Beowulf just can’t seem to catch a break. First, it collected 1200 years worth of library dust for supposedly being a low-brow adventure story in a barbaric poetic form, before Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien rescued it from obscurity with his 1936 lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. And today, while the Old English epic is by no means ignored, it seems to receive much less attention than various adaptations that either parody or deconstruct it.
One recent example of this phenomenon is Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, a cabaret-like musical version of the story by New York playwright Jason Craig. This version features a bespectacled Beowulf who enters to a 60’s do-wop theme, a Hrothgar who plays the accordion, and a panel of stuffy academic types who set up the story up as boring lecture that suddenly becomes a bizarre stage show. This is not to say that itisn’t uproariously funny, and even when it pokes fun at the original, it’s a gentle poke. Nevertheless, on the scale of parody and homage, Baggage definitely leans toward parody.
Then there was the Beowulf movie of 2007, directed by Robert Zemeckis of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump fame. While not terribly unfaithful in the first act, screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary reinterpret the motivations of the monster Grendel for attacking Hrothgar’s mead-hall, as well as entirely changing what happens during Beowulf’s with Grendel’s mother. These changes basically turn the entire story on its head to the point that anyone who has read the original will have a hard time enjoying the second act, no matter how excellent the CG animation and 3D effects may be.
While the original poem may not be as funny as Baggage or as viscerally exciting as the movie version, Tolkien was correct in calling it a great work of literature. Nor does the fact that it is literature mean it’s boring: anyone who thinks Beowulf must surely be dull as mud need only pick up Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation, which reads as smoothly as prose while elegantly transfers the original’s alliterative verse form into English.
For Beowulf, perhaps any press is good press. Just remember, if you are one of the many who has only seen an adaptation of this epic story, you really should give the original a try. While it may not have as much sex, comedy, or clever plot twists as its adaptations, it does have an epic story, cast of well-drawn characters, and action to spare. The poor poem definitely deserves at least a try.