At some point between the 8th or the 11th century, an unknown poet wrote 3182 lines. These lines make up the heroic tale of Beowulf. It’s one of the most important pieces of anglo-saxon literature. One manuscript survives to this day. But the story of Beowulf has persisted and inspired many a writer. Time to have a look at what writers have done with the story over the years.
As a bit of a preface: This list is nowhere near complete. It’s an attempt at showing you what has been done with the story, not a complete index of versions. So feel free to add your own entries to this list or tell us if we missed something like “Lego Beowulf – The Movie” (which I just made up, by the way).
The 1000 year-old poem
The original story tells readers of Beowulf, a Geat hero. His parents are noblemen and under oath to king Hroðgar (the ð is pronounced like the English “th”). Beowulf grows up in Geatland and, once a man, sets out with 14 warriors to pay the debt his parents owe to Hroðgar. During the night, the monster Grendel attacks Beowulf’s party. Grendel is described as the son of an unnamed mother and a direct descendant of the biblical Cain, the first killer of a man in the Holy Book. Although Grendel’s appearance is never described, it is believed that he’s a terrifying monster. Everyone is afraid of the monster. Everyone but Beowulf. And whatever creature the author might have had in mind, we do know that Grendel has at least one arm. Because Beowulf fights Grendel without his sword and manages to rip off Grendel’s arm. The fatally wounded monster dies later of that wound.
This angers Grendel’s mother. She attacks Hroðgar’s castle and abducts Beowulf. She drags him back to her home at a lake. There, Beowulf and Grendel’s mother fight it out. Beowulf is losing the fight, despite valiant effort. Just as Grendel’s mother is about to win the fight and kill the hero, Beowulf sees a sword and uses it to decapitate the monster’s mother.
But the trials of our hero aren’t over yet. Grendel comes back to life after the death of his mother. In one final fight against the infernal family, Beowulf manages to decapitate the undead Grendel.
Beowulf’s heroics don’t end there. He returns home to Geatland, takes part in a raid where he has to swim home in full armour. During that raid, the king of Sweden fell in battle, so the queen offers Beowulf the throne. He doesn’t want it, but eventually becomes king after the successor of the fallen king dies. He rules Sweden for 51 years until a dragon attacks the lands. Beowulf and his men go after the monster and the valiant titular hero and one of his comrades, Wiglaf, follow the dragon into its lair. There, in one final battle, Beowulf slices the dragon in half, but is mortally wounded by the monster’s poisonous horn and dies. He is buried at sea.
Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981)
It took the movie industry a long time to adapt the story of the Anglo-Saxon. The first version on screen was a 1981 animated movie called Grendel Grendel Grendel. It’s very much a lighter version of the otherwise grim story. The story is told from the perspective of Grendel who turns into a thoughtful monster, voiced by Sir Peter Ustinov. The story follows the original poem but adds to the character of Grendel. Still, some changes are made to the story. Beowulf only gains the upper hand in their final battle after the monster has slipped on a puddle of blood. And Beowulf appears to turn into a flaming creature at some point.
The movie is based on a book by John Gardner, simply called Grendel.
Star Trek Voyager: Heroes and Demons (1995)
During the first season of Star Trek Voyager, Ensign Harry Kim – one of the show’s starring characters – is lost in a holodeck simulation of Beowulf. There he doubled as Beowulf and was set to live out the adventures of the epic poem. However, at the same time, the people aboard the Federation Spaceship Voyager bugger up a science experiment that has them investigate some sort of energy they beamed onto the ship. Part of the energy somehow ends up on the holodeck and the ship’s Doctor is sent to find the lost ensign and talk to the energy that turns out to be sentient.
The episode features cringe-worthy dialogue, bad costumes and even worse dialogue that – would Vikings still exist – would probably offend Vikings, awfully choreographed fights but does contain some nice hints to the Beowulf-myth. While Grendel is star energy and thus nothing more than a mass of glowy tentacles and Beowulf is played by an Asian man who doesn’t appear for more than one scene, the ship’s Doctor gets to act out most of the episode. His holographic arm gets ripped off by Grendel and then replaced.
Beowulf & Grendel (2005)
Gerard Butler stars in this movie as Beowulf. The movie introduces three new main characters. Grendel’s father, a witch and Grendel’s son. In addition to that, faith is brought up. While Grendel terrorizes Hroðgar’s kingdom, his disciples convert to Christianity. Grendel and his family are cast as trolls and appear as huge and bulking figures. Still, Grendel is not a mindless monster and avenges the death of his father and Beowulf even sympathizes with the troll.
The movie hasn’t received that many good reviews. It’s described as average at best. Curiously enough, the making-of of this movie, titled Wrath of Gods, is rather popular, having won six awards.
One of the more out-there incarnations of the Beowulf story is the 1999 movie starring Christopher Lambert of Highlander fame as the titular hero. The movie is very much a child of the 1990s. Set in a postapocalyptic future that has modern technology in some aspects but has mostly reverted to the dark ages, Beowulf arrives at Hroðgar’s fortress on the outskirts of society in a world ruled by chaos and people in helmets. Set to techno beats, Beowulf fights the winged smoke-creature called Grendel and thus angers its mother who looks surprisingly human and is played by Layla Roberts who prances around half-naked more often than not. They fight each other with swords and badass crossbows.
Although critically panned and holding the amazing score of 3.8 out of 10 on the internet movie database IMDB and 27 percent on the review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com, it’s one of these movies that make watching obscure TV-channels at two in the morning on a weeknight totally worth it. And if you’re into Steampunk, the movie’s a must-see.
Neil Gaiman, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone are just some of the big names attached to this movie. In this version, Grendel is given a reason why he attacks Hroðgar and his men. The horribly disfigured man has super-sensitive hearing and the festivities in Hroðgar’s castle hurt his ears. It is further revealed that Hroðgar is Grendel’s father, having been seduced by the monster’s mother years ago. The dragon that ultimately kills Beowulf is also under control of Grendel’s mother.
The movie was made using motion capture so even Angelina Jolie’s full-body nudity – which a large part of the marketing for this movie was based around – is computer-animated. What didn’t help the movie either was an effect called the Uncanny Valley. It’s an effect that occurs when something artificial is made to look very real. And although it’s almost photorealistic, viewers can’t help but notice its artificialness and see it as somehow wrong and creepy.
Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008)
Made with almost no budget, volunteers and donations from cancer societies, this film is nowhere near a Hollywood spectacle. The trailer looks intriguing, though. It has a Beowulf who rides on skis, a lot of bad greenscreen effects and a CGI-dragon that looks horrible. Still, you can’t deny that they made effort, given the money that they had to work with.
Next time, we’ll have a look at Beowulf in literature beyond the original poem. So stay tuned.