Twin Peaks and Beowulf!?

Bobby Briggs from Twin Peaks stunned by Beowulf.

We can all share in Bobby’s shock. Image from

Spoilers abound below. If you’re not done with Twin Peaks The Return (or the entire series) just yet, read on at your own risk.


It’s human nature to see patterns where there might not be any. It’s also human nature to want to combine the things you love even if they don’t seem likely to mix. That’s where today’s post is coming from.

Having seen and mostly digested Twin Peaks The Return, and being quite familiar with Beowulf, I noticed a few similarities. Especially when it comes to the monsters featured in both works.

Now, I don’t think that these similarities point to any answers in the Twin Peaks universe. Nor do I think that David Lynch is a secret Beowulf fan who wanted to work through the poem’s themes and motifs in his own art. I just noticed that there are some similarities between the oldest piece of English literature and the newest piece of television art.

And I want to share them with my readers.

This comparison will go through the monsters of Beowulf since that’s where the meat of this is. Though a case could be made that Lynch’s at times directionless-seeming storytelling is quite similar to Beowulf‘s asides and loosely related side stories.

There is one Twin Peaks theory at work in this comparison. This is the idea that the ancient evil force that Gordon Cole calls Judy in part 17 of The Return is the same as The Experiment that we see in parts 1 and 8.

Now, let’s get right into those monsters!

The Monsters in General

Beowulf fights Grendel as depicted by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin's graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf.

Beowulf battles Grendel in Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s Beowulf. Image from

Beowulf features some sort of unidentified troll-like monster, its mother, and a dragon. Twin Peaks has two monsters, essentially: Killer BOB and Judy (Jao De). I’m not sure how evil spirits from other dimensions or outside of time trace their lineage, but I think it’s safe to say that Judy is Killer BOB’s mother. So there’s one parallel.

But there’s more to the BeowulfTwin Peaks monster connection than mere surface similarity.

Like Grendel and his mother, BOB and Judy are encouraged by human action. In the case of the Grendels, the construction of Heorot disturbs them and provokes Grendel to attack. Heorot, however, is no military barracks but a place meant for peaceful gatherings and where new friendships could be forged or old ones strengthened. For BOB and Judy, the human action that gets them into action is the nuclear testing at the Hanford site. A nuclear bomb is not really much like a drinking hall, though it is interesting to think about it in terms of its ultimate goal: to ensure, through either use or mere presence, the continuation of peace. As part of this comparison,

I think it’s also neat to think of the hall, a place of peace, inciting the Grendels in a world rife with everyday conflict, whereas the bomb is a weapon of destruction in a world that enjoys everyday peace.

Grendel/Killer BOB

Beowulf, Grendel, Old English, Anglo-Saxon

An illustration of Grendel by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf. Grendel is described as “Very terrible to look upon.” From:

Moving on from that rabbit hole, though, we come to Grendel as an agent of terror. Likewise, BOB terrorizes those he inhabits and the lives of those around his hosts. Also, how Grendel and how Killer BOB are defeated is similar.

In Beowulf, the poem’s hero wrestles Grendel into submission with his bare hands. He even goes so far as to tear off the monster’s arm with just his hands since his grip has the strength of 30 men. In Twin Peaks something similar happens: Through a strange sequence of events Freddie ends up buying and putting on a green gardening glove that lets him punch with the power of a pile driver. This strength overcomes Killer BOB when he’s in his ball form, shattering him to pieces.

Freddie's Beowulf-like gardening gloved hand, Killer BOB Killer in Twin Peaks.

The arm.

Those pieces, like Grendel in the poem, then run away. And it seems likely that after the events of part 17 of The Return, BOB is as dead as Grendel is by the end of Beowulf.

The BOB Bubble that Freddie beats, Beowulf-like, in Twin Peaks.

The BOB bubble that Freddie bursts.

Grendel’s Mother/Judy

Grendel's mother menaces the pinned Beowulf with a knife.

By J. R. Skelton – Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth (1908) Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, Public Domain,

Grendel’s mother also shares general traits with how Judy operates. When Grendel is killed Grendel’s mother shows a level of calculated intelligence when she only kills and carries off one of Hrothgar’s men. Not only does this action show that she has a concept of “an eye for an eye”, it suggests that she is aware of the nature of feuds.

Judy, a being of supreme evil, operates with similar careful calculation. She does not just let Cooper walk Laura to the white lodge when he plucks her from death in the original timeline/dimension of the series. Instead she plucks her away from him and brings her to another timeline/dimension entirely. But Judy doesn’t just hide Laura anyway. She brings the girl to a place where she holds sway (and runs a coffee shop apparently).

Judys Cafe in Twin Peaks The Return, no parallel in Beowulf.

Judy’s has it all — breakfast, homestyle cooking, and a slick white horse ride.

Cooper ventures into the place that Judy has made, where she seems to have some sort of dominion in an effort to get Laura back. Similarly, Beowulf dives into a lake to get to the Grendel’s underwater hall where Grendel’s mother holds power.

Heroes’ journeys to strange places to face powerful foes isn’t anything all that new or rare in stories. But I find it fascinating that both heroes venture into what is essentially enemy territory in similar ways. Beowulf dives until the currents pull him into a strangely lit cavern. Cooper travels down a road until he passes under electrical lines and ends up in this strange, yet familiar, new place.

Further, Beowulf goes into his trial with the sword of the enemy-turned friend Unferth. Cooper goes into it with a friend whom we’ve seen as being untrustworthy and manipulated throughout the season in Diane. In both cases, these helps prove useless in the confrontation with the power that they are fighting. Unferth’s sword does no damage to Grendel’s mother, and Diane forgets who she was as she settles into her new role as Linda in this new timeline/dimension.

Twin Peaks' Cooper reads a note - a missing page of Beowulf.

Cooper reads Linda’s weird note.

The Dragon/The Experiment/Judy

A dragon and its hoard like the one in Beowulf.

A dragon and its hoard.

Now, there is no dragon in Twin Peaks. Something so blatant or obvious just isn’t David Lynch and Marc Frost’s style. But. I think that there are more similarities between Beowulf‘s story and Twin Peaks The Return‘s main conflict. Though they require some mental squinting to see.

Up until the end of The Return, what exactly the vaguely female creature credited as “Experiment” was was unclear. I think it’s fair that this creature fits the role of Grendel’s mother quite perfectly. But. I also think that this creature fills the role of the dragon as well. She doesn’t transform into some sort of giant scaly creature for Cooper to shoot at or anything like that, but what the Experiment comes to be by the end of The Return is on the same level as the dragon in Beowulf.

In the poem, the dragon is not just the final foe that Beowulf faces. It is an ancient thing, greedy and prideful, that starts to terrorize Beowulf’s lands when one of its treasures is stolen. Of course, this dragon doesn’t spend any of its treasures, it merely hoards them. It is the inspiration for the vain and greedy Smaug from the Hobbit. Likewise, Judy seems to hoard whatever those bubbles that she and The Fireman sent out around the mid point of The Return. Once she wins them over to her pile that is. As she does with Laura.

I think that Judy is much more than the vaguely female shape we see in parts 1 and 8. The Experiment, with its ability to blend people’s faces faster than a Blendtec mashes diamonds, is just an embodiment, just a shell. It could be argued that that isn’t even correct, and the Experiment as Judy is merely a perception of the kind of evil force that simply cannot be embodied.

In short, Judy is bad news.

In Beowulf the dragon is bad news.

It burns down Beowulf’s meeting hall, terrorizes his people, and threatens their very existence. Just like Judy.

But, just like the dragon, I think that Judy only flexes its true muscle, shows off its true power as an evil force, when its most prized possession is stolen away from it. When Coop saves Laura from ending up in plastic on the beach in Twin Peaks, it’s like someone just stole something from the dragon’s hoard. From that moment on in The Return, I think that Judy transcends (if that makes sense) into its true self and is able to create all new realities (timelines/dimensions) in which to hide Laura.

Meanwhile, having passed through the lodge twice now, Cooper is somehow older, perhaps more wizened. This comes across in the diner scene where he takes down the three cowboys. Yet, he warns the fry cook that the oil he just dropped the cowboys’ guns into may be hot enough to set them off. Like Beowulf when the dragon attacks, this is an older, more tired hero that we’re looking at. Yet he is certain of himself and confident enough to find Carrie Paige (Laura), bring her back to Twin Peaks, and try to remind her of who she really is. Just as Beowulf is confident enough in his own abilities to fight the dragon.

Both stories then end.

Twin Peaks' experiment, much like Grendel's mother in Beowulf.

The eerie Experiment from the glass box.


With Beowulf, the dragon is defeated but Beowulf is mortally wounded. And the future of the Geatish people, and the whole way of life that the poem portrays, is unclear.

With Twin Peaks, Carrie Paige remembers who she is, and Cooper seems to wake up — which should be a victory. But instead we hear the same scream that filled the woods when Laura was swept away from Cooper earlier in the episode. We then hear a faint ethereal “Laura” and the electricity flickers. The house where Laura lives goes dark. Then the entire screen goes dark.

Thematically, these endings have much in common. Both are bittersweet, yes. But more than that both endings demonstrate the ending of something incredible. Whether the Geats survive without their king, or whether Cooper and Laura triumphed over that wave of evil they were up against are unclear. Both are unwritten. But both are certainly art.

Twin Peaks' Palmer house has its lights go out, like Beowulf's punching Grendel's lights out.

The dimmed Palmer (?) house.

And that’s my attempt to bring these two disparate bits of media together. An early medieval epic poem and a surreal detective/supernatural television show. To me it all makes some kind of sense.

But what do you think about this comparison? Is it even possible to compare two things that are so different in time and place and content? What are your own pet theories about the ending of Twin Peaks?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

Beowulf: Musical theatre as character exploration

Currently out from writer/director Aaron Sawyer at the Red Theatre is a musical simply (and a little confusingly) called Beowulf. The trailer on the show’s website grabbed my attention as tightly as a man with the strength of 30 could. But, not being able to jet down to Chicago and watch it myself, I’m only able to write about it based on reviews from Third Coast Reviews and The Chicago Reader.

Sawyer’s adaptation of Beowulf is quite an original take, though its focus isn’t anything too new. The basic premise is that Beowulf and Grendel’s mother have been trapped together for all time by Odin. Simple enough. But their past together has not been erased. Grendel’s mother grieves for the loss of her son, and Beowulf questions his heroism as the two become romantically entangled.

These details make this show sound like quite a romp indeed, but it’s definitely playing off of themes that exist in the original poem.

Grendel’s mother is definitely charged with sexual energy in the poem itself. After all, she is the controller of dangerous femininity (giving birth to monsters, wielding a concealed dagger, overpowering Beowulf and landing on top of him (almost fatally)). And she’s certainly contrasted with the much more socially constrained queen Wealhtheow. Wealhtheow is portrayed as nothing but demure, though there are hints of her own desires for Beowulf but she never acts on them.

Grendel’s mother on the other hand acts on her desires for Beowulf so vehemently that she comes very close to killing him. I mean, she pounces on him and then tries to stab him with a dagger. An act of fury, to be sure, but it’s hard for me to not see the symbolism in what she does while on top of him. The dagger she pulls out is pretty phallic as a symbol. Stabbing is a form of penetration. And a female stabbing a male while on top of him seems (at least to me) like a pretty clear metaphor for male rape; a thing no doubt circled by shame and sorrow in the Anglo-Saxon society from whence Beowulf came.

But, interestingly enough, (and maybe this is where Sawyer got the idea for making Grendel’s mother the focus of his play and Tolkien got the idea for having fewer women in the Lord of the Rings trilogy than you could count on both hands), Beowulf never shows much interest in Grendel’s mother.

In fact, he never really shows much interest in any woman. He’s just concerned with glory and heroism (as he is in that trailer).

But maybe Beowulf’s apparent asexuality is part of the bigger picture of the poem. In keeping with medieval ideas of males somehow being closer to god than females, perhaps part of Beowulf’s manly virtue is that he’s beyond all that icky sex stuff. Even when we see him rule his own people there’s no real indication that he’s ever been married or had children. There’s not even any explicit mention or clear implication that he had some kind of mistress.

Ultimately, it sounds like Sawyer’s Beowulf is one that, though it strays pretty far from the source material in terms of story, keeps very close to its characterization of Beowulf and of Grendel’s mother. As goofy and incoherent as Jack Helbig of the Chicago Reader says it is, I think those elements are built into Sawyer’s premise. How else but farce could locking Grendel’s mother and Beowulf in a room turn out? As such, I think this take on Beowulf would be worth seeing just to get a glimpse of two of Beowulf‘s most interesting characters.

Tolkien, Beowulf, and inspiration

It’s been almost two months since J.R.R. Tolkien’s 125th birthday, but I think that Tolkien’s influence and presence in the fantasy world merit giving the whole year over to him. So does Suparna Banerjee, writing for But why am I posting an article about Tolkien’s contributions to the world of modern fantasy on a blog that’s all about Beowulf?

Well, Tolkien’s connection to the poem is one reason. He wrote vehemently for its serious consideration as a work of meaningful art in his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (which you cna read in full here). He also translated the poem from Old English, though this wasn’t published until only a few years ago. But, the other reason to mention him is that Beowulf was one of the major taproot texts that influenced his writing for himself and his children.

If you’ve never heard of the term “taproot text” before, it refers to stories that existed well before literature was divided into the various genres we see on bookstore shelves now, but that have major elements of those genres.

So, things like Beowulf, “The Squire’s Tale”, Orlando Furioso, and The Faerie Queene are all taproot texts for fantasy fiction. And, although these taproot texts aren’t required reading for people who write in a genre that grew out of them, they can still bring a great deal of insight. These stories also bring things back to basics, which I think is what happened with Beowulf and Tolkien.

There were fantasy stories before Tolkien and well after Beowulf, after all (Edward Plunkett’s are among my favourites, especially “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth”). In fact, Banerjee outlines how Tolkien brought these various elements of fantasy together in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But I don’t think that he would have managed what he did without being as familiar with Beowulf as he was.

Which is why I think Beowulf is so important to come back to as a reader and translator myself.

Beowulf is unlike anything that’s coming out these days, and though it’s a bit dated in some ways, it brings a distant time and society to life. And it does so in a way that combines the historic and the fantastic to make an unforgettable story with a fully realized world. The Beowulf poet took what was mundane when it was being written (political marriages, battling, hall etiquette, the social hierarchy and its attendant wealth distribution system) and adds the fantastic while still being believable.

Though, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the dragon in Beowulf proves that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, but I would say that Beowulf‘s dragon (and the whole story) never feels as lofty and idealized as, say, the courtly romances of King Arthur. Beowulf is no perfumed prince living apart from everyone but wife and children, he is pure physicality present in the goings on of hall society and the personal and national battlefield alike, and that’s what makes it the story that, I think, inspired Tolkien the most.

What do you think of the idea of Beowulf as an inspiritional story? Let me know in the comments!

Authority in Beowulf and scriptures

This is the first page from the Beowulf manuscript, in Old English.

The first page of the original Beowulf manuscript, in Old English. Image from

I am, at best, a lapsed Catholic/Greek Orthodox Christian. But, I still find a lot of Christianity’s source material interesting. So, when I went searching for Beowulf news and found this post from entitled “The Use and Purposes of Scripture: Part One”, I read right through it.

In this article Henry Karlson writes about how a literal reading of scripture either as a source of history or of laws is missing the point. Instead, he argues, the contradictions and various situations concerning similar events that come up in scripture need to be read together and taken as a whole rather than merely as parts. Ultimately, to back up his take on reading scripture, Karlson refers to Beowulf. In particular, he refers to the changes that Beowulf underwent between its origins and the version we have today.

Karlson then uses this analogy to say that the changes made to the scriptures didn’t undermine its authority in the same way that the transformations that the modern Beowulf underwent haven’t undermined its authority. What kept me from just saying “pshaw, whatever” when I read this, though, was that Karlson cements this point with the idea that the Church was just practicing good storytelling when it took all of the various stories and writings that became the scriptures and joined them into a single book.

Those same story-telling principles were guiding those who tinkered with Beowulf over the centuries. After all, Beowulf was restored to a mostly complete version from a single bound copy in a book of monsters and wonders that survived being worm-eaten, burned, and generally ignored as it changed hands over and over again.

Specifically, lines of the poem were clarified, different interpretations of the scribes’ handwriting were argued about, and references to other stories, history, and contemporary culture were worked out. All you need to do to see this sort of work on Beowulf in motion is to pick up an edition from the middle of the 20th century or earlier and flip through the notes. You’ll find them full of arguments about things ranging from Beowulf’s descent into and return from the Grendels’ lair paralleling the crucifixion of Christ, to the lack of clarity about what is really going on in the Finnburh episode, to the discovery that “lindbord” in reference to shields indicated that they were made of linden wood.

And yet, the debate around which version of Beowulf is the most correct isn’t based on any historical level. Most of the changes that were made to the text are largely forgotten now. Which makes sense, since claims of authority are usually based on a version’s poetic merit. The Bible, on the other hand, is only rarely judged on its literary merits. Plus, only academics, poetry, and history fans are really interested in Beowulf, whereas more religions than I could count are constantly arguing about the authority of their version of the Christian scriptures.

In fact, as a poem and not a religious text, preferences for Beowulf just come down to which one is your personal favourite.

I really enjoy Seamus Heaney’s translation, but I’m sure that once I read more editions I’ll find another that I like even more.

The elasticity of such opinions leaves me thinking that all the various branches of Christianity are just practicing the same favouritism but on a massive scale, like people who pour their free time into a particular fandom and then build a world of fanfic around themselves and friends.

But those are just my idle thoughts. What do you think about how the authority of Beowulf versions is measured? Is it even fair to compare the authority of a poem to the authority of scripture? Let me know in the comments!

A post that’s briefly about Beowulf’s historical figures

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry, artifact from history,  showing Anglo-Saxon warfare.

Image found here: “Bayeux Tapestry 4” by photo by Gabriel Seah – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Throughout this blog, I’ve often written about history and Beowulf and how the two are woven together (like here and here). The post that I’m sharing this week pulls what I’ve weaved together in a tight, quick way.

This week’s post is a short piece by Jan Purnis (who appears to currently be a professor of English at the University of Regina) all about the historical figures in Beowulf. In this piece, Jan groups these figures together according to their kin group, and then explains how they are or aren’t accounted for in the historical records that we have of the early medieval period.

If you’ve read a bit about the history of the poem itself, you’ll know that there’s some controversy over when exactly Beowulf was first put together. Purnis doesn’t go into to much detail with it, but she does note that the Offa referred to in the poem could be either Offa I, fourth century king of the continental Angles, or Offa II, late eighth century ruler of Mercia (a kingdom in Britain). There was nearly 400 years between them, and in the story that runs from lines 1944-1962 the poet didn’t add an “I” or “II”. So this reference, like some others, doesn’t reveal much about when Beowulf was first thought up.

Nonetheless, Purnis’ conclusion that the poet uses their historical knowledge and references to bring an air of historicity to the wondrous Beowulf himself is a neat point. It’s the same sort of thing that historical fiction writers do today. They know the period and place that they’re writing about as best they can and then they add in their own characters or elaborate on actual figures to build a story. In my mind, this similarity just goes to show how much work has always gone into crafting stories.

Which makes me wonder why the poet wanted to write about a kind of superman whose world, as Purnis points out, was straddling the old Pagan/continental and the new Christian/British ones.

Maybe it was to legitimize the story. I mean, authority drawn from strong relation to the past was an important concept in the medieval world. In fact, that kind of legitimacy through relation to the past is a major reason why people like Offa II referred to Offa I as their ancestor (despite the 400 year and several hundred mile gap between them), and so maybe that was the theme that the poet had set out to tackle. Why then are there monsters in Beowulf? Well, who doesn’t like a good monster story?

If you want to learn more about the historical figures behind a lot of the cast of Beowulf, check out Purnis’ write up. Since it’s a bit on the academic side it comes with a list of sources for further reading, too.

If you could write a historical fiction story about any figure from history who would it be and why? Let me know in the comments! (Chaucer would be at the top of my list!)

The changing words of Beowulf (and language, too)

This is the first page from the Beowulf manuscript, in Old English.

The first page of the original Beowulf manuscript, in Old English. Image from

After I told people I was studying English in university a strange change came over them. They would start listening to me a little more closely. They would hang on my every word for a few minutes after learning that fact. And they would point out any grammatical mistakes I’d make while speaking.

Sometimes these corrections would take me aback. But I can’t say that I blame those who would, jokingly, jump down my throat when my verbs and subjects didn’t agree or I threw an “ain’t” into what I was saying to blend in with the people around me. When I was in university I was the person those who learned of my major became. I was a grammar Nazi.

That is, until I learned about things like Old English and Middle English, and the joy of learning to read languages that were different enough from Modern English to be unintelligible at first look, but that were familiar enough to grasp with a mix of knowledge and intuition. Exposure to these things, and even to the idea that the Latin ancient people spoke changed over time, really made me realize that spoken English doesn’t need to be “perfect”. Neither does written English.

In fact, correctness just comes down to authorial intent and audience. After all, language is most correct when it’s a medium for clear communication between people, so knowing your audience and tailoring your language to make your meaning as clear as possible for that audience is the best way to make it “correct”.

Anyway, the fact that languages change is something that’s pretty well known in general. As Tristin Hopper points out in this article from The National Post, things written around the second world war have totally different uses of words like “queer” and “ejaculate”. Underscoring the article’s point that all languages adapt to what modern speakers need to say about modern life, even the word “humbled” has changed from something with negative connotations to something that gets paired with “honoured”.

Where Beowulf fits in with all of this is that it stands as a marker of the starting point for English. But, it’s also something that even now is constantly changing since our understanding of it is based on best guesses rather than the insight that a native speaker could bring to it. I was pretty shocked to learn that the first word of the poem “Hwaet!” may mean “How” rather than my dearly enjoyed “Listen!” as I read Hopper’s piece.

Ultimately, if you like a language, no matter what your age, you should definitely study it. Even if it’s a dead language like Latin or Old English, there’s likely still more for us to find out about them, and there are still useful insights to pull out of old stories and poems and expression. I’d say this is especially true if the stories and written expression of today don’t speak to you. After all, one of the reasons I went into English after finishing high school was to learn more of the medieval stories that were in seriously short supply throughout my high school run.

If you could learn any language, which language would you want to learn? Why?

When Beowulf tackled supercomputer tech

A Beowulf cluster supercomputer at McGill  University

Image from Copyrighted free use.

In my searching for a Beowulf story to cover this week, I discovered one of the ways in which the poem carries on in secret. Through a simple search for “Beowulf” I came across the website for Project Beowulf. On the “History” page of this site, it’s explained that the company specializes in multi-node computing, particularly the kind known as “Beowulf Clusters”. Multi-node computing refers to the connection of two or more commercial grade computers to create a single virtual supercomputer, and these are called “Beowulf clusters” when connected in a community-sourced, and DIY way (as defined by Wikipedia).

Reading deeper into this matter, I discovered that this style of virtual supercomputer construction was invented by Thomas Sterling and Donald Becker, in 1994 while the two were working for NASA. After that point in his career, Becker went on to found Scyld Computing Corporation, a company that specializes in Linux-based Beowulf supercomputing.

Despite the fact that Becker’s company is another reference to Old English culture (a “scyld” was a bard or poet of the time), according to Becker in this interview with Joab Jackson of, it was actually Thomas Sterling who came up with the name. In his own words, Sterling was something of an Anglophile, and the line ‘Because my heart is pure, I have the strength of a thousand men.’ This line only appears in some translations, but it resonated with what the two wanted to do: create a supercomputer that anyone could build, and which would therefore lead to the formation of a community around its further development. So “Beowulf” fit.

I find this connection to Beowulf especially interesting because it’s a subtle way in which the poem’s legacy carries on. Sterling may have been a fan of Beowulf, but it doesn’t seem that it was just enthusiasm that led them to the name.

Like the heroic protagonist of the poem’s having the strength of 30 men, Beowulf clusters contain the power of several individual processors. They’re also able to undertake heroic feats of scientific computing, answering questions that science conjures up just as Beowulf was able to destroy the monsters which the actions of humanity stirred to life.

Beowulf is a great name for such supercomputers, and a fantastic reference that gives the ancient poem a subtle presence in our lives. After all, back in 2005 Beowulf clusters made up over half of the supercomputers on the annual list of the top 500 supercomputers. Even more recently, the ease of these clusters’ creation has allowed at least one person to build a supercomputer out of inexpensive raspberry pi processors, and Thomas Sterling, the co-creator of the Beowulf cluster is still working with it to push the boundaries of High Performance Computing (HPC).

Although I’m not much of a tech guy, and really only know a thing or two about simple programming languages like HTML, this connection between Beowulf and the modern world might just be my favourite to date. It feels like an in-joke that I can easily smirk at when it’s tossed across the cafeteria table even if I wasn’t there when it happened.

What do you think of naming modern inventions after ancient characters and stories? What’s your favourite example of a new thing having an old name?

Spanish Beowulf Graphic Novel Gets Translation

Beowulf fights Grendel as depicted by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin's graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf.

Beowulf battles Grendel in Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s Beowulf. Image from

It’s not often that I get to post about things as they’re happening on this blog. After all, that’s just not what you come to expect when you write about a poem from over 1000 years ago. But I’ve just lucked out.

Late last year I came across mention of a new graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf. It was touted as the work of writer and translator Santiago Garcia and artist David Rubin. But that short teaser-style mention didn’t say anything about this new graphic novel being a translation. However, that fact is what made it possible for me to post about it on the day that this “new” graphic novel comes out.

At least, according to Amazon. So if you’re reading this today or later, the English translation of this Beowulf adaptation is now available!

Unfortunately though this seems to be the least publicized graphic novel that I’ve come across (is that common for translations in the comics world? Let me know!). The most informative piece I could find about it was from 2014.

In this Comics and Cola article by Zainab, we’re told that this adaptation is a straight retelling of the Beowulf story with modern comics techniques. Also, it’s not just a retelling of the often covered Beowulf vs. Grendel section of the poem, but all three sections are retold. What’s more, along with the violent and at times brutish art style, Zainab suggests (via a Google-translated description of the comic from an unnamed source) that Santiago and Rubin have brought the melancholic resonances of the poem to their version as well.

The last full graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf that I’d seen was Gareth Hinds’ three part retelling. In that version, Hinds did a decent job focussing on Beowulf himself, but the Santiago and Rubin effort seems like it’s got more of a focus on the broader themes of the story while also drawing distinct characters.

José Luis del Río Fortich echoes that sense of the Santiago and Rubin adaptation in his article on Unfortunately, though, the biggest difference between his coverage and Zainab’s is mostly in the different panels that he showcases (aside from a direct comparison between the graphic novel’s violence with Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah’s movies).

Nonetheless, despite the lack of information about it, the Santiago and Rubin Beowulf adaptation is something that I want to see more of. The words of the poem convey its melancholy and energy quite easily, but seeing those words rendered mostly into dialogue (which the original is relatively scant on) and the monsters and their lairs imagined in full colour is always a treat.

What’s more important to you in a graphic novel: Story or art style? Let me know in comments.

Beowulf and the Creationist: A lesson in critical thinking

Maybe it’s possible that, ceolocanth-like, one or two species of dinosaur lived on into the ancient Greek world. Maybe one even made it far enough to meet a knight or medieval king. Although, if the stories are to be taken literally, any dinosaur in such a situation would be summarily slain.

As an explanation for the dragon in fiction, the idea that some giant lizard from a long lost age doesn’t seem too far fetched if you limit it to the stories that early sailors no doubt told about giant sea serpents. These kinds of stories could have easily inspired the the water-based dragons of stories like Perseus and Andromeda. From there, poets and artists could have easily added their own twist to the terrible monster of the deep by bringing it onto land, letting it breathe fire, and having it fly on enormous leathery wings.

But to think that the flying dragon of medieval Europe was itself a dinosaur is a little too much. And claiming that the dragon that terrorizes the Geats in the last third of Beowulf is an eye-witness account of a dinosaur is downright dumb. Yet, according to this article, that’s exactly what geologist Andrew Snelling claimed when reporter Charles Wolford asked about the matter.

Now, Snelling is a staunch creationist. Wolford caught up with him at the Noah’s Ark theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky. So Snelling’s understanding of the world’s history is necessarily compressed. But to think that a dragon’s being in Beowulf is eye-witness proof is problematic on two levels.

First, there are no fossils (as far as I know) for a dinosaur that’s long and serpentine like a Chinese dragon but that also has wings like the dragon on the Welsh flag. Even setting that aside in the “physical evidence category,” I also know of now dinosaur which paleontologists believe could breathe fire. There are a lot of “what if” books about this point of dragon physiology, and many of them try to be as “scientific” as possible. But these books, like Beowulf, are fiction.

Which brings me to my second point. The use of Beowulf‘s dragon as evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived together at some point in the past is a fantastic example of people picking and choosing what they want to get out of a story. Because if the dragon is a real monster, then so too must Grendel and Grendel’s mother be based on real monsters.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time making the case that Grendel and Grendel’s mother are sympathetic characters, maybe even the remnants of a displaced clan of people. But even if they were inspired by such, the details that we’re given about them in the poem are far from being based in reality.

Grendel is immune to weapons made of iron. But I can guarantee that 10 out of 10 people who try to nick themselves with an iron knife will bleed – humans are not iron resistant.

Along similar lines, Grendel’s blood melted the blade of an ancient sword. I’m guessing that most people who are reading this have bled before, and probably didn’t have the bandage or tissue they used to staunch the bleeding melt away as the red stuff spilled out onto these pads.

So if people like Snelling want to say that Beowulf is proof that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, then they must also believe that there are humanoids on earth that bleed a kind of acid and who are immune to iron weapons.

Now, I feel like I’ve come down a little hard on Snelling. And I kind of mean to.

After all, I think that there is some truth both philosophical and historical in Beowulf.

The prevalence of trolls and dragons in stories suggests that they were popular for a reason, though I don’t think that it’s because they were ever real in the way that ancestral swords were. I understand Beowulf as being historically reflective of tropes and metaphors and ideas that were popular when it was written.

It’s one thing to say that, for example, Beowulf took on the people of early Sweden and died in a pyrrhic victory, but it’s much more interesting and hardcore to say that he fought a dragon that was terrorizing his people and died doing so. Making a battle with a dragon the climax of a story about a man whose power makes him as monstrous as the monsters he fights is just far more suiting than saying that he died fighting some war.

Likewise, let’s say that there’s a historical analogy for the first two thirds of the poem. If so, then it’s much more heroic and exciting to read about a man defeating two monsters that no one has even got close to scratching for twelve years than to read about a bully from Geatland coming in and killing off the last two of a tribe of people who have an ancestral claim to the lands where Heorot stands.

Part of the power of fiction is embellishment, and when we forget that, we leave ourselves open to looking very foolish indeed.

But that’s also what makes knowing the difference between fiction and fact and knowing how fiction can be given the sheen of fact (think fake news) that makes thinking critically about what we read incredibly important. And what Snelling’s interpretation of Beowulf teaches us here is that it’s important to think just as critically about what gets written today as what was written 1000 and more years ago.

The book that changed Beowulf’s course in pop culture

The cover for the 1989 edition of John Gardner's Beowulf-inspired Grendel.

The cover for the 1989 edition of John Gardner’s Grendel. Image from

I first read John Gardner’s novel Grendel while studying for my master’s degree at the University of Victoria. The same copy I read then now sits on my shelf, begging for a reread. And it’s deserving of one, I think. I remember the novel being a complex web of meanings and interpretations, though the meaning that was front and centre was a straightforward critique of human society through the eyes of Grendel.

Yes, as the book’s title suggests, it focuses on Grendel and what he gets up to between bouts of terrorizing Heorot. But it’s not all loping around the moors, scaring animals and feasting on his victims. The humans intrigue him as they build Heorot and celebrate its beauty and light. But he also sees and feels just how different he is from the Danes. And when Grendel first sees Beowulf he has this eerie feeling that his days are numbered.

It’s a good read, and from Gardner’s flipping of the original poem’s focus, to his social commentary through the monster’s eyes, to his use of zodiac symbolism, there’s a lot to its 174 pages. If you have the chance you should check it out!

But what brought Gardner’s book to mind today was my discovery of this extract from an article that centres around Gardner’s Grendel.

The extract explains how the pop culture scholars Michael Livingstone and John William Sutton argue that though the 20th century is full of adaptations of Beowulf, Gardner’s Grendel marks a turning point in these works. Whereas those that came before the novel are usually just retellings of Beowulf tailored to suit various genres and audiences, those that came after it share in Gardner’s use of the poem and of Grendel to generate social commentary on specific figures, incidents, or observed traits of the human condition.

If you’re interested in reading their article in full, you can find it here.

Along with Livingston and Sutton’s main thesis, the article is a treasure trove of adaptations that I never even knew existed. So if you’re interested in reading historical fiction based around Beowulf, or tracking down a rock musical in which Grendel’s a punk rocker, check out that article for some extra details.

Why do you think the Beowulf story is so widely adapted? What is it about the story and its characters that make it so flexible?