29 Nov 2007

Beowulf Meets the 21st-Century Guilt Trip

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Stephen T. Asma provides an agreeably erudite assessment of the new Robert Zemeckis film Beowulf in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Beowulf seems to join the ranks of other recent films that champion pre-Christian masculine virtues. History-based blockbuster hits like Zach Snyder and Frank Miller’s film 300 (about the battle of Thermopylae) or HBO’s series Rome, are unapologetic celebrations of macho competence. The popularity of these pseudohistorical films took many media pundits by surprise, but the audiences who felt the testosterone buzz from the hero stories (myself included) were not surprised in the least. And the experience is not just the visceral Freudian holiday of aggression that one finds in inferior action and slasher pictures. Rather, there is a distinct sympathy for honor culture in these films — brute strength, tribal loyalty, and stoic courage actually get things done.

Academe finds all this loathsome and backward, and, of course, our liberal culture is ostensibly opposed to the social hierarchies, patriarchy, and chauvinism of older honor cultures. But narratives and representations about heroic strength (even flawed and misdirected) remain deeply satisfying for many people. …

the Zemeckis film has found a way to have its cake and eat it too. At one level, our reptilian brain gets to thoroughly enjoy the triumphant ass-kicking of a take-charge hero, but up in our neocortex we pay our penance for this thrill by morally condemning the protagonist — scolding Beowulf and ourselves for the momentary power trip.

Beowulf might survive Grendel. But in going up against the 21st-century guilt trip, he may have met his match.

One observation: Asma does notes that:

The film cleverly ties Beowulf’s final monster fight to the earlier episodes with Grendel and his mother (something the original fails to do). By transforming Grendel’s mother into a femme fatale seductress, they’ve found a way simultaneously to further demonstrate Beowulf’s flaws, give the female lead more dimensionality (albeit uncharitably), and connect the denouement to the earlier story.

But Asma fails to observe that Christian and medieval myth elements have been, in the film, skillfully interwoven to fill out the original poem’s plot. Grendel’s mother has been made into an aquatic faery, a treacherous and seductive Melusine, bent upon tricking the mortal hero into a degrading intercourse productive of his own flawed offspring and Nemesis. The human hero is thus forced, in the end, to fight against (and inevitably to be destroyed by) his own sin.


Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.


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