ObBeowulf

I must be the only person on my blogroll who’s posted since the Beowulf film came out not to have mentioned it. That was at first just down to my peculiar scheduling of these posts, but as I delayed for that reason I realised that I was seeing more and more references to Beowulf-not-the-film in popular culture. Like this:

I begin to understand that the educated, or at least slightly educated, market for the film is bigger than I had expected. Not a lost hero after all, perhaps! And not just in pop culture either, because flicking idly through the latest issue of Speculum, Vol. 82 Pt 4 I believe, that Jinty Nelson had left around her office, I found that it opens with a paper by Roberta Frank called “A Scandal in Toronto: The Dating of Beowulf Twenty-Five Years On”, which came over to this reader very much as being the dressed-up, phoneme-spattered and fully referenced academic version of the neutral stance used by Professor Drout for his series of posts on the subject. Typically of the field, however, if I read both correctly they don’t actually agree even if their senses of the literature coincide closely. Drout’s version was of course intended for the kind of readership who would be fuddled by the high specialism of Frank’s paper, and I count myself as one of the fuddled here: what I understood, I understood mainly because of having read Drout’s posts, so that’s valuable work he’s doing there making specialism accessible. (I will be writing more about that before long due to the extreme reactions going through Van Engen’s Past and Future is giving me, but that’s for later.)

Anyway, the point is that even without the film Beowulf is pretty darn hot as topics go right now, so it’s safe for me to re-enter the blogosphere, because on 19th November I actually managed to go and see the film, and moreover in 3D, which was rather fun. I’m not going to do a real review, because more expert people than I have done so and I think Professor Nokes has probably linked to most of them. Nor am I going to use this opportunity to gratuitously include a shot of Angelina Jolie (or her CGI hwaets) in the blog (though you’ll notice that following Dr Virago‘s lead I still include the search terms); a mere picture could never convey etc., and in any case do I really want potential employers to catch me expounding on æsthetics like that? No. So, instead, merely some observations as follows.

Good things about the Beowulf movie

  • the dragon. I mean come on, whatever you may have thought of the animation elsewhere (and I went with a lot of computer types who were very snotty about it indeed), that dragon was the absolute business
  • prehensile hair
  • a realistic sense of the importance and, er, adaptibility, of renown in the Heroic Age
  • I don’t care if the Old English was mispronounced, it was intelligible enough to make maybe a few extra brave people go, `I could more or less understand that! How hard can it be?’ and I thought it was really cool

Bad things about the Beowulf movie

  • the music (and no, I don’t want a copy of the soundtrack thankyou)
  • “period” geography. Come on Gaiman, the only people who know enough to place Vinland and the Middle Kingdom also know roughly when they were and so should you
  • I don’t think the armour was actually a cunning attempt to suggest that fifth-century Danish warriors were essentially sub-Roman in terms of military apparel, though I was prepared to entertain the theory for a while
  • the ship near the beginning looked like an actual cartoon, I mean sub-Disney
  • “All the characters in this film are fictitious and bear no intended resemblance to any real persons alive or dead”, eh? Don’t be so sure, we may yet prove you wrong…
  • most of all, it would have been nice if, at any point in either opening or closing titles and credits, any mention of the ruddy poem that actually exists and can be bought and read had been made anywhere, don’t you think? Just because we don’t know who or how many people composed, wrote or edited it, or when, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want their royalties, if they could be brought up to relevant speeds on things like, er, moving pictures, 3D, payment of writers in money, 21st-century society generally… But you get the idea! Scop wants his credit! Pah. I keep expecting more from Gaiman than he’s able to deliver.

I’ve probably now done enough damage to the sober critical and adult reflectiveness for which, in my wild aspirations, this blog is already famed, so I’ll leave it there and just say, I enjoyed that, more or less, despite the relative weights of pros and cons, so if like me you are not by profession an Old English expert it’s possible you might also. I leave you with this further evidence of the cultural embedding of our lonely Old English heritage in pop culture. First Drafts is a series of cartoons that runs, among other places, in a satirical British news magazine called Private Eye. Usually it’s some novel everyone knows well enough to get the joke; last month, it was this…

Simon Pearsall’s First Drafts: Beowulf

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10 responses to “ObBeowulf

  1. You post, I read. Happy? :-)

  2. With that, very much. The reverse is of course also true…

  3. I also really liked the Speculum article. To use an American colloquialism, you gotta give it up to someone who can rap about Beowulf and Sherlock with equal aplomb.

  4. Academics who bring Sherlock Holmes into their papers bother me slightly. It’s entertaining of course, and it’s not just Prof. Frank who does it: I’ve got a cite by Chris Wickham in which he manages to convincingly use Holmes’s ‘methods’ to interpret the late Roman economy…1 I think Prof. Frank is more justly critical of the extent to which Holmes’s abilities are more or less determined by the plot and explained as need be, but that isn’t really the point. The point is that because Holmes is fictional, any useful `things to think with’2 were come up not by Holmes, but by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But because in his later years he got into spiritualism and fairies and is therefore an embarrassing intellectual ancestor, people who want to ‘apply his methods’ cite the mask of Holmes not the brain of Doyle, which is at a strange kind of odds with normal academic practice. I mean, they cite the books so Conan Doyle gets his credit in some sense, but all the same it seems rather weird the way this fictional figure’s maxims are used as if they were legit. theory. Don’t you think?

    1. Chris Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193; rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 77-98.
    2. The Interweb seems to attribute this phrase to, if anyone, Claude Levi-Strauss, but comes up with no original. I don’t suppose anyone reading would know if that’s right, and if so where he did invent it?

  5. Sorry, I just meant that I am a fan of Sherlock as a literary figure, not as a historian. However, he did do some work on Anglo-Saxon charters.:)

  6. Oh no, I quite agree, I love the stories too. But do you see what I mean? If Holmes knows about Anglo-Saxon charters, the knowledge he actually displays must be Conan Doyle’s. But Conan Doyle’s not ‘safe’ so people talk to the hand not the face. That’s all I was getting at.

  7. actually, judging from the story in the canon, it is suspect how much Conan Doyle knew about charters. Kind of like Michael Chrichton and “Time Line.” Just because one has read “A Distant Mirror” does not mean one should write a novel set in 14th cent. France.

  8. Oh, right. Well, he didn’t know much about formal logic either, it sometimes seems, but that doesn’t stop the maxims being quotable :-)

  9. Oh lord, I forgot about the music!! It was horrendous. It had sunk in for me when Beowulf successively slayed the dragon- and himself- and the music went ‘Hurrah, sound the horns, o happy day!” and rather ruined whatever was meant to feel bittersweet about the moment, I thought.

  10. Call me kooky, but I believe I will wait for the dvd, if I bother with it at all.

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