Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Beowulf's Heroisms: Part 2.2.

Beowulf’s heroism qualified: kaleidoscopic playfulness of instability

hile the last post explored Beowulf’s heroic qualities, this time I am going to relate some of the poetic techniques used to qualify this heroism in the poem. Instead of anchoring the problematics in the clash between Christianity and Germanic pagan culture, or the main plot and digressions, I am going to focus on parallelisms and on Beowulf’s relation to women. These two themes will sufficiently prove that the narrator with conspicuous associations implies that the hero, when fighting and defeating the monstrous enemies, balances all too painfully on the verge of becoming a monster himself. The monsters Beowulf overcomes are there also in himself waiting to be unleashed in combat. It is precisely these associations and themes that render the work the well of infinite meanings, and as such the “interpretative plurality” (although Briezman, 1029 arrives at this from another angle) that invites the reader’s response to put together the kaleidoscopic playfulness of instability.

The first sequence of parallels concerns numbers that uncannily place Beowulf and his enemies all too close to each other. Number fifty relates Beowulf to other characters in the poem on two plains: length of the period of rule and body. The number of years spent with ruling a “nation” links Beowulf, Hrothgar and Grendel’s mother. The first reference to a fifty-year period of reign relates to Grendel’s mother “that unappeased demon / who had ruled the reaches of the flood / for half a century” (1497-99). Hrothgar also reigned for the same period of time, as he tells Beowulf “So I ruled the Ring-Danes for fifty winters” (1769). Seemingly rulers find their mighty opponent at the end of a fifty-year period of rule, so it will not take the reader aback that Beowulf’s nations was attacked when he “ruled it well for fifty winters” (2208). This closeness of rulers in terms of the period they had the chance to rule places them embarrassingly on the same level. The dragon’s relatedness to Beowulf is strengthened with number fifty. Although this number operates on another plain than the number of years, as it is used as measurement, the dragon being “fifty yards in length,” (3042) yet it again associates Beowulf with one of his and humanity’s enemies.

Similarly to number fifty, number thirty also poses the same closeness of hero and enemy. This is the number which proves the horror that Grendel causes in Heorot and at the same time the might of Beowulf. Introducing Grendel’s visit to Heorot, the narrator to heighten the horror of the attack tells that “[h]e seized from the rest / thirty men” (121/122). Levelling out Grendel’s might Hrothgar to demonstrate that Beowulf has a chance to oppose the foe claims that Beowulf, “this war-tempered one / has the strength of thirty men / in his hand-grip” (379-81). This very act of possible levelling out brings the opponents close to each other. So that the reader would not forget that the number links the two, during the description of the battle in which Higelac died the reader is informed that “on one arm alone he [Beowulf—Zs.A.] bore thirty / suits of armour […]”(2361-2). Number thirty thus also links the hero and his opponents.

It also casts negative light on Beowulf that he becomes similar to the Grendel family and the dragon insomuch as he is an intruder to halls. The most awful act of Beowulf’s enemies is that they attack and destroy the hall of the Danes and the Geats. This is the most fearful, because these places were not only buildings but had symbolic functions, standing for the unity of the nations, social order, friendship and loyalty for the lord and his thanes. Attacking this place then is also a symbolic act of destruction: attacking the entire civilizations and culture and unity of a nation. It would thus not be farfetched to claim that attacking the halls is similar to the attack against the Twin Towers, as this latter was not only a particularly cruel deed, but also a raid against the values of a civilization.

It is then more telling that the enemies’ places are referred to as halls identifying Beowulf thus with intruder. Grendel’s mother’s dwelling place is referred to with labels as “roofed hall” (1516-17, 1572), she is as seen above, also a ruler. To make things even more conspicuous Beowulf is claimed to be a “guest in her hall” (1522), which further fosters the implication that Beowulf is not only a heroic warrior, but a latently negative figure, who abuses his status as a guest, and kills Grendel’s mother, a ruler in her own hall.

The case is similar to the dragon as far as his dwelling place and his purpose are concerned. The dragon’s dwelling place is named as “ring-hall” (3054), a “gold-hall” (2320), which phrases may well apply to the halls of human beings. His purpose is represented through phrases like “barrow-keeper” (2304, 3067), “gold-keeper” (3081, 3133). Furthermore the dragon is also a “guard” (2413), after its death the treasure became “guardianless”(3129), and also the “hoard’s protector”(2302), a “hoard-keeper” (2554) and the “barrow’s lord” (2525). These latter three are significant insofar as these are names that may well be used to represent lords of the human society. Furthermore Beowulf himself was not only a lord of his people but Hrothgar calls him the “hoard guardian of men” (1851).

These similarities between the hero and his enemies do not actually undermine Beowulf’s noble heroism, but rather qualify it through the kaleidoscopic playfulness of instability. Beowulf’s association with the monstrous enemies implies that at his very heart the warrior is not so much different from his enemies. The potential monster dwells in him, awaits for surfacing, awaits to be unleashed. The hero is only different from his enemies insofar as the destructive energies represented by the monsters in him are channeled for the benefit of those for whom the warrior bears some responsibility. The good cause for which the monsters are unleashed does not render the monsters angelic though.

Although the good cause keeps the monsters monsters, yet there would be some remedy for the warrior hero. This remedy could be a wife, but seemingly Beowulf is not very much interested in the other sex. Even when Hrothgar’s wife praised him beyond expectations, the narrator reveals that he was not moved towards her but raised his spirit to fight: “Her words had fired him with a zeal for war” (630). Later in his life Beowulf remained a bachelor, without a wife, and consequently did not leave an heir to keep the Geats together.

This lack of a wife in his life may well be harmonized with the monster in Beowulf, the monster that did not need any binding and limitation, which would naturally follow from marriage in the apparel of duty and responsibility. A life with the monster inside, constant risking of life, being on the way of the warrior did not make it viable to love a woman, because tenderness and commitment to somebody else would have bound the monster.

Beowulf’s noble heroism, thus, has been qualified through a reference to the painful similarities with the monsters, his enemies and to the missing companion. The kaleidoscopic playfulness of instability may be proven by poetic allusions beyond what has been utilized through the opposition between the Christian and pagan layers of the text, or between the main plot and the digressions. Having destabilized the value system of heroism, now I may turn to the filmic adaptation, or more precisely to the five scenes which may function as commentaries on heroism.

Natalia Breizmann. “‘Beowulf’’” as Romance: Literary Interpretation as Quest” MLN, Vol. 113, No. 5, Comparative Literature Issue (Dec., 1998): 1022-1035.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Bewulf's Heroisms: Part 2.1.

Heroic Beowulf in the "Original"

aving separated and then reconnected the epic poem and the filmic adaptation in the previous posts, now I am going to present heroic Beowulf as he surfaces in the epic poem. The exploration of this theme is limited in two ways. First, in contrast with what has been published in the last decade in monographs, I am going to use a modern translation. Second, as the text is a translation, the focus is not going to rely on philological analysis, but on an informed but not specialist reading. The reason for these decisions is that the aim is discussing the relatedness of the film for a non-specialist audience, insofar as the target audience could not have been the small circle of Old-English specialist, but a more wider set of viewers.

In contrast with the monographic output of the this decade, methodologically I will follow a different route. The previous books arranged their discussion around the succession of actions, deeds or scenes, while I arrange the meditation around  features that seem to render Beowulf a warrior hero in this epic poem even for present day theatre, movie goers. Ruth Johnston Staver in her A Companion to Beowulf focuses on the plot and retells it for an interested student. Gwara Scott in the brilliant Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf clarifies the ambiguity in Beowulf with reference to the “contrapuntal” poetic representation of judgements about Beowulf’s actions and motivations lying in either recklessness or boldness:
The tacit contrapuntalism of Beowulf takes the form of coordinating antithetical perspectives on heroism and responsible kingship, in which charges and countercharges issue in succession (359).
Andy Orchard in his A Critical Companion to Beowulf although without addressing heroism directly demonstrates with an impressive philological apparatus the technique of claim and claim undermined structure on the level of words and deeds revealing the complexity and anxiety around the main character.

Although the monographs mentioned above could present their material in a more convincing way, the approach I have chosen should be more beneficial for the present purpose, as the heroic features are to be revealed in the “original” with respect to the filmic adaptation. I am going to start off with an initial definition of heroism, and then explore what it means that Beowulf is on the way to and of the hero. This will be followed by a reference to strength and an exploration of “prudence,” brave openness and lack of lust for political power.

When arriving at Higelac’s court from the Ring-Danes, and having given the treasure received over to his lord, and after Beowulf’s speech, the narrator sums up what is deemed heroic in Beowulf:
So Beowulf revealed himself brave;
martial in war and merciful in peace,
he sought glory. Nor did he slay
his hearth-companions in drunken frenzy;
nor was he savage of temper; he reserved for battle
that peerless strength, prodigious gift
God had given him. [...] (2177-2183)
In this summary there appears the Germanic martial world with its battles and revels, celebration of power and heroic motivation. It is conspicuous here that physical qualities and also character traits are brought together to frame heroism in an unequal proportion. There is only one reference to physical strength, and the rest of the attributes rather present heroic morality: being brave, reserving the fighting spirit for the battlefield and otherwise showing mercy, furthermore glory is mentioned as a motivating force. This initial description of heroism is refined at other loci of the text.

First, it is important that in opposition to other warrior heroes, Beowulf is not a hero over there from the beginning to the end, but his heroism lies in his being on the way of and to heroism. Although the plot-line represents him as an outstanding warrior, in a marginal reference it turns out that he was not born a hero, but has become one:
he had been reckoned
a worthless boy; the Weders held
he was weak-spirited, and the Weder lord
seldom thought of him at feast time.
They firmly believed he was slack in judgement,
slothful in bearing. (2183-9)
Seemingly he started his  heroic carrier rather low. In the eyes of his fellow Geats, he was valueless, he had no indomitable disposition, and he was not even named at feasts. They thought he was not somebody with a heroic future because he could not judge situations and people well, and also could not endure physical hardships.

With these charges at his back, it is understandable that he became accustomed to proving his worth. It follows from this that he always has to test himself, if he is really such a heroic man. This is also revealed by the parallel with Hrothgar. Hrothgar could not stand the final test, defending his people against Grendel, whereas Beowulf could do so against the dragon. This opposition is further corroborated by Hrothgar’s prophesying that time will take away Beowulf’s power (1761-1768), which prophesy does not come true, as Beowulf, in contrast to Hrothgar, will pass the final test. So it seems that in this poem heroism is not a state, but rather a process.

Beowulf himself looks at his own life as a process, a series of opportunities to demonstrate his might, heroism, which represents the second aspect of heroism consisting in what might be termed as brave openness to challenges. When talking about his achievements, he does not start telling a romantic story, but rather states: “the grief-stricken king implored me / to risk my life, test my courage / in the violent surf, gaining thereby lasting glory” (2132-4). This speech and others as well claim that heroic life calls for risking it, being in the liminal position between life and death, in an existential borderline situation, secondly that the heroic quality, i.e. courage is to be tested, and thirdly that the ultimate motivation for this is lasting fame.

Corroborating the constant being on the road to and of heroism, the narrative structure is to be presented. The very work is structured around two heroic projects: the Grendel family at the time of Beowulf’s early maturity, the dragon in his old age. To complete this circle a third heroic deed in his youth, the swimming contest is narrated. Thus the very narrative structure substantiates the narrator’s conceptualization of life as a heroic process, a series of tests in which courage is demonstrated. In this respect Beowulf’s openness surfaces in his famous speech-ending remark: “Let wyrd go as it must”(455) which includes the active acceptance of the necessity included in the direction of fate.

Naturally, to be able to survive the constant risking of life, the warrior needs physical power. Beowulf’s physical qualities appear first in the coast-warden’s description of Beowulf:
Never have I seen
a greater man than the one there,
a champion in war-gear: nor is he someone’s servant,
possessed of such weapons, unless his face belies him,
that singular visage.(247-51)
In this speech he is represented as a large, mascular man, even before we would learn his name. Later on this is corroborated in the queen’s reference to him as an able man, in the story of his activities on the battlefield that he could bore the shields of thirty man in his hand, his seizing Grendel in a way that scared Grendel so much that he could only think about saving his life. Also he used a giant sword when killing Grendel’s mother. His physical power exceeds that of any other character who appears or is referred to in the work.

Beowul’s fighting skills are described not only with reference to his outstanding physical power, but with a a reference to “prudence” (1706) as well. His prudence lies in his ability of adaptation to new situations, e.g. his fighting Grendel naked. This naked fight is all the more important as in Germanic, heroic societies, weapons had a special value—names, histories etc. as can be witnessed in Beowulf, too. This act of not using weapons seems to be noble on the one hand, as he fights Grendel on his grounds: if Grendel does not use weapons, he will not either. On the other hand, however, this is a strategic decision as well, as prior to the fight he learns that: weapons are useless against Grendel. If they are useless, this practically means that they would consequently be disadvantageous, as the warrior’s trust in his weapons will give him confidence which is only illusionary, and thus harmful.

Prudence does not only surface in Beowulf’s strategic decisions as a fighter, but also in his being a perfect orator. Before even learning his name, we are informed that he “measured his words carefully and well” (259). Which description of his speaking qualities includes a reference to his circumspect methodology of choosing what to say and also the how as well fashioning the word to the situation, expectations of the listeners and also to his interest. Words are his weapons of self-defence, encouragement (boasting) and noble integration into the social reality of courts. His speeches are received with amazement, i.e. even the listeners testify to his perfection as an orator. As an example  it suffices to quote Hrothgar’s reaction to Beowulf’s speech: “The Lord in his wisdom has sent these words / into your mind; I have never heard / so young a man speak more wisely. / You are great in strength, prudent in spirit, / and wise in discourse” (1841-5).

A third aspect of heroic prudence appears in Beowulf’s diplomatic skills. He tells Hrothgar that “travel to far countries / always profits the capable man” (1838-9). This profit does not only mean gaining fame and gathering treasure but also learning about foreign politics, and measuring their possible consequences pertaining to his nation. Beowulf, when staying in Hrothgar’s hall did not only do the dirty job of slaughtering the enemies, and did not only enjoy the feasts and fame but seemingly paid attention to every detail that may have had some effect on his own people. This seems to be the case, as when arriving home, handling over the treasure to his lord, and telling the story of his combats with the Grendel family, he also shares the information with Higelac about Freawaru’s, Hrothgar’s daughter’s proposed marriage to Froda (2020-31).

The last element of his heroism lies in his understanding and accepting his place in his society. The powerful heroic warrior proves at least three times that he is not power-hungry, which quality surfaces in his absolute loyalty to his lord, Higelac, and in his long delayed acceptance of the kingship. Beowulf is absolutely loyal to his king even though an air of mutual distrust characterizes their relationship. The latter does not have faith in Beowulf’s heroic abilities (1993-5), and Beowulf deems Higelac “still inexperienced / as leader of his people” (1831-2). Beowulf’s loyalty to Higelac is demonstrated by his handling over to his lord the entire treasure that was given to Beowulf for his redeeming the Danish people of the Grendel family (2140-50) without keeping anything for himself. Also when chance appears for him to become the lord of the Geats, he refuses this position until there is no chance to avoid becoming so. When Higelac dies, his wife offers Beowulf the crown, who refuses it claiming that there is Higelac’s son in line before him (2370-78). Finally, Beowulf accepts the position only when Higelac’s offspring dies and there is nobody in front of his succession (2389).

So far we have seen the elements of the heroic code represented in the title character that appear in the Old-Modern English poem. These elements included in a lesser degree references to the physical aspect of the hero, and in a larger degree his inner qualities which include being on the way to heroism, brave openness to challenges, prudence as far as strategic decisions, rhetorical and diplomatic skills are concerned, and finally lack of power-hunger. All these, and maybe many more suggest the superhuman, model-like qualities of the title character of the poem. This, however, is not the complete story, as the narrator leaves ample room for doubt about the ultimate perfection of a warrior hero. The next part will account for this aspect.

* * *

Beowulf. Trans. with Commentary by Marc Hudson, Intro and Notes by Martin Garrett. Ware, Herfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2007.

Ruth Johnston Staver A Companion to Beowulf Westport, Connecticut--London: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Gwara Scott. Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf. Leiden--Boston: Brill, 2008.

Andy Orchard A Critical Companion to Beowulf. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003

Monday, 15 November 2010

Beowulf’s Heroisms: Part 1.2.

Adaptation as Adaptation

An adaptation is not vampiric: it does not draw the life-blood from its source and leave it dying or dead, nor is it paler than the adapted work. It may, on the contrary, keep that prior work alive, giving it an afterlife it would never have had otherwise.(Hutcheon, 2006, 176)

n the last post I separated the filmic adaptation from its original” via exploring the incommensurability thesis and thus made room for interpreting the film in its own right. This act of separation is needed to avoid the unproductive rhetoric of faithfulness, and also to specify the tools that are useful when meditating about a film.  Once, however, the film has been severed from the “original,” one can avoid the trap, and one can use the appropriate equipment, then one may respond to the invitation of re-establishing a link between the filmic version and the “original.” The title of the movie invokes the “original” and also calls attention to the difference as well: Beowulf invokes the epic poem, while the appearance of  Grendel’s name alludes to some difference. Thus in this post, I am going to answer the call by the title and will reconnect the filmic adaptation with the “original” through delineating what an adaptation is, and what kind of an adaptation there is in this case.

The adaptation as adaptation cannot avoid the discourse of comparison with the “original.”  As Sanders claims
An adaptation signals a relationship with an informing sourcetext or original; a cinematic version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, although clearly reinterpreted by the collaborative efforts of director, scriptwriter, actors, and the generic demands of the movement from stage drama to film, remains ostensibly Hamlet, a specific version, albeit achieved in alternative temporal and generic modes, of that seminal cultural text. (Sanders, 2006, 26)
So the framework of discussing an adaptation as adaptation cannot disregard an “original” whose chronological priority cannot and should not be denied. The original functions as a point of reference at least on a thematic level.

Once accepting the presence of the original and that an adaptation necessarily associates relatedness to the original, I should also take a further step towards Beowulf and Grendel via showing what kind of an adaptation is at stake here. Sanders following Cartmell distinguishes between three types of adaptations: “transposition,” “commentary” and “analogue” (Sanders, 2006, 20.) All three types of adaptation proximate the “original” in different ways.

A filmic “transposition” lies in relocation but not necessarily geographically. As Sanders argues transposition is relocation “in cultural, geographical and temporal terms” (20). Relocation thus implies that a filmic adaptation keeps the “original” somewhat trimmed, maybe modernised, but the setting, the costumes, hairstyle, way of living are either moved in time (to a different historical period), in place (to another town, country, continent, planet), in social class (from say aristocracy to middle, working class). An illustration for this type may be Hamlet (dir. Kenneth Brannagh, 1996), where the Shakespearean text is kept, but the action is relocated into a Prussian 19th-Century context.

An “analogue” signifies a type of adaptation which is not necessarily related to the “original.” In this case an adaptation is so far removed from the original that when making sense of it, one may legitimately disregard the “original,” and the target audience may not even be aware of the “source.” So this adaptation may live its own life without the “original.”. Nevertheless, the interpretative horizon of the adaptation is widened with seeing it in its relatedness to an “original.” I would classify The Thirteenth Warrior, (dir. John McTiernan, 1999.) as a candidate to illustrate this type of adaptation, which occasionally alludes to Beowulf, but can be interpreted without reference to the epic poem.

The most interesting type of adaptation for the present purpose is the one that is labelled as “commentary.” This type of adaptation includes “adaptations that comment on the politics of the sourcetext, or those of the new mise-en-scène, or both, usually by means of alteration or addition” (Sanders, 2006, 22). So in the case of a “commentary” the filmic adaptation offers a meditation about either the cultural context of the “original,” or about the viewers’ cultural context through introducing changes. Consequently, the differences to the “original” are not to be accounted for in the framework of truthfulness but rather in their contribution to the claim of the adaptation.

The most usual changes introduced through the act of artistic transcoding take several forms. Sanders claims that the commentary “is achieved most often by offering a revised point of view from the ‘original’, adding hypothetical motivation, or voicing the silenced and marginalized” (Sanders, 2006, 189). A commentary thus displays heightened sensitivity to the cultural contexts through calling the viewers’ attention to a work in a way that it will be telling about the original cultural climate and/or the viewers’ cultural climate via changes to the narrative point of view and additions concerning motivations and characters.

The three possible changes Sanders mentions are all important in Beowulf and Grendel. Sander’s first modification refers to a  revised point of view, which can be that of the filmic narrator who comments on the world of the Danes through presenting shades, colours, weather, filmic allusions, facial expressions. The point of view is further modified through presenting what is thought of about heroism through a focalizer, i.e. a fisherman’s viewpoint.. This also points towards giving voice to the marginalized or to the ones who are not even present in the movie, e.g. the introduction of the fisherman and Selma, the witch who functions as a link between the Danes and the outsiders, i.e. Grendel and Beowulf. Furthermore the character of Grendel who has not given voice in the “original” has his own characteristic voice on the screen. Sander’s third point, i.e. forging some motivation for either the characters or the plot or both is also markedly present in the movie as Grendel is equipped with a sound and just cause for his vengeance on the Danes.

Approaching Beowulf and Grendel as a “commentary” is productive on two accounts. First, because it helps to rescue the meditation from the rhetoric of vampiric “faithfulness.” A commentary being a commentary cannot be described as truthful to an “original” but as something that helps reconsidering an original, or its context from the point of view of another culture. Second, because it enables the viewer to deploy the approach to a film as a film, and not as a parasite making benefit only through its relatedness to an “original.” Thus, the discussion of Bewulf and Grendel as a commentary fosters a discourse which relies on both the relatedness of the adaptation to an “original” and also its individuality as an artistic product in its own right. Prepared with this pragmatico-theoritical consideration the next post will discuss the concept of heroism in the “original” to pave the way to the commentary on this concept.

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Theory of Adaptation. London—New York: Routledge, 2006.
Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. London—New York: Routledge, 2006.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Beowulf’s Heroisms: Part 1.1.


Incommensurability via Intersemiotic Transposition 

ccording to the last post, this time I am going to start making room for a meditation about Beowulf and Grendel via divorcing the film from the original, i.e. from the epic poem. This act of separating the two is inevitable insomuch as without this the relationship and the link between the two works can only be founded on subjective aesthetic value-judgements which cannot generate a productive and beneficial rhetorical framework for a meditation about a filmic adaptation. The question then is not whether it is possible or impossible to compare two works, but rather the framework that makes unavoidable comparison legitimate and productive.

To avoid a naive comparative analysis, I have to elucidate what may be termed as the incommensurability thesis. The locus classicus for this thesis goes back to the late 1970’s and to Terry Eagleton’s argument about the relation between text and ideology which parallels that of text and theatrical performance. He claims that
a dramatic production is not to be judged by its fidelity to the text [...]. Text and production are incommensurate, because they inhibit distinct real and theoretical places. (Critism and Ideology, London--New York: Verso, 1975, 64)
Thus the incommensurability thesis in this case claims that a film and a text can hardly be compared being so different from each other. This problematics acquires significance in so much as the exploration of this thesis enables one to release the meditation about this filmic adaptation from the “faithfulness or unfaithfulness” or “truthfulness or untruthfulness” dichotomies, which plague the meditation about filmic versions of literary works. Once the filmic adaptation has been cut off from the narrative poem theoretico-pragmatically, will there be room made for establishing a link between the movie and the poem without falling into the trap of the rhetoric of faithfulness.

The exploration of the incommensurability thesis must begin with elucidating the false assumption that lies at the heart of the discourse of faithfulness. The assumption lies in believing that one can compare a poem and a film. Knowing a poem, a novel may compel one having seen its filmic adaptation to claim that this movie is not faithful to the poem or novel, because so and so is not like this in the poem. Although every viewer of a filmic adaptation of a literary work is driven by this compulsion, what is actually done is something completely different from comparing a literary work to its filmic adaptation. To be able to see this difference one should take a glance at what takes place when a literary work is put on the screen.

A semiotic approach may well give me a hand in clarifying the process leading from a literary work to a filmic version. When comparing the process of filmic adaptation to that of translation, Hutcheon points out that
[i]n many cases, because adaptations are to a different medium, they are re-mediations, that is, specifically translations in the form of intersemiotic transpositions from one sign system (for example, words) to another (for example, images). This is translation but in a very specific sense: as transmutation or transcoding, that is, as necessarily a recoding into a new set of conventions as well as signs. (Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, LondonNew York: Routledge, 2006, 16)
What follows from this argument is that during an “intersemiotic transposition” there takes place a shift from one sign system to another, completely different system. In the case of a filmic adaptation the shift or transcoding is from signs on a white sheet of paper to visual and auditory signs on the screen. And once the signs are different, decoding, participating in the act of signification will be absolutely different in the two cases.

What is simple and straightforward in a text may well become completely difficult in the movie. In a narrative poem the representation of a simple state of affairs say, two characters talking to each other may be left without commentary by the textual narrator. The filmic narrative, however, has to face a problem, because the two characters are seen when talking to each other, i.e. they must be presented in detail. They have facial expressions, they are to be positioned in relation to each other, the director has to decide what they are doing when talking to each other, what kind of angle, closeness is used when the scene is shot, what colours dominate the scene, slow or fast cuts are used, whether there is something going on in the background, or there is music or complete silence during the scene. All these must be decided in a filmic adaptation, and these decisions should harmonise with each other, and will necessarily play a significant role during decoding the scene.

The act of transcoding, as Hutcheon claims, does not stop with the change of medium, but also determines the context, the conventions that enable the reader to make sense of what is read or watched. The reader of Beowulf most of the time makes sense of the poem with reference to the warrior society of the Germanic tribes, to the tension between Christianity and the pagan world view, or more dominantly establishes relationship between Beowulf and other epic, narrative, heroic works, and finding similarities and differences will help the reader to making sense of the work. Watching a film is also determined by conventions in which certain details make sense, e.g. other filmic adaptations, filmic techniques used in other films, scenes alluding to scenes from other movies. Conventions of the new medium inevitably offer themselves for the process of decoding the work.

This semiotic transcoding, however, may still imply a hierarchical relationship infecting the possibility of freeing any adaptation theory from the rhetoric of faithfulness and truthfulness. This hierarchy implies that the “original” is superior to the adaptation, as chronological priority entails superiority as well. It does not follow, however, necessarily that chronology must result in superiority, implying that the adaptation is only secondary, derivative, parasitic. Terry Eagleton’s reference to the incommensurate nature of text and dramatic performance have been substantiated from numerous theoretical stances relying on Roland Barthes’ famous distinction between “oeuvre” and “texte” in his essay “De l’oeuvre au texte” (Revue d'esthitique 3, 1971).

W.B Worthen deployed Barthes’ distinction between “work” and “text” when arguing for the authority of performance. He argues that the “work” has in its structures “meanings, gestures and themes,” it is “taken both as the ground and origin of the performance and the embodiment of authorial intention” (Worthen, “Discipline of the Text/Sites of Performance” TDR, Vol. 39, No. 1. (Spring, 1995), 16). “Texts” in this distinction stand for “material objects that house the ‘work’ of the author” (ibid.) Once this premise is accepted, it follows that a “text” is only a materialization of the “work” as well as a theatrical (I may add a filmic) adaptation, and thus can hardly be accounted for as less authentic than the text. Worthen concludes then “[b]oth texts and performances are materially unstable registers of signification, producing “meaning” intertextually in ways that deconstruct notions of intention, fidelity, authority, present meaning (Worthen, 23.)

Barthes’ famous distinction was developed into a further direction, owing to the renewed interest in textuality with the advent of digitalisation projects. Digitalisation at a rather naive level of understanding aims at reproducing printed material in a new format. The very activity of digitalisation very soon led to rethinking what is meant by reproduction and this problematics immediately resulted in meditations about what it was that was to be reproduced in the new format. The performative aspect of texts partakes in signification on many levels. Shillingsburg makes a distinction between the “lexical part of the text” lying in words, sentences, punctuation, and “script act” anchoring the act of signification in a historical context, and the “bibliographical codes” “the appearance of a document—the type fonts, the formatting, the deployment of white space, the binding, and perhaps also the pricing and the distribution method [...].(Shillingsburg, From Guttenberg to Google, Cambridge—New York: CUP, 2006, 16-18.) Especially this latter is important in dividing the adaptation from its original, because this calls the stability of the original into question.

Performative aspects of textuality direct our attention to the fluidity and procedural aspect of textuality which undermines the hierarchy of original and adaptation. This is even more compelling in the case of the Beowulf poem. When locating the poem higher on the ladder of authenticity than the movie, one should also consider the script act and the bibliographical codes in a historical perspective. As the text is only a materialization of the work having its original existence in the oral tradition, never fixed, all the time changing. The oral tradition was then fixed in writing determined by the conventions of transcription. The only copy of this is accessible in the British Library which, however, was damaged in a fire in the 18th Century. This somewhat corrupt textual materialization is now also a priceless historical document, which also affects the process of signification. As the access to this copy is rather limited, the reader can consult modern transcriptions of the poem in Old-English with modernized letter-types in print or in digital versions. These versions, however, are restricted to those who read Old-English, whereas the majority of readers contact the poem in a great variety of modern translations, in editions with or without introductions, with or without illustrations, with or without running commentary attached to the text, with different letter-types and sizes, margins etc all these affecting the process of signification. It seems then a daunting task to anchor the original in one of these versions claiming that one of these may be superior to, more authentic and authoritative than the adaptation.

It follows thus from the previous meditations that theoretically it is much easier to adhere to the incommensurability thesis. As the text of the original is neither more stable, nor authentic and authoritative than the adaptation, no rational case can be made for the secondary, parasitic nature of the filmic adaptation. If the two cannot be arranged in a hierarchical order, since they are on the same performative level, they may well be treated independently from each other, i.e. if the text can be read without reference to the movie, the film can also be treated in its own right. Thus the incommensurability thesis has come to a full circle.

Although a poetic text and its filmic adaptation can be interpreted without reference to each other, this is not necessary at all. The freedom of the filmic adaptation rather enables one to treat a filmic adaptation as a filmic adaptation, i.e. as something that displays an intricate relationship with the original. It is this very relationship that is going to be the theme of the next post.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Beowulf's Heroisms: Part 0

ometimes I need a break, and find challenge and pleasure elsewhere than in the Tudor world. This time I shall make an excursion towards a filmic adaptation of Beowulf I find worth meditating about. This adaptation is entitled Beowulf and Grendel (2005), directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, the script was written by Andrew Rai Berzins, the music was composed by Hilmar Örmi Hilmarsson. The director chose the beautiful landscapes of Iceland as a setting for the action, featuring Gerald Butler (Beowulf), Stellan Skarsgård (Hrothgar), Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson (Grendel) and Sarah Polley (Selma).

The film since its release has occasioned a great variety of responses ranging from condemnation to celebration. Most of the reviewers find the setting, the landscapes awesome, the actors fine. Beyond these the focus of their responses circles around issues of the script, faithfulness to the original, the relationship between the historic times and the contemporary claims of the movie and its political and moral aspects.

The script itself divides the responses into opinions sympathising with the changes to the “original,” and judgements finding it meaningless or ghastly. Ty Burr in his “Vistas aside, ‘Beowulfisnt quite poetry in motion” scolds the film as “a watchably ludicrous mishmash. It features [...] dialogue by way of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’” In the Seattle Post-Intelligencer William Arnold finds the dialogues with its occasional four-lettered words a “near-fatal flaw.” Although Todd McCarthy in Variety observes that the comical aspect of the script “attempts to give a contemporary ring to the ancient story”, yet he does not make much sense of this observation. Script-writer, Andrew Lai Berzins claims in an interview about the language: “I wanted the dialogue to be accessible, colloquial, true to the characters, and—as much as possible—true to the time.” So the modernised language with its colloquialism is supposed to appeal to a modern audience and aims at harmonising with the qualities of characters.

As for the relation between past and present, i.e. the movie’s appeal for the 21st-century audience the reviewers also are divided into two camps. Celebrating the merging of the two temporal layers Bill Gallo in his “The Blood of a Poem” argues that in Beowulf and Grendel, the Old-English poem and “postmodern punk sensibility,” or Monty Python and “Teutonic literature” come together and produce a thought-provoking result. Another reviewer, Manohla Dargis in the New York Times claims the modernisation of the movie lies in that “ the filmmakers do what filmmakers often do when faced with their own lack of imagination: they toss a little sex in with the violence.” Ruth Johnston Staver in her A Companion to Beowulf nevertheless observes that the movie “is intended to be a faithful reproduction of the poem” (Westport, C—London: Greenwood Press, 2005, 195). Berzins also confesses that he intended to be “mostly true to the mood, to the obsession with fate […] to the bones of the story.” 

Reviewers also call attention to the moral, moralising aspect of the movie ranging from psychoanalitical observations to moral and political undercurrents. In his review, Nathan Rabin sensitively observes that Grendel becomes a “metaphor for the unknown, the demonized ‘other’, the id.” J. T. Toshi in his Icons of Horror and the Supernatural claims that the movie “raises ethical questions about the nature of humans, monsters and monstrosity” (Westport, C-London: Greenwood Press, 2007, p. 346.) Mick LaSalle in his “Beowulf meets girl; girl meets troll. Eeew” accurately observes the possible political underpinnings of the film: “It's intended as a cautionary tale, in a sense, about needless military intervention, as well as a commentary on the danger of making sweeping moral assumptions in foreign policy—especially when dealing with trolls.” Even the script-writer emphasises this aspect in the interview above when asserting “[t]here’s a significant theme here of the dangers of tribalism.”

Keeping in mind this variety of responses and themes, I am going to focus on the presentation of heroism in this movie to be able to articulate a single narrative on the aforementioned themes. The presentation of heroism is conspicuous in Beowulf and Grendel as it frustrates the expectations of an audience waiting for grand speeches, dignity and honour, fighting scenes with spectacular choreography and mythical monsters. Opposed to these expectations, the filmic narrative intensely refashions Beowulf’s heroism into unexpected directions.

The forthcoming posts, appearing on Mondays, are going to present first a theoretical framework, next meditations about the narrative poem, and then about selected scenes from the movie. The very next post is going to ponder about the incommensurability of the two works, so as to divorce the film from the “original.” The next post will reconnect the two works, as I intend to ponder about the filmic adaptation in light of the Old-English poem. When analysing the poem, first I am going to present the concept of heroism in the narrative poem, second I am going to write about the ways heroism is gently undermined with parallelisms. Equipped with the “original” concept of heroism, I will turn my attention to the discussion of five relevant scenes from the film.

Let us go, then, You (dear reader) and I to this territory of mysteries and beauties every Monday for the sake of exploring and making sense of it—the ultimate aims of an excursion.