Double Blasphemy

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.

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  1. Neil Gaiman says that’s not what he intended at all (although he says we are free to decide for ourselves what it means). Not tha tI’m saying it’s a good movie, I haven’t seen it, I’m just saying- he’s honestly not the sort of author who would do something like that on purpose, and here, have a quote of him saying he never meant it on purpose.

  2. In the blog post you refer me to, Gaiman never really discloses his own ideas about the script, he only refers the reader to two reviewers, neither of whom address the Lady with a Mead Cup motif. I still think the movie is bleak in that it emphasizes the flaws of man within a cosmology presided over by a devouring bitch-goddess. I suppose you could call it an existentialist pagan story, but I think in the end it is just as disprespectful to the pagan ethos of honor and hospitality as it is to the Christian virtues of redemptive sacrifice and agapic suffering. I really don’t think devout Christians or thoughtful Pagans will find much to celebrate in the moral of this tale. Personally, I just find it distasteful — neither beautiful nor good, and I don’t think it stands up as truth pretty well either.

  3. I’m glad I read your post about Beowulf, Carl. You’ve helped me decide not to spend the $$$ to see it in the theatre but to wait for it to come to cable or DVD (which nowadays is sometimes just a month or two). I actually have fond memories of reading Beowulf in my Medieval Literature class in college (yes, I am that big a geek!) and seeing an excellent play based on it once in Little Five Points.

  4. Darrell, it’s worth going to see for the animation, and it is my understanding that to really enjoy it, go see it in 3D (I saw it on a conventional screen). But I think the story really is a disappointment. Great animation – lousy story = average film. But if you put more weight on the animation (or on seeing Angelina Jolie’s turn as a digitally-rendered answer to the Barbie doll), it’s worth the ten bucks to see it on the silver screen.

  5. I loved your take on this film. I have to admit the previews I saw seemed to portray a bastardization of a classic tale and was an instant turn off, not to mention I have issues with the over sexualized images they used to sell the film with- I understand it appeals to the masses and making this story intellectually accessible to all is the positive trade off, but the fact that you said the movie was nothing but blasphemous animation makes me think it was not a fair trade.
    I also wanted to email to ask you this but couldn’t find your contact. So hopefully this will work. I wanted to know your take on a site I’ve come in contact with. It’s I don’t know who is behind the organization exactly, but some people have said it is connected somehow to warner brothers. With the advent of films like Beowolf, and the Golden Compass and whatever this site is, I’m curious whether you think it is despicable that Hollywood is capitalizing on religious battles, or if they are simply creating safe and artistic portals to discuss a higher power? Any insight would be much appreciated.

  6. I’m not really all that dazzled by animation or special effects – although, from what I’ve seen of the previews, I might be dazzled by Beowulf’s abs and biceps. To me, the story is all-important. I can handle heresy, but I don’t care to spend $10 to see a literary classic turned into an action movie. (Or even a semi-classic like “I Robot” – poor Isaac Asimov must be spinning in his grave to see how Hollywood desecrated his work.)

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