18 Nov 2007

The Scop's Oration

Submitted by Karl Hagen
In the movie Beowulf, The scop's oration during the "Beowulf Day" celebration is a bastardized version of Beowulf's fight with Grendel from the poem. It's a snippet of what we originally recorded, which managed to tell the whole fight, from Grendel coming off the moor to Beowulf raising Grendel's arm in victory in about 90 seconds.

This scene developed in stages. Originally, I was asked to find an excerpt from the poem that gave a summary of the fight. I was told to make sure that the names Beowulf and Grendel figured prominently, since that was the only thing that anyone but an expert in Old English was likely to understand. If you've read the poem, you'll know that's tough, since the Beowulf poet refers to the characters by epithets at least as often as by their names. During the fight, Beowulf's name is only mentioned once, at the very end, and Grendel's name only appears twice. Nonetheless, I produced a condensed version that respected the meter and that told the whole story. The only technical challenge was in stitching together cuts made at the half-line so that the alliteration was preserved.

This version, however, didn't have nearly enough references to Beowulf and Grendel. Working from the translation I provided with the proposed portion of the poem, Zemeckis made some cuts and substituted "Grendel" or "Beowulf" for most of the periphrastic epithets. I was then asked to turn that back into Old English.

I provided them with a literal translation, but also noted that these changes completely wrecked the meter in the altered portions and asked if I could try a more radical rewrite that kept to Old English metrical forms. Zemeckis accepted that suggestion, and so I proceeded to take my best shot at beating the revised version into some sensible metrical shape. The primary challenge was making the inserted names work with the alliteration. Although I was able to splice in in some phrases from other parts of the poem, for the rest, I had to dig up alliterating synonyms and play around with variations until I found something that was a metrical fit.

Old English metrics is rather contentious subject, but the basic parameters that I set for myself were that I would use authentic lines of Old English verse where I could, and when I had to improvise, the lines should be regular examples of Siever's types (with no hypermetric lines). I observed alliteration and resolution.

Here is the portion of the scop's speech that made it into the movie, at least as it was recorded. There may have been some smaller cuts within this portion. A version that I reviewed during editing had a few lines scrambled, and I didn't track closely when watching the final version to see how it was fixed.

                        Forð near ætstop,
bana blodigtoð.  Ða Beowulf astod,
ond him fæste wiðfeng;  fingras burston.
Se grimma gast,  Grendel wæs hinfus,
utweard wolde fleon.  Yrre wæron begen,
reþe renweardes.  Reced hlynsode.
Beowulf se bald,  bearn Ecgþeow,
hine hæfde be honda;  wæs gehwæþer oðrum
lifigende lað.  Licsar gebad
se atol Grendel,  him on eaxle wearð
syndolh sweotol,  seonowe onsprungon,
burston banlocan.  Beowulfe wearð
guðhreð gyfeþe;


"He stepped near, the bloody-toothed slayer. Then Beowulf stood, and seized him fast; fingers burst. The grim spirit, Grendel was eager to escape, outward would flee. Both were enraged, full of fury. The hall echoed. Beowulf the bold, son of Ecgtheow, had him by the hand; each to the other was hateful alive. The wretched Grendel suffered body-pain; on his shoulder was a huge wound, the sinews sprang apart the bone-locks burst. Beowulf was given battle-victory."

For those who are interested in the gory technical details, I'll provide a detailed commentary in another post.