Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What kind of savior do we need?


Sorry I haven't posted in a while. I've been a bit busy and with finals week coming up, I don't expect the frequency to pick up any time soon. Regardless, I had a thought today I wanted to put down on the blog.

My senior year in high school I took a survey course in British literature. We studied everything from Beowulf to Shakespeare to modern writers. In each time period, we asked ourselves, "What is the hero like in this story? Why would this hero appeal to the people of that day and age?" Pretty cool.

Of particular interest to me was Beowulf, the uber-hero who could breathe underwater and had no problem tearing Grendel to shreds using nothing but his bare hands. The story of this REALLY super hero probably appealed to the people of that time because he was a projection of everything they were not. He was in control of everything, powerful, free to do what he pleased, and didn't need to worry about being oppressed (even by an evil, hellish creature like Grendel). The people were rather voiceless, being ravaged by different warlords, and were just starting to crawl out of the hunter and forager mentality. It made sense that they wanted a hero who had made the transition and was large and in charge, ready to take on the new world.

What is particularly interesting to me is that Beowulf is now a blockbuster at the movies. In keeping with analyzing trends in super heroes, what does this say about our culture? What kind of heroes appeal to us today and why? I'd say that we aren't clinging to Beowulf because of our problems coping with warlords and an agricultural society, but the full circle turnaround of the ancient story of Beowulf just makes me wonder what it is we're looking for in a super hero and why.

If I had to guess, I'd say that aside from the projection of super strength and abilities which we don't have, Beowulf shows how immensely self-centered our culture has become. What would appeal to our culture more than an incredibly egotistical hero who has no regard for others and only loses races across the ocean because he wanted to stop and have sex with a mermaid? Beowulf is only stoic because no one matters but himself. To our self-centered Western culture, Beowulf is the perfect projection of what we wish we were. Thoughts?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I hate to spoil the movie for anyone that hasn't seen it, but I think it paints Beowulf in a different light than did the original story. Granted, he's still an egotistical guy who's in it for his own glory and isn't afraid to boast or even lie to boost his status as a "hero" or "monster slayer," and I think that definitely says something about our culture.

At the end of the movie, though, when he has his conversation with Wealtheow before going out to face the dragon, I think he displays the character the writers were setting him up for the entire earlier part of the movie. Without saying too much, he's shown to be a much more emotionally affected person than he's let on. It may not be a scene where he shows his earnest desire for redemption, but there's at least an aknowledgement of his hubris, and--more importantly, I think--an admission that in reality he's something less than that great hero, even if only slightly. To me, it makes him seem much more human than the original story (which I'm reading, but haven't finished, and changes the kind of hero we're looking for in the movie.

lindsey said...

Here's that Grendel book I was talking about earlier

It's interesting to think about who we call a "hero" and who we decide is the "villain"...is it possible that it's completely subjective?

Oh the grey area is frightening!

Lei'La' said...

So, I actually know Old English, and have recently finished translating and reading the entire Beowulf as it was originally written for my class "An Analytical View and Reading of Beowulf," and there really is more to Beowulf than translations tend to portray. Firstly, at Beowulf's end, it is very apparent that he does not want the treasure of the dragon for himself or for his own personal glory, but rather because his people have fallen into a state of semi-poverty because of border battles and drought and he knows the treasure will help them. He asks Wiglaf to bring out some of the treasure from the dragon's keep because he wants to make sure it is what they'd all hoped, and he wanted to be able to present it to his people symbolically so he could show them in his final moments that he truly loved his people and his land. Also, throughout the middle of the original, we come to learn that Beowulf is not as egocentric and annoying as most versions portray him, and actually, he avoids battles and feuds by diffusing potentially harmful situations and by ignoring antagonists who try to encourage him to fight battles that are not his own. Furthermore, he only fights in the beginning because his father owed Hrothgar a life-debt, which Beowulf believed he could repay. What seems ego-centric and selfish to us (especially in the snippets the translations actually portray) is actually less so in the grander picture. Is it wrong to know that you have a higher chance at success at accomplishing something that others cannot? Beowulf is portrayed not as an egotist, but as a realist who is left for dead by his people on three separate occasions. All that he does he does to either help his people or repay his father's debt. Even the water-race was conducted because a slight had been made to his family's honor and pedigree, not even to him. Also, he doesn't ever lie or boast in the original. When a man (who we later discover is a traitorous spy who wants Herot to be destroyed by Grendel) tells all of Herot that Beowulf lost some race years prior, and because of that loss he is not worthy to face Grendel on Hrothgar's behalf (mind you, he's saying that because he does not want to see Beowulf win against Grendel), Beowulf is forced to explain the circumstances that caused him to lose said race so he could have a shot to repay his father's life-debt.

I just feel that it's important to know these factors before one says that a people's fascination with Beowulf was solely because he was what they could not be; in fact, people were more fascinated with Beowulf because he was fair, just, and genuine, which I believe are fantastic attributes to which a people should aspire. The Hollywood version is a grotesque slander upon the original text, and I think that speaks more volumes about the state of man as it is now than anything. We are willing to watch a movie that completely changes every factor of the storyline of a piece of literature that has been around for over 1000 years (at least), and call it entertainment. I call it degrading. I think it shows modern society's disregard for the past and other cultures, honestly. Anyway, that's my little tirade. Sorry to butt in on your blogs, but I felt strongly about this one.