So I have recently been re-visiting Beowulf as part of the course; we had the pleasure of studying Seamus Heaney’s version of the Epic as part of our First Year course.
It is a true Epic. I absolutely love the style and flow of the writing. For this I think both the original Saga-master and Heaney deserve equal congratulations. Any story can be a good one but it takes a wordsmith to make it into something more tangible.
For anyone out there who has not read it I would suggest doing so, mainly because this blog might not make much sense unless you have. Put simply there is a reason that this story has been told for over 1500 years.
As part of this course we are looking at the idea of textual transmission and it brought to mind an interesting observation made by Michael Crichton in the foreword to his fictitious version of Beowulf, with an introductory tie in with Ibn Fadlan’s Risala, titled “Eaters of the Dead”, which was the basis for the John McTiernan film, “The 13th Warrior”.
Crichton sites an argument with his friend on the relevance of these old stories to modern society and his friends reluctance to accede that stories such as Beowulf could still be told to a modern audience in a medium through which they would get the same underlying messages and understanding of the story.
He goes on to explain that he took the basic structures of both works (Beowulf and Risala) and turned them into a version of the story that not only became a bestselling book but as we have seen a Block Buster movie. Such perhaps is the skill of the populist writer in the current age.
There then follows then that this skill of Crichton’s is not unlike that of the Bard who would have initially told the tale to his captivated audience of the time.
We also see in the works of Chaucer that until the scribe was specifically requested not to, all stories of the time were changed to the vernacular or dialect of the area they were performed in.
Any comedian worth his salt will accommodate the audience at hand while on tour, making sure to reference local geography or peculiarities while delivering the rest of their routine.
Is this not also what Shakespeare did with the various tales he accumulated from the new lands being discovered during his lifetime and the classics he had read as a child?
And thus perhaps we should allow Crichton the same lee way when we view what he has done to the classic. It may well be that some people will never read the Epic as we have but at least he is getting the story to a wider audience and maybe some few of them may decide it would be worth looking in to and reading for themselves.
It would be obvious to point out the various flaws with this movie. The costumes are all wrong for the period and a miss-match of various weaponry and armour from several eras that had either past or not yet come about at the time period the movie sets itself in.
They do however serve to differentiate between the characters in what dramatists would call “signifiers”. The obvious garb of the individuals helps the audience to remember one lumbering, bearded warrior from the next.