15 Nov 2007

Ides aglæcwif

Submitted by Karl Hagen
A few weeks back, I was interviewed for an article on Beowulf in the L.A. Times that has just appeared.

I do want to point out that my remarks were paraphrased (as is fairly common with journalists), and so there are a few places where what I intended may not have been rendered quite accurately.

My comments came from a conversation about why people feel the need to constantly reimagine Beowulf. My point was that it is an appealing story, but it also has a host of interpretive difficulties no matter what level you're trying to interpret it on. If you're reading it in Old English, you have to confront problems as basic as what particular words mean, hence my remarks about ides aglæcwif. This part of the conversation was butchered, and I'm not sure if I spoke confusingly or not, but my remarks about aglæwif were conflated with those on ides, which of course primarily means "lady." But that brings up the problem of how we are to understand Grendel's mother as a lady. I think I mentioned the speculative connection some have made to the Valkyries. The point is that the mere act of translating the poem, even for personal reading, commits you to a very active interpretation. True, that sort of reimaginination goes on for every act of reading, but it's particularly in your face with Beowulf.

The reimagination required in telling a story is different only in degree, not in kind, from that required for reading it. If you're making a movie of Beowulf, you are forced into large acts of reimagination. For example, what was the music of early sixth century Danes like? What were the table manners of the Geats? There's no historical evidence to help us, but a movie must show something. The narrative problems are most acute when it comes to deciding how, or if, to link the various episodes of the poem. Although many scholars have argued that the poem is unified, there's no getting around the fact that if judged against present-day, conventional standards, it lacks narrative unity. I don't consider the structure of Beowulf to be deficient on its own terms, but it's not the structure of a mainstream movie, and I also don't see anything wrong with that structure. If you're going to show Beowulf with a reasonably conventional narrative line, you will have to make changes. It was specifically in the context of movie-making that I made the remarks about the desire to unify the story. Often, people have simply stopped telling the story after Grendel or Grendel's Mother. One thing that the Zemeckis Beowulf does is to present all three monsters. And the major changes to the story almost all involve providing a unifying thread that ties them all together.

Whether or not the particular changes are successful in their own right is a legitimate question. But I don't hold with the notion that it's somehow improper to make such changes at all. That attitude makes a fetish of a notion of purity, confines works of art to hermetically sealed cases, removes them from active cultural life.