I stumbled on a website today that made me think that my slight ill-ease with the current plethora of Beowulf movies might be well-founded.
One of my problems with Beowulf as it is so often encountered -- and I know we've all beaten Charles McGrath horse to death at this point -- is that it seems so flat. In fact, that's why, heretically, I liked the recent Beowulf and Grendel. Thinking about the film, I wrote:
Beowulf and Grendel is not the poem I, and perhaps some of you readers, study or have studied. Yet I wonder if it’s not a certain aspect of that poem, refracted through time, to show a side of it the Old English did not, or could not, fully articulate. As Tolkien once said, the characters of the Anglo Saxon epic go forth to fight “the battle that ends for all, even kings and champions, in darkness.” In this movie, night comes down on monsters and heroes alike – and the withered remnants of their lives, like the enshrined head of Grendel’s dad, serve as stories for those who remain. It’s making sense of it that we must struggle with – and in the end it can only make sense for us at our moment. Beowulf and Grendel is, then, that rendering – one more chance for us to make sense of story of long ago. One more chance to see the “Outsider” in his many forms – and perhaps, if for only a moment, to go Outside our own fortressed thoughts to meet him.
What I seemed to be grappling with then, and what I'm grappling with now, is the way in which we inherit heroes. The ways in which Beowulf stands as a venerated homage to the idea that heroism necessitates violent conflict -- that heroes need someone or something to destroy in order to truly be heroes.
Martin Firrell has begun a large-scale public art project with Nathan Fillion (of Firefly), called Hero. Currently there are three parts, which bring together Fillion's reflections and conversations (and footage of the interview as well as other images of him) with words, written both by Firrell and by people who sent them in via email and a blog for the project.
Based in Firrell's idea that words can be relevant, the "Hero" project is fascinating -- and I was surprised to feel its relevance not only to a world where violence has become so much a part of every-day life, but also to the literature that world is currently resurrecting in movie form, the literature I study.
The need for a new model of heroism is a necessity: and I think the part of Firrell's early project that I'm most interested to see develop (and which, if you're patient, you can hear parts of here in an interview for a show that seems to usually be about Firefly) is how Firrell will move beyond the masculine-centeredness of the project as it now stands. He seems committed to doing so - and for his project to succeed it seems that it will have to.
It reminds me of a beautiful Brian Andreas print that reads "Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That's what takes a real hero."
I'd be interested to hear opinions of this project -- and perhaps most of all, how it intersects our work as Anglo-Saxonists. I wonder what sorts of responsibility we have -- to the texts we study and to the students we give them to -- vis a vis this problem of what it means to be a hero, and what Beowulf, particularly in his politically aware incarnations perhaps, might be able to teach us...
and one of these days I'll get back to my orals reading notes -- I'm making progress, but nothing that seems to make it here...