‘Beowulf! How’s your father?’ shouts Anthony Hopkins as Ray Winstone steps out of the boat which has brought the Geats’ tribal leader from Sweden to Denmark. As a way of grabbing attention it probably works better than ‘Hwaet!’ — the narrator’s initial injunction to sit up and listen in the original text. This may be English literature’s first epic, but even its admirers concede that the multiple plots recounted in 3,182 lines can confuse. These are shaggy dog stories of a somewhat bloody kind rather than Virgil or Homer, and in the absence of a unifying artistic vision we need to be kept engaged.
Digitally enhanced live action brings a novelty to Robert Zemeckis’s newly released film of Beowulf and the undulations of Grendel-fighting Winstone’s six-pack (courtesy of 3-D animation technology) constitute a pretty arresting sight. Hopkins as beleaguered Hrothgar, king of the Danes, digs deep into his own tribal past and opts for a South Wales valleys accent. Those rolling ‘r’s and big vowels seemed just right, says Zemeckis, after ‘long debates about how Welsh might have grown out of Old English’ — a droll notion since the native literature of the former predates the latter.
In the millennium or so of its history as written literature Beowulf has meant different things to a great many people. The Victorians who were its first scholarly interpreters delighted in the difficulty of the language. Beowulf showed that academic ‘English’ might be quite as tough as Greek and that the language’s earliest texts could reveal attitudes as satisfyingly archaic as any creed expressed by Ajax or Achilles. This, therefore, was a worthy English successor to the Homeric tradition since it too showed layers of oral tradition accruing around the campfire. Its original composition, perhaps some two centuries before the epic was transcribed in about 1000ad, bears the marks of Anglo-Saxon attitudes in the centuries when Christianity was still a new English religion. The Scandinavian setting with its feasts of meat and mead, gleeful slaughter, and fire-breathing monsters is a pagan riot with later scribes adding a few self-consciously Christian asides to redeem the sanguinary action.
Beowulf is a hero of the European north’s snowy wastes, and the poem spoke to an original audience of Anglo-Saxons conscious of their links with the Germanic ancestors who had invaded southern Britain and named it ‘England’. Although the work is more often invoked than read, its ‘epic’ status is more than just a literary categorisation. Beowulf survives as a portrait of determined leadership against an apparently invincible foe — qualities that have turned it into a founding myth of English identity. Bede had been the first to tell his compatriots explicitly (in his early eighth-century history) that they were an elect nation specially chosen by God for a providential purpose, and Beowulf too can be used to provide literary evidence for that English ‘exceptionalism’. But the poem’s allusions also show a late first-millennium country aware of its cultural connexions across the northern seas. Those who maintain that an insular geography need not entail insular attitudes can also pray in aid Beowulf.
Anglo-Saxon civilisation is England’s submerged culture and it tends to be interpreted in the light of the conquest that followed. The idea of a ‘Norman yoke’ that had introduced feudalism and thereby destroyed a primitive English egalitarianism is a feature of republican debate in the 1640s. But at a less propagandist level Henry Spelman, one of the greatest historians of English law, had already been at work in the preceding 20 years arguing that the Conquest had transformed Anglo-Saxon society by importing feudal tenures on the Continental model. Spelman struck a serious blow against the nationalist mythology which maintained that England’s legal and constitutional system had a continuous history extending to the imagined tribal assemblies of the Germanic forests. 1066 was a break — whether one liked the consequences or not.
David Hume, in writing his History of England, was up against a personal problem. The Conquest involved a usurpation of established rights — something that went against all his Tory instincts. But the historian was also a philosopher who knew that abstract rights had to be weighed against human nature’s truths. The fact that the new arrangements had lasted such a long time generated their own justification in terms of lived experience. Besides which the smoothly enlightened Hume was hardly likely to warm to Anglo-Saxon tribes — a social grouping he would have found distressingly reminiscent of his compatriots’ Highland clans.
English Victorians, however, embraced the idea of an Anglo-Saxon heritage and therefore named their children Alfred and Edith, Edgar and Agnes. And their historians could detect a blessed synthesis for were not the Normans — the Nortmanni — originally quite as Germanic as the Anglo-Saxons? Bishop Stubbs warmed therefore to the Norman ‘rod of discipline which was to school England to the knowledge of her own strength’. And the very bracing E.A. Freeman revelled in how these men of the North got rid of their ‘slight French varnish’ and revealed their true Teutonic stock once they arrived in England.
Burrowing far deeper in search of the continuities, the late Patrick Wormald transformed the writing of Anglo-Saxon history by arguing that the English common law, far from being the invention of Henry II’s reign in the 12th century, was already evolving three centuries earlier in the Wessex of Alfred the Great. Anglo-Saxon law and monarchy might have been influenced by Charlemagne, but these were independent and precocious growths — a scholarly conclusion which also reflects Euro-sceptic opinions in late 20th-century England.
Zemeckis’s Beowulf is the latest stage of Anglo-Saxon interpretation — one that equips that culture’s epic for a high-tech age which also enjoys camping it up. Actors are encased in close-fitting Lycra suits — the medium through which digital sensors can be attached to their faces and bodies. The filmed performances are then merged with computer-generated graphics. But the effect — although productive of some vertiginous battle scenes — gives the actors an oddly washed-out look. Angelina Jolie survives the treatment and, as Grendel’s mother, transmutes into a convincingly semi-human lizard. She has form in the deranged mother department, having played the snake-worshipping Bacchante Olympias in Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great. But the film’s introduction of a love interest between herself and Hrothgar, followed by one with Beowulf, is a vampish conceit which collapses into sexualised absurdity. As for Beowulf himself — the film buries the humanity of the character portrayed in the epic beneath the carapace of those digitalised pectorals which turn him into Conan the Barbarian.