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.
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.