Beowulf the Opera

I’ve just come across a New York Times article ( discussing several recent or forthcoming adaptations of Beowulf, including a couple of films and ‘Beowulf: the Opera’ (or rather ‘Grendel: the Opera’.) My immediate thought on hearing about these is that Beowulf is not actually a very good story for a film: there just isn’t enough material. The basic plot of Beowulf is as follows:

Monster terrorises Danes; Beowulf kills him
Monster’s mother seeks revenge; Beowulf kills her
Beowulf becomes king of Geats and grows old
Dragon terrorises Geats; Beowulf kills dragon and is killed in the process.

I remember seeing a student theatre production in Oxford twenty years ago and one of the things that struck me then was how short it was if you stick to the basic plot. The only reason that Beowulf lasts 3000 lines is that alongside these battles, there are a series of digressions, which form what I’ve seen described as an interlace pattern of themes, motifs etc. A very polished literary effect and (I’d presume) impossible to reproduce in a film. Maybe you could do it in opera with arias, but in a film, you can hardly have repeated flash forwards/flashbacks to stories which often include completely new characters. (It’s hard enough for those of us studying the poem to distinguish between Edgetheow and Ongentheow without a handy reference list).

My second train of thought was about the complaints of the journalist that the new adaptations miss the terror of Beowulf. There are two sides to this: the modern audience and the original audience. For the modern audience, it’s not clear that there’s any easy way to induce terror. All an authentic Beowulf film can have is a few scenes of monsters eating men and Beowulf pulling Grendel’s arm off. No sex or even sexual violence. You’re looking at a 15 certificate, not an 18, in these days of Quentin Tarentino. And you can’t for long take the other approach to inducing terror, that of keeping the horrors all off-stage and just dropping scary hints – you have to see the monsters pretty soon in Beowulf.

As for the original audience, were they listening to Beowulf for the thrill of being ‘scared out of their wits’, as the article suggests? If so, they may have been sadly disappointed (at least by the version of the story we currently have). As has often been pointed out, the poet keeps on undercutting the suspense, either by telling us the outcome of the fight in advance or by digressions. (Some scholars, in fact, have argued that Beowulf isn’t really epic poetry at all because there’s so little action). It takes 200 lines, for example, from Beowulf setting out to meet the dragon to him actually encountering it, lines mostly spent by Beowulf in discussing the past. The Battle of Maldon manages an entire epic defeat in around 400 lines; the Beowulf poet takes the scenic route. Whatever the audience got (a view of a whole society, an elegy for past heroic values), terror would surely have been only secondary to it.


3 thoughts on “Beowulf the Opera

  1. In 2010 we saw Benjamin Bagby’s remarkable 1-man “performance” [rhetorical recitation + harp] of Beowulf at the Madison (Wisconsin) Early Music Festival. Absolutely captivating stuff, in large part because it proceeded at its own stately pace, which felt right for the period (about which I know little, however). It was like watching a great solo dancer – you don’t realize how much can be done with so little.

    So it’s arguably theatrical – but not (as you note) cinematic, except in the sense that something like My Dinner with Andre was.


    • Very interesting to hear about someone performing it in the original: did you find any of it comprehensible? Old English isn’t a completely different language to modern English, but I don’t know if there would be enough overlap to catch any of it if you didn’t know the story well. But you would get more of the “music” of the poem than any modern translation: the alliterative verse is very hard to translate if you want to keep the sense as well.

      I’d certainly agree “Beowulf” is intended for performance, but it hardly fits the current template for action films of requiring constant peril and vast amounts of explosions. I never saw the 2007 film, but it does at least sound slightly better than the 1999 version with Christopher Lambert. Anyone who’s interested in the poem itself should probably also look at Michael Wood’s documentary on it.


  2. If I recall correctly, they had some version of “surtitles” (familiar to me through opera) which provided in effect a simultaneous translation into modern English. Without this, my capacity for attention would have lapsed long before the performance ended. With it – as with opera – one could follow along, and occasionally catch (or figure out) a word or two here and there via cognates. It worked!


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