Grendel’s Mom Has Got It Going On

I’ve finished reading the comic book adaptation of the new Neil Gaiman film version of Beowulf, so I can give a summary for those who want one.

a different Beowulf comic bookLet me first refresh your memory concerning the original story. The monster Grendel and his mum live in a lake near Heorot, castle of King Hrothgar. (No father is in evidence; our conservative friends would probably invoke this fact to explain Grendel’s troubled career.) Enraged by the sound of revelry (evidently Grendel is a Menckenite Puritan), Grendel periodically visits the castle to smash puny humans. No warrior is able to withstand him until Beowulf shows up to save the day. Beowulf lies in wait for the monster and defeats him.

But the castle’s troubles are not over. Next, Grendel’s fearsome mother attacks the castle to avenge her son’s death. Beowulf tracks her back to her watery lair and dispatches her as well.

Then Beowulf returns home and the story fast-forwards. Now he is an aging king who has to deal with a new menace: a fiery dragon, accidentally wakened by a treasure-thief, is ravaging the countryside. Beowulf manages to slay the dragon but, less robust than in his youth, dies in the process. He receives a cool Viking funeral and the saga ends.

So how close does the new movie stick to this plot? For the SPOILER-averse, I’ve buried the answer in the comments section.


2 Responses to Grendel’s Mom Has Got It Going On

  1. Administrator October 26, 2007 at 6:49 pm #

    In overall outline the film follows the original plot pretty closely. But a few crucial changes are made – mostly, I would say, to bring the story into line with a) Greek tragic conventions and b) adolescent male audience preferences. The device used to satisfy (b) also provides the crucial linking thread for (a).

    According to the conventions of Greek tragedy, as laid out for example in Aristotle’s Poetics, the events of the story are supposed to be linked by explanatory causal chains into an intelligible unity, and a “tragic flaw” in the protagonist’s character should play a crucial role in such linkage. The original story lacks these features; there’s no explanation of why Grendel lives near this castle he dislikes so much, the later episode with the dragon has no connection with the earlier fight against Grendel and his mother (contrary to Aristotle’s insistence that merely happening to the same character is not enough to bind incidents into a single story), and Beowulf owes his final defeat simply to old age, not to any flaw in his character.

    The film revises precisely these features by making Grendel’s mother a beautiful demon/nymph rather than the scaly hag she is usually portrayed as. That much is no spoiler if you’ve seen the trailers; Angelina Jolie is clearly not playing a scaly hag. But HERE COME THE MAJOR SPOILERS (though many of these you could really guess from the trailers anyway):

    The existence of Grendel is King Hrothgar’s fault, as he allowed himself years ago to be seduced by Angie; Grendel is his son. Beowulf likewise fails to kill Angie, allowing himself to be seduced as well (both sexually and with promises of power and fame); the dragon he later fights (in the same vicinity – Beowulf becomes king at Heorot rather than returning home) is his own son by Angie.

    One can also see Tolkien’s influence on this film. (Of course Tolkien himself was deeply influenced in turn by the original Beowulf, and wrote an important essay on it.) Grendel’s mother here is like the One Ring – the beautiful but sinister force that warrior after warrior, tempted by the power it offers, fails to destroy as he should, and so plants the seeds of his own undoing.

    Will the movie be good or bad? I can’t really tell from the comic book version; I guess I’ll find out next month.

  2. Anon2 October 26, 2007 at 7:57 pm #

    Hey Dr. Long, you should address the extinction of the neanderthals from a libertarian viewpoint. New evidence shows some of them even had red hair; is it just that our species outcompeted theirs, does this show that a species that is more collectivist always triumphs over individual enclaves of freedom, etc.

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