Beowulf Is Back!

What’s behind the running pop-culture engagement with the epic poem?

Image Comics

Beowulf, of precarious provenance—the single surviving, crumbling manuscript bears the scorch marks of an 18th-century library fire—has traveled across a thousand years to lodge in our imagination like some kind of radioactive space nugget. A story from a pre-Christian era written down by an anonymous Christian, in alliterative Old English verse, it has an otherness, a real frosty interstellar otherness, but also a mysterious resonance. It’s holding something for us, this poem, the value of which is inseparable from its long and lonely transmission. And so we keep going back to it, we wonderingly retell it, testing it on our tongues like the syllables of a dream. The past 20 years alone have given rise to two feature films, a TV series, and no fewer than four graphic novels based on the poem, including one released this January.

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What’s it about, this running pop-cultural engagement with the old poem? To begin with, there’s the action: kinetic, enthralling fight scenes that go on for pages, pitting a superheroic human against a shape-shifting, ever-regenerating principle of destruction. Beowulf, mighty warrior of the Geats, hearing that some neighboring Danes are being terrorized by a misshapen antiman called Grendel, crews a ship with up-for-it countrymen and sails to the rescue. In the great hall Heorot—built for feasts, now stalked by Grendel—a bare-handed Beowulf fights the monster, rips his arm off, and nails it over the door of the hall. Then he fights Grendel’s mother, a water monster, diving into her demonic pond (where Grendel crawled to die) and running her through with a sword, which promptly melts. And then, back in Geatland 50 years later, Beowulf faces a dragon. Billows of Game of Thrones–esque dragon breath, heroic paroxysms. Beowulf kills the dragon, and the dragon kills Beowulf. The end.

But it’s not the end. Because beyond, or behind, Beowulf’s triptych of hero-on-monster showdowns lies its starker-than-stark Dark Ages existentialism. The poem begins, very deliberately, with an image that is also a kind of parable: a person emerging nameless from the sea and then—after a lifetime of making a name for himself—being delivered back to the sea again. Scyld Scefing arrives on the shores of Denmark as an oceanic foundling, a baby drifting in a boat, and in time becomes a legend: ruler of the Danes and great-grandfather of Hrothgar, the king whose people Beowulf will later arrive to save. When Scyld dies, he is laid out in a vessel stacked with weapons and treasure, and set adrift once more. Away he floats. That’s it, the poet is saying: That’s life. Out of nowhere, and into nowhere. Better make it count.

It was Seamus Heaney who made a Beowulf nerd out of me. Heaney’s 1999 translation/interpretation—some call it “Heaneywulf”—was a literary landmark and a best seller. I read it aloud to the mound of my pregnant wife’s belly, hoping to inculcate Beowulfian ruggedness in my son in utero. These days I have a geekish preference for Michael Alexander’s more musical 1973 version (Away she went over a wavy ocean, / boat like a bird, breaking seas, / wind-whetted, white-throated), but it was from Heaney that I first slurped the overlapping atmospheres of the old poem: Heorot, the fear-swept hall; the phosphorescent mere where Grendel’s mother lives; the dragon dozing on his bed of treasure, heaped glitterings and huge coils.

Heaneywulf is also, crucially, an aural experience: You hit Play on the audiobook, and suddenly you are a drowsing thane at the long table, wine and gravy in your beard, holding your goblet with heavy fingers as the skald, the bard, Heaney himself, lulls and astounds you with his verses. In the Old English, the first word of Beowulf is the exhortation Hwaet, for which translators have offered “Hear me!,” “Attend!,” and (in the infamous case of the otherwise forgotten literatus William Ellery Leonard) “What ho!” Heaney’s version—conversationally, recursively, strum-of-the-harp-ishly—begins “So …” A sort of hypnotic trigger. Into the epic trance you go. Your mind’s eye blinks and opens, and here come the images and the moods: the granitic dignity of the cliff-top sentinel who challenges Beowulf and his gang of Geats when they first land on the shores of Denmark; the dismay of those Geats as they stare at the surface of the pond into whose vicious depths their chief has just dived, and see blood rising in the water.

Cinematic stuff. But big-screen adaptations of the poem have so far fallen short. In 1999, the year of Heaneywulf, we also received a cheerfully B-movie, jerkins-and-lasers film starring a peroxided and somewhat out-of-breath Christophe Lambert. Robert Zemeckis’s CGI-crazed 2007 adaptation, with Angelina Jolie writhing and glistening in the role of Grendel’s mother, was more coherent but horrible to look at. On the small screen, the 2016 miniseries Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, while not unenjoyable in a medievally glowering sort of way, took some diabolical liberties with the story.

Much more successful and interesting have been the graphic novels. Beowulf is a natural comic book, full of fractured perspectives, sudden zoom-ins, and spooky poolings of consciousness around heavy-metal details. January saw the publication of a gorgeous, splattery, hallucinated Beowulf by the Spanish writer-artist team of Santiago García and David Rubín. In the final combat, a half-roasted Beowulf, flung aloft by a whip of the dragon’s tail, plummets through four circular frames like a smoking Icarus spied through a telescope. Stephen L. Stern and Christopher Steininger’s 2007 version was also pretty good: Steininger’s Grendel was dripping-faced and wraithlike, with a curl of malevolence fuming off his scalp like a poisonous dreadlock.

But it’s Gareth Hinds’s 2000 Beowulf that is the near-masterpiece, a scholarly, synesthetic freak-out: skutchlp goes Grendel’s arm as Beowulf breaks it with his elbow, and the monster’s agony—his “God-cursed scream and strain of catastrophe”—is rendered by Hinds as streamers of ancient script unwinding into the night sky. In my favorite panel, a blood-red Beowulf is breaching the surface of the evil pond, with Grendel’s severed head hanging by its hair from his teeth and the handle of his melted sword hoisted above him like a crucifix. With this one wild image Hinds is resolving, in a sense, the tension between the pagan origins of the Beowulf story and the later, Christian messaging of the anonymous Beowulf poet: Beowulf himself may never have heard of Christianity, but when he vanquishes monsters, he does so under the sign of Christ.

What Beowulf fights against is the undoing of everything. I used to think that Grendel was your archetypal party-hater, a buzzkill like Jason Voorhees (of the Friday the 13th franchise) or Michael Myers (Halloween), his deep-brain slasher centers activated by laughter, music, the trebley ripples of hedonism. Harp-playing in the great hall makes him homicidal, to be alliterative about it. But it’s not just any old harp-playing that gets Grendel going; it’s the Christian vision of cosmic order laid out by the skald. It harrowed him to hear … how the Almighty had made the earth / a gleaming plain girdled with waters. Creation itself, and the fact that it makes sense, is unbearable to Grendel.

So Grendel hates God. But the promise of Christianity, we begin to see, made barely a dent in this poem, which now emerges whole—eerily intact—into the post-Christian wreck of the current historical moment. There is no transcendence in Beowulf, and no redemption. Tear off the man-beast’s arm, says the poet; plumb the lake of psychic terror and come up victorious; kill the dragon—but the dragon will get you anyway. Cyclical, tribal violence obsesses the Beowulf poet: In the same breath that he hails the splendors of Heorot, he assures us that the great hall will one day be burned to the ground. Beowulf saves the Geats from the dragon, but the rider who distributes the news feels obliged to add that, as a people, they will shortly be under the heel of the murderous, unsupernatural Swedes. And in the churning smoke of Beowulf’s funeral pyre, a tableau from any age, every age: A Geat woman … sang out in grief; / with hair bound up, she unburdened herself / of her worst fears, a wild litany / of nightmare and lament; her nation invaded, / enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles, / slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.