used in Beowulf; however they are used throughout Anglo-Saxon literature. There are other important literary elements such as Alliterations. “Hand-to-hand encounters had happened (Heaney, 2356).” “The hard helmet, hasped with gold (Heaney, 2255).” “The sure-footed fighter felt daunted” (Heaney, 1543). Alliterations and kennings can be used together as in the quote where Beowulf is the sure footed fighter. The last common literary element is litotes, where the writer aims to intensify feelings and emotions through verbal irony. Such as Beowulf was in the clutches of death as the dragon looked down on him expelling fire to end Beowulf’s life. Things such as this create a feeling that the character is on the edge of death to create tension and compassion for the character.
Throughout Anglo Saxon literature there are many common themes. Such as Pride is the downfall of man. Beowulf proves this as Beowulf makes his last boast of defeating the dragon, however this ordeal proves to be the end of Beowulf as he is mortally wounded and dies. Battles are in most books, such as Beowulf. Seas are also a large part of Anglo Saxon literature Beowulf had to cross a sea to reach the place to face Grendel, and where Beowulf boasts of his battle against Breca in a five day race in the ocean where Beowulf had to battle many sea beasts in Open Ocean. The sea is also prevalent in the book the seafarer where a man is outcaste by society and must live life in the ocean. The Seafarer also came from the Anglo Saxon time period. The battle of Maldone is another book where people must survive an onslaught by Vikings who are attacking by sea. God and religion are also a large role in Anglo Saxon society which translates into their literature “It is a great wonder how Almighty God in His magnificence favours our race with rank and scope and the gift of wisdom; His sway is wide (Heaney, 1724-1727).” Themes are all throughout Anglo Saxon literature and they generally have the same themes. However women of the time were still inferior to men and therefore did not play much of a role in book or life. “The role of woman in Beowulf, as in Anglo-Saxon society, primarily depends upon peace making, either biologically through her marital ties with foreign kings as a peace pledge or mother of sons, or socially and psychologically as a cup-passing and peace weaving queen within the hall (Chance, 254).” “It seems very evident in Anglo-Saxon literature that it highlights the role of men as warriors with a male-dominated society (Ali, 12).”
Seamus Heaney is the only individual who ever translated Beowulf and had it published. There is another version of Beowulf that is a retelling of the tail called The Fight at Finnsburh. The book is more of a retelling of the age old tale written between the seventh and tenth century. However their have been many movies that follow the guidelines of Beowulf but alter things to make the movie more action oriented, or plot oriented. Throughout the movies the directors uses their own adaptations to bring the characters to life in their own way, from Beowulf being strong and cunning using his mind as much as his brain, to Beowulf charging headlong into battle relying on his strength alone to pull him through the ordeal. However all the stories follow the plot going from battle to battle as Beowulf fights Grendel “the captain of evil (Heaney, 749),” then Grendel’s mother “Swamp thing from hell (Heaney, 1518)”, and lastly the Dragon “mound keeper (Heaney,2580).” The movies differ at this point again where some stick to the plot not staying on one particular part of the book for any longer than needs be. While other movies draw the audience in with enticing action scenes drawing the scenes out to keep the audiences attention and interest. There is further deviation from the story as certain directors change how the plot goes, creating their own twists that make the movie original. Such is the case in the animated version of Beowulf where Grendel’s mother is never killed. Each movie invents new twists that change the plot from the original. In the book literary elements are prevalent and give the reader deeper meaning into the characters. Such as the kennings for the dragon like “mound keeper” which gives the reader a thought of the dragon on top of an immense pile of gold and jewels. Then kennings increases the more brutal images of “ground burner” as the reader envisions a scorched burning Earth with people running around burning and screaming causing panic and chaos. Literary elements in Anglo Saxon literature such as kenning give the reader the ability to use their imagination, as they think of what Beowulf looks like thinking of the giant he must be to take on all the demons, or how ferocious the dragon may look spewing flames from its mouth that consume the village people. Once the movie comes out it puts a face on the character taking it away from your imagination. The movies can create these images for the viewer but it is not as personal as it could be with the book. In the book you read it alone and are enveloped into a world of fantasy and heroism, where your imagination rules. The movie is experienced in a group setting trying to connect with each audience member, where distractions are many as people talk to you or laugh at some cheesy scene. Once the concentration is lost the surprise, and connecting personally is lost as well. Men like Beowulf will strive for the attention of others in a quest to be loved by doing what others can not do.
The book Beowulf is a story about the boasts of a hero. The book follows Beowulf’s life through his battles and struggles, with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. Beowulf first ventures to help king Hrothgar with by killing the menace to Hrothgar’s kingdom at the moment Grendel. “Monsters become “Adversaries of God,” and so begin to symbolize (and ultimately to become identified with) the powers of evil (Bloom, 18).” These adversaries of God become the monsters that Beowulf must tract down and kill for their evil deeds on mankind. Beowulf does not go to help the king because he wants the money that is offered to him but because he wants to build his reputation as a demon slayer, as well as increase the relations between his kingdom and Hrothgar’s. “To give gifts is rarely, if ever, a simple, straightforward affair (Hill, 86).” “Gift giving, as we have already stated, establishes an important, continuing respiratory: gifts, trust, and honour on the lord’s part for service, honour, and loyalty on the retainers part (Hill, 88).” Beowulf Boasts about how he can kill Grendel even though all others who have sought Grendel have been killed. Beowulf however is challenged in his claim by a man named Unferth who claims that Beowulf will be defeated by Grendel because he could not beat Breca in a simple swimming race. Beowulf retorts to this by claiming he was held back by battling sea monsters which is why he lost not because Breca beat him but because he was slaying nine sea monsters that saved Breca’s life. “Unferth tries to discredit Beowulf with his (and Breca’s) version of the swimming adventure, and that he has provoked among modern critics wide disagreement about his character, his status in the court, and his future participation, if any, in the supposed machinations of Hrothulf against the sons of Hrothgar (Pope, 264).” “Tribal names, particularly those derived from personal names, play a similarly important role in the poem (Orchard, 171).” Beowulf keeps this heroic almost godlike personality throughout the whole book claiming that nothing can bring him down because he is favored by the gods. King Hrothgar’s people are being oppressed by Grendel and fear to make any sort of noise because they think that it might bring him back and wreak havoc on the people again. “When Grendel is first introduced, he is presented as a “powerful demon, a prowler through the dark.” Since his visits to Herot are nocturnal and his habits solitary, the Danes never see him properly and have no way of visualizing him clearly (Heaney, John Niles, 238).” In the book Beowulf fights the monster in the great mead hall of king Hrothgar. “At Gudme have been discovered the remains of a hall, dating from the fourth and fifth centuries, that measured about 47 meters (154 feet) in length, almost twice the length of the early Anglo-Saxon hall at Yeavering (Heaney, John Niles, 223).” This find supports the claim that much of the poem is filled with accurate places that have fiction thrown into them. “The single most important find of Anglo-Saxon remains was unearthed at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in 1939. Artifacts discovered their have helped confirm the accuracy of many descriptions of objects and life in Beowulf (Bessinger, Yeager, 22).” Grendel sneaks up on the unsuspecting men who are sleeping and kills one before Beowulf takes action and attacks Grendel. The book describes how Beowulf engaged him without the use of a weapon using his brute strength to overpower Grendel. Beowulf proceeds to rip Grendel’s arm off at which point Grendel realizes he is lost and runs away. Beowulf boasts of his victory and accepts his prize money. The book is the original text translated, so it is the original version. The animated movie version of Beowulf has many similarities to the book. Grendel is depicted as a hideous creature sent straight from the underworld. Grendel’s power is immense as he rips men apart with his brute strength. Beowulf uses his hands to combat Grendel with. The second movie is a non animated version with an almost medieval quality to it. The characters dress the part of people in the time period as dirty unshaven people, and follows the book almost word for word the entire movie.
In the epic poem everything goes swimmingly for Beowulf as his power proves greater than that of Grendel and he rips off Grendel’s arm and sends him fleeing, which only boosts Beowulf’s confidence and makes him even more arrogant. “None the less I cannot help feeling that in approaching Beowulf he was hampered by the almost inevitable weakness of his greatness (Bloom, 9).” The director changes much of the battle to make it seem more like a fair fight rather than a one sided Beowulf dominating Grendel. The huge difference between the book and the movies is that the book represents Beowulf as a demy god with super human strength and stamina, where as in the movies the directors changed Beowulf’s physique to appear much more vulnerable and human so that the regular movie goers can relate with. Grendel in the book is a monster sent straight from the underworld, hideous in all ways imaginable. In the animated version of the movie Grendel is a twenty foot tall troll who is as hideous as a demon spawn could be oozing orifices all over and drooling on the floor like he is not capable of any intellectual ability. It is longer than need be, once Beowulf grapples with Grendel, Grendel overpowers him and Beowulf attacks Grendel’s ears which are incredibly sensitive to any noise being made which is what caused Grendel to attack the men in the first place. However before the battle between Grendel and Beowulf can start, Grendel is attacked by all of Beowulf’s men in which several of Beowulf’s men are killed. Of the others that survive is his cousin who stays with him throughout the rest of Beowulf’s journey. In the novel Grendel is a quiet killer using stealth and the shadows to creep up on his victims, before he savagely rips them apart. However in the animated version Grendel is very loud in his attack he screams the entire time wailing out as if the noise of others has driven him to insanity. So as he approaches the mead hall where Beowulf and his men are sleeping they hear his screams before Grendel bashes in the door and begins the onslaught against the men who awoke him. After Beowulf attacks Grendel’s sensitive ears he ties him up to prevent Grendel’s escape, with a long chain that is attached to a spike that is kept in place by a sword. The chain gives Grendel quite a bit of moving room as he lashes out at Beowulf one last time before retreating. Grendel makes it to the door where his chain prevents him from running away; Beowulf slams it shut right on Grendel’s arm severing it in a mist of blood. This is different than the book where Beowulf relies on strength to beat Grendel, in the movie Beowulf is cunning and outsmarts Grendel. The remaining men having witnessed the severing of Grendel’s arm believe that this is enough of a wound on Grendel that he will not survive however they did not account for Grendel’s mother. “He says that by avenging Grendel’s crimes, he did honour to Hygelac’s people (Hill, 105).” Grendel retreats to his mother’s lair where she cares for him and in her anger exacts revenge. “However, her attempts to avenge her son’s death could be justified if she were human and male, for no wergild (peace offering) has been offered to her by the homicidal Beowulf (Chance, 256).” The laws of the time prohibited action by women. Her revenge is killing all of Beowulf’s men except for his cousin Wiglaf who was not in the hall. Beowulf awakes to see the men hanging in the ceiling which is when he learns about Grendel’s mother. “Her vengefulness as a mother invites implicit comparison with the love and mercy of the Virgin Mother (Chance, 253).” In the epic poem due to Beowulf’s pride he fights hand to hand with Grendel without any armor. However throughout the course of Beowulf and Grendel’s battle Beowulf decides to fight completely nude thinking it will make him appear manlier when he boasts about how he took on Grendel with no armor or weapon besides what the gods granted him with. However in the book he keeps some clothing on such as primitive underwear and an undershirt. In the second movie Beowulf fights Grendel with almost too much ease. Grendel is like a disfigured man but is not the super human he is in the animated version where he is like a troll. Beowulf has once again tested the odds and increased his confidence to the point where he believes he is favored by the gods and is becoming arrogant. “The monsters had been the foes of the gods, the captains of men (Bloom, 21).” Beowulf’s pride is increasing as the number of monster and demons he slays increases. Beowulf’s pride will be his eventual down fall as he takes on one to many demons, and monsters in his time, as the dragon slays Beowulf, in his old age after one last boast.
The second battle that Beowulf partakes in to rid Hogarth’s kingdom of demons is against Grendel’s mother who is a formidable opponent to Beowulf as he strikes her down, but only by the luck of finding a sword that kills her. “Even more than Grendel, she remains shrouded in mystery as a “swamp-thing from hell” (Heaney, 1518) that is part beast, part human being, and part she-devil (Heaney, John Niles, 239).” In order for Beowulf to locate Grendel’s mother Beowulf goes to the swamp in which she lives and swims down for a week until he is dragged to the bottom and into Grendel’s mother’s layer. The animated movie skips over much of this part and shows how truly weak Beowulf is. This however is not the first time Beowulf has faltered in the face of a beautiful woman. The first time Beowulf faltered in the face of a beautiful woman was in his encounter with a mermaid while racing Breca which caused Beowulf to lose the race. The director is trying to relate Beowulf to regular men by having Grendel’s mother being beautiful and irresistible to mortals as well as demy god.
The animated movie goes off tract to try to answer several questions that the text does not answer. Such as who is Grendel’s father, in the text it is an open-ended question that is never clarified. In the movie the director takes many liberties as to how Beowulf deals with Grendel’s mother. Grendel’s mother lives in the swamp however she lives in a cave deeper in the march in the side of a mountain, rather than living in the bottom of the very deep swamp. Grendel’s mother is alluring not only because she is physically attractive but also she picks up on any weakness and uses it against her enemies seeing into their mind and finding out what their greatest desires are. Lightly touching Beowulf she promises him a brilliant future filled with love where he would be the king and she would be his queen. She promises a future filled with gold gesturing to her cave that is entirely covered in gold. She lures Beowulf in with her words where she sleeps with him before setting him free. Beowulf falters and Grendel’s mother wins the battle against him. However Beowulf can not lose and since no one saw the battle he emerges from the cave to meat his cousin Wilfreg where he boasts of a battle that never happened. The two men return to the king where Beowulf boasts about killing the beast. Beowulf took a blow to his pride having lost the fight against Grendel’s mother however he does not tell the men the truth and they still believe him to be in the favor of the gods. The way the book depicts the battle between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf is that Beowulf goes in to kill her and accomplishes that as well as finishing off the wounded Grendel by severing his head and brining Grendel’s head back with him as his evidence of the battle. In the movie there is no battle and Grendel’s own mother decapitates Grendel’s head for Beowulf to take back to boast about. In the book the father of Grendel is assumed to be Satan himself for creating such a demon child with a witch who lives in the swamp. However in the animated movie the plot thickens by having the king falter and make love to the beautiful rather than ugly Grendel’s mother. King Hrothgar is the father of Grendel as he tells Beowulf, which is why he will not have a son with the king knowing he created such a hideous monster of a son, plus the queen does not trust the king anymore after his adultery. The other movie follows more along the lines of the book but draws out the fight a little bit more and shows the flaws of Beowulf. Grendel’s mother is more human like but does not carry the persona of a fallen angel as the animated version does. Beowulf has no problem in taking out the witch, and as in the book returns home with the head of Grendel to present to the king and boasts about the fight against Grendel’s mother.
The third and final boast that Beowulf makes is against the dragon. This is the hardest and toughest battle that Beowulf must face. The dragon not only out powers him it has age old wisdom on its side. The dragon guards an immense pile of treasure in the marches. It is awoken by a slave who steals a chalice from the pile. This is the start of Beowulf’s last boast as the dragon begins to wreak havoc on the people and only Beowulf has the power as a demy God to defeat the mighty dragon. “Beowulf does not decide to fight alone in a reckless attempt to prove his marital valor before the world as he did years ago with Grendel (Greenfield, 19-20).” The book has him take on the dragon because he still believes he has the power to defeat the dragon, as well as he must defend his people as their king. Beowulf knows the dragon will be his toughest adversary so he dresses down in full armor and takes multiple blades and several of his men. However once Beowulf arrives at the place where the battle will happen his men retreat except for his cousin who stays in the back as a decoy. Beowulf realizes his armor is insufficient as a tool to defend against the dragon because it slows him down and cannot help him against the dragon’s fire, also his sword cannot penetrate the tough hide of the dragon. “As for the poem, one dragon, however hot, does not make a summer, or a host; and a man might well exchange for one good dragon what he would not sell for a wilderness (Tolkien, 19).” Beowulf finds a good dragon that he defeats but at the unfortunate cost of his own life. The movies stay the same dressing Beowulf down as he fights the dragon alone. The older movie follows the book with the battle taking place at the dragon’s lair between Beowulf and the dragon as Wilfrag tries to rally the rest of the men to help Beowulf fight the dragon. However the animated version makes a giant leap from the book and changes much of the battle.
The animated version is very different from the poem and the other movie. The other movie extends the scene a little bit and makes the action more intense throwing Beowulf to the edge of death multiple times before finally Beowulf and the dragon finally deal devastatingly fatal blows to each other bringing down the boastful hero. The animated version shows Beowulf sleeping with Grendel’s mother before cutting to Beowulf presenting Grendel’s head to king Hrothgar. The king throws himself over the edge of his castle knowing that Beowulf would make a better king for the people and so Beowulf becomes king. This little twist in the storyline allows Beowulf to remain in Hrothgar’s kingdom. The battle between Beowulf and the dragon is a one on one battle in which Beowulf dominates the dragon from start to finish however the dragon is attacking his castle and his queen and in his desperation looses his sword while riding the back of the dragon. Beowulf knows the only way to kill the dragon is to cut out its heart. So he swings on to the wing of the dragon and rips its wing and takes it to the ground. Once on the dragon’s neck Beowulf cuts into the throat of the dragon preventing it from spewing flames, as well as exposing its only weak spot which is its heart. Beowulf cannot reach the heart of the dragon so he cuts into his armpit dealing himself the mortal blow to extend the reach of his arm and grabs hold of the heart and rips it out in a rush of blood and gore. “And dragons real, dragons, essential both to the machinery and ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare (Tolkien, 19).” The dragon falls to the ground in the ocean and begins to disintegrate. Beowulf takes a few steps before falling alongside the dragon, having dealt himself the fatal wound. He gazes at the disintegrating figure to see a man of majestic qualities take form. Beowulf turn towards the sea and sees Grendel’s mother starring at the both of them at which point Beowulf makes the connection that the dragon was his son. Wilfrag comes to Beowulf’s side to listen to his last words and remains with him until death. Then he allows Grendel’s mother to claim both Beowulf and her second son seeing that Beowulf never actually defeated her.
Beowulf’s pride is his inevitable down fall as he takes on the dragon at his old age. Beowulf took on three beasts in his time and with each successive one the monsters became harder to kill or battle against. Grendel was his easiest adversary who was just strong. “The least formidable was Grendel, a monster angered by the joy of others, greedy, brutal, and laughing at the slaughter and devastation he brought on Hrothgar (Lehmann, 16).”Grendel’s mother was not strong but in the book challenged him with her cunning mind while in the animated movie she is too cunning in comparison to the mortal Beowulf who falls for her looks and words before failing to kill her. Then the dragon in Beowulf’s old age finally acts as a counter balance to Beowulf as an equal adversary that in all the movies and book that Beowulf cannot overcome.
Beowulf was one of the original epic heroes that the world almost never knew. An anonymous author spent time to write down a poem that stood the test of time much the same as Beowulf stood against the monsters in his life, even as the monsters tried him to his limits he never broke until the dragon taking it with him. The original epic poem has stood the ages as one of the few remaining Anglo-Saxon pieces of literature to survive the test of time, both through writings and oral stories. Beowulf took on the monsters that presented themselves throughout his life and used his cunning and strength in the book and movies to create a future for himself as king as well as boosting his reputation as a demon slayer. The themes that are generally presented throughout Anglo-Saxon literature are present in Beowulf such as how God is important to the people and how pride is the downfall of man. Hrothgar gives praise to God upon hearing that Grendel has been slain, and Beowulf boasts about his past battles until his greatest adversary the dragon is his equal and both are slain since Beowulf took on the dragon alone after his men back out. Beowulf refuses to allow himself to be beaten as a demy god and therefore does not back down like the rest of the people he brought with him. Beowulf met his end fighting a dragon the toughest monster that he ever fought in doing so saved his kingdom from almost certain destruction, Beowulf will live on forever in the minds of those he saved. As the poem becomes one of the most epic poems with the mightiest of heroes outdoing himself in every battle living on in the required reading of high schoolers and movies that are continually releasing. With new movies continuously being produced the adaptations and interpretations will vary for the producers to create their own original work, for one of the most epic poems ever written. The movies will differ using modern methods and clothing or staying true to the time period. “Finally we note the functional interweaving of legitimate history with what we are wont to dismiss as folklore or mythology (Greenfield, 6).”The poem may be a fictional story by the use of real places gives a semi reliable history of the time period.