I went to see Beowulf last night. I thought it was pretty mediocre. Sure, it renders Grendel’s Mother as the hottest thing in a catsuit since Seven of Nine, but that’s hardly a commendation. Really, there’s not much to say about this movie other than it has its share of gee-whiz animation.
As for the story, this film does a pretty good job at eviscerating the original tale. I thought we could have expected much better from Neil Gaiman. All you get here is some weird Oedipal twist that ensnares two heroes (Hrothgar and Beowulf), neither of whom can figure out how to say no to Grendel’s mommy (Angelina Jolie in the afore-mentioned catsuit), with hell to pay when junior eventually comes looking for daddy. The formula is stupidly unsubtle: make Grendel and the Dragon sympathetic characters and give Beowulf a big flaw involving his sex drive. Blur the lines separating the good guys from the bad guys and you have a nice, deconstructed, postmodern version of the tale. How original.
But what irked me most of all is the way in which this movie disses both Christianity and northern European paganism. On the surface, the new religion fares the worse, since it is depicted as a faith for the weak (at one point Beowulf tells his companion Wiglaf something to the effect of “now that Christianity has come, the age of the heroes is over” — a snooze of an insult that has been around at least since the time of the Irish mythology, let alone Nietzche) and/or the sadistic (the film’s only Christian, Unferth, has a fondness for beating his slave). These are oh-so-obvious jibes, aimed at the sixteen-year-old culturally-illiterate boys to whom the film is clearly targeted.
The anti-Pagan theme is much subtler, but it’s there nonetheless. You just have to know your Norse myth to catch it. Mother-of-Grendel is depicted not so much as a mayhem-spewing monster as a sovereignty goddess, with the give-away being the cool glow-in-the-dark mead cup (drinking horn) that Beowulf uses as a flashlight whenever he visits her Freudian cave. For those of you who don’t know your Northern European Paganism, let me explain. Norse and Celtic myths abound with tales of a goddess-figure associated with the land from whom cheiftains or kings derive their right to rule. Hence, she is a soveriegnty-figure (and yes, she lives on even into our time, as Britannia or, on my side of the pond, Lady Liberty). When a man is elevated to the role of king or chieftain, his enthronement ritual would include actually or symbolically mating with a priestess who embodied Sovereignty; the symbolic form of this ritual would involve her presenting him with a cup filled with mead. What’s important to bear in mind is that just as the sovereignty goddess can bestow the right to rule on those to whom she favors (i.e., is mated), she can also withdraw her support. The myths abound with tales of kings who, having lost the blessings of Lady Sovereignty, rule over lands where famine, illness, and crop failures strike. The people, acknowledging that the king has lost the blessings of the goddess, would sacrifice the failed old king and select a new ruler, who would engage in his own ritual of mating with the goddess — and so the cycle would renew itself.
This powerful motif from Pagan mythology is expertly woven into the character of Grendel’s Mother and her relationship with the two kings in the story. Normally, I’d give Mr. Gaiman points for unpacking a submerged pagan theme like this — but his depiction of Grendel’s Mother is so gratuitously nihilistic and ironic (in a postmodern sense) that she comes across not so much as a chthonic goddess but simply as a capricious demoness. In other words, it winds up being a kind of unintended advertisement for the very religion that the movie so eagerly insults. Take your pick: a religion that worships a demon-goddess, or a religion that privileges martyrdom over heroism? Bleccch!
And yes, anyone who knows both religions reasonably well can see just how unfair both of these comic-book representations really are (let us never forget that Gaiman got his start writing for the comics, and Beowulf makes me think he’s never graduated from them either). Lady Sovereignty may be unforgiving and merciless, but she is not nihilistic and she has her beautiful, bounteous side as well. And Christianity is far more heroic than its adolescent detractors are capable of seeing. By the end of the movie, having seen both these religions so unfairly blasphemed, I was left with a sense that Gaiman’s real agenda is simply chaotic: to destroy any and all meaning-systems, wherever you might find them. Maybe this works in a sort of ironic/postmodern sort of way, but even such a self-satisfied world-view has its own limitations.
So go see Beowulf if you like artsy animation. But if you’re a Neopagan who thinks it’s funny how much the film slams Christianity, just remember that there are more ways to subvert a religion than just full-frontal ridicule.