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An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg

Welcome to A Blogger’s Beowulf!

Here you’ll find my translation of the Old English epic in it’s entirety. In fact, here you’ll find two versions of this translation. The first is one that includes commentary on certain passages and words, and the second is a straightforward poetic translation of the original.

If you want to read through the first one of these translations, you can start doing so here.

If you’d rather read through the clean version of the translation, you can start doing so here.

(And if you’re looking for a glossary that explains some of the letters and words that appear in my translation posts, check out the About page.)

But, if you’re more interested in reading about various stories, events, and articles related to Beowulf (including adaptations), they’re also here to find. Here are some good places to start:

Thanks for dropping by the blog! I hope that somewhere in this wordhoard you find what you’re looking for.

-Nicholas “NSCZach” Zacharewicz

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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 http://bit.ly/2jVrgOn.

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 bleedingcool.com. 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.

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 http://amzn.to/2gZcPqK

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?

Beowulf meets Hollywood in Beowulf: The Blockbuster

Bryan Burroughs in Beowulf: The Blockbuster, a one man show pop culture-infused retelling of the epic.

A still from Bryan Burroughs’ one man show Beowulf: The Blockbuster. Looks like a great show! (Image from http://www.beowulftheblockbuster.com/)

I had always figured that Seamus Heaney would be the only prominent Irish figure to take on Beowulf. But. I was wrong.

The actor Bryan Burroughs has tackled the story in his one man show Beowulf: The Blockbuster. You can check out the show’s website here.

The premise for the play is that Burroughs’ character is a terminally ill father telling his son the final bed time story that he will get to tell him. But, rather than just being a straight retelling of Beowulf, it is an improvised retelling full of elements that Burroughs’ character’s son adds in.

So, instead of Beowulf just being about a lone warrior taking on demons there are things from Jaws or Nightmare on Elm Street thrown in. Or, more specifically, as Burroughs mentioned in an interview with Shelley Marsden of The Irish World, the son suggests that Grendel sounds like Chewbacca, and so Burroughs’ character obliges.

It sounds like an awesome sight to behold. Especially because, as Burroughs plays all of these different parts, he also attempts various impressions to keep them separate. I may not be able to read Beowulf‘s dialogue without slipping into a bit of Sean Connery’s accent after reading that it’s what Burroughs uses for the Geat.

Though what makes this performance interesting to me is that it wasn’t initially going to be about Beowulf.

As he explains in that interview, Burroughs wanted to explore the question of what a parent who knew they had one hour left with their child would say to them. Beowulf only came into play because it has a tight three act structure (whether he covers the whole poem or just the Grendel bit is unclear, but either way there are three acts involved), and was a way for him to tell a story about how wonderful it is to be mortal. Plus, I think that as such an archetypal story Beowulf lends itself to having other characters and stories attached to it.

As always with performances like this, the only thing I don’t really like is that it’s not likely I’ll see the whole thing. Thankfully, though, there is this excerpt. Enjoy!

Prog rock makes Grendel good in Beowulf

An Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask of the style associated with Beowulf.

A helmet, complete with face mask, from the Sutton-Hoo treasure hoard. Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sutton_Hoo_replica_(face).jpg

I’m a big fan of a particular flavour of prog rock. It started in high school, when I got into Rush, and each song I downloaded (via Kazaa or Limewire one song at a time (yep, when downloading music was still controversial)) was a new discovery in a style of music.

And this music was unlike anything I’d ever heard. It had the hardness of everything my older brother would blast over the stereo when we were home alone but was tempered with a variety of emotions (rather than just anger or angst) and the sort of sprawling stories that I love. Thus, a taste for concept albums and story songs was born, and after Rush I started to thirst for more prog.

Throughout my teens I managed to slake that thirst with a little bit of The Who and Pink Floyd, but my wanderings largely ended with Genesis. However, a close friend of mine went deep into prog and showed me a band called Marillion. Among this band’s oeuvre is a song called “Grendel.”

Here’s a recording of the song’s live performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1983:

And, you can find the lyrics here.

Now, a song about a marauding monster seems like an obvious choice for a band working in a genre heavily influenced by fantasy, D&D, and general medieval romance. But Marillion didn’t just string together a 17 minute song about a creature that rampages against a bunch of vikings. Instead they took a different tack. They made Grendel the hero of their adaptation.

If I had to place Marillion’s “Grendel” within the timeline of Beowulf, I’d put it near the beginning of Grendel’s terrorizing Heorot. Beowulf hasn’t been called yet, and the Danes are still pleading with their pagan gods for salvation. This is where the twist comes in.

As Marillion spins it, Grendel isn’t some hell creature that can be swept away by pagan gods.

As Grendel himself says “God’s on my side sure as hell, I’m gonna take no blame.” In other words, Marillion’s Grendel, though still an outsider, is not a tool of Satan or of the forces that fight God after Creation, but of God itself. After this point in the song, Grendel is described as some sort of avenger of God who is attacking the Danes because of their heathenish worship of pagan gods and their indifferent killing of each other, which, according to Grendel, makes them the true monsters.

As an English major, it’s my instinct to tear into this wildly different interpretation of a poem so thoroughly established as good (Beowulf) versus evil (the monsters). So, let’s go!

Since they’re a prog rock band, a genre that’s pretty under-represented and I think safe to say associated with the kind of teenage nerds who follow fantasy and sci fi and spend their weekends playing video games or D&D in friends’ basements, it’s not too surprising that they’d make Grendel the hero of the song.

After all, Grendel is the epitome of an outsider. He’s not apparently human though bipedal. He’s living in what is basically an inversion of Heorot, a dank and cold hall with only his immediate family rather than a crowd of broader society. Grendel is as strange as can be, relative to the Danes.

Because of this outsider quality and the outsider quality of a lot of their listeners, I think it makes sense that Marillion would come up with a song that has this take.

What’s really odd to me, though, is that Grendel isn’t just some lone wolf fighting against the “normals” but is, instead, an instrument of God. This sends my English major senses reeling since I see this pairing representing the perspective that many outsiders take on those who are so deeply embedded in the mainstream system that they can’t see where they’re going wrong.

Putting Grendel on God’s side despite his outsider status and utter strangeness also ties nicely to the lives of so many mystics throughout history. For mystics of all faiths, people of incredible religious devotion, are generally kept at arms length by the official body of their declared religion. Why keep such thoroughly devoted people out of the spotlight? Because mystics’ ideas and practices tend to be more or less aligned with doctrine in theory but take a meandering and unorthodox path to reach that alignment, sometimes coming up with radical ideas along the way. Despite this difference, they often receive some form of recognition after their deaths. Many Christian mystics, for example, were made saints (like Saint Catherine of Siena) after the Church heard enough examples of their remains causing miracles.

But even with all of that information about how organizations like the Catholic Church treat such outsiders, that anyone would give such a role to Grendel is incredible.

Even more incredible is how the band presented the song during their stage shows.

Fish (a.k.a. Derek Williams Dick), Marillion’s lead singer when the song was played live, would wear a tattered cloak and the Anglo-Saxon helmet with face mask that’s most evocative of Beowulf himself. Crossing Grendel with the usual hero of the story like this forces you to think about a lot of parallels between the two that I think are definitely valid.

In particular, though, I think that Marillion’s Grendel has a lot to say about religion.

If Grendel is God’s wrath, and Beowulf is also a tool of God’s will, then Beowulf’s saving the Danes from Grendel says a lot about Christianity, and maybe even about organized religions in general.

I mean, if God controls all the pieces, it’s as if there is no devil and God is simply using the classic sales tactic of distressing his target audience and then presenting them with a solution of his own making. Which, if you think about it, is pretty much how it goes if the Christian God has a monopoly on creation, even if you lay bad things happening at Satan’s feet. After all, Satan was an angel who was cast out of heaven for pride and arrogance. Who made the angels? Who could decide to cast them out or keep them in?

Wow. I admit I’m a pretty big fan of Marillion’s brand of prog rock but never thought it would say so much with a simple twist on who’s really the hero in a classic story.

But that’s the power of adaptation. Artists can take old stories and old ideas — things that seem to anchor the world into the status quo — make a few changes, and thereby force people to see that status quo in a totally different way.

What do you think of Marillion’s adaptation of Grendel?

Beowulf told with puppets gets me thinking about performance

Thanks to a Google alert I have set up for “Beowulf poem” (leaving off “poem” would net me nothing but updates about a company with the same name), I came across a puppet version of Beowulf that’s currently in the works.

As you can read here, this version of the poem has been in the works for more than a year.

The Hawk Rock Theatre of Putnam County, NY is putting the show on, and judging from the pictures of the puppets and the props, it looks like everything in the show has been carefully crafted. In fact, even the script was adapted with care. Apparently local English scholar Kate Mackie did the adaptation. And it sounds like they couldn’t have had a better writer on the project, since Mackie first read Beowulf in Old English when she was 19. I don’t even think I knew what Old English was when I was 19 (aside from the common idea that what Shakespeare wrote is “ye Olde Englishe”).

In past entries I’ve noted that all of the adaptations of Beowulf that I’ve found out about stand as proof that this 1000+ year old poem still resonates with people. I think that performances of it are still happening really speaks to this. Especially when those performances do incredibly well, such as Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage.

But, as is the case with that musical take on the poem and this puppet performance, their reach is, sadly, severely limited.

Brewster, the town whose HamletHub news page reported on the upcoming puppet performance is a village in New York.

Nonetheless, these very local performances just remind me that even though people can and will record whatever their phones can hold only to later upload them somewhere online, being present for a live performance still matters. Performance can still be intimate and immediate.

It’s kind of strange, but thinking about Beowulf and this puppet show adaptation makes it seem to me that as access to content increases, there’s a lot more power and importance put back into smaller venues.

It’s been a while since I’ve been out to a concert, but I can’t help but think that going to a larger venue only to watch the show through a monitor that’s closer to you than the stage is kind of ridiculous. Sure, the sound is still crisp and energized and live, but the visuals are just an image on a screen. I think it’s much better if you can see the person you’ve come to see, and (glaring stage lights aside) they can see you.

Of course, packed stadiums can bring an artist way more income than a packed small town theatre. But there’s something lost when artistic energy is dispersed so far and wide through a monstrous crowd. Although truly gifted performers can still make everyone who’s come out for them feel like they were singled out. It’s an incredible property of going to see a live show, feeling as though, big venue or small, you’re a member of something bigger than you, of an entity called an audience that the performer can electrify with just a few notes.

And, though, I won’t be catching Hawk Rock Theatre’s Beowulf performance (unless it finds its way to Youtube after the fact), after more than a year of preparations, I’m sure it’ll be a show brimming with artistic energy and presence.

If you’re going to be in the Brewster/Southeast area of New York state between November 4 and November 6, you should definitely go and see how this take on Beowulf plays out.

When it comes to performances which do you prefer: A live show or something recorded? Why?

Thoughts on Beowulf’s new rock musical adaptation

So, come September, Beowulf will be getting the musical treatment!

And not just any sort of musical treatment, but the rock ‘n’ roll musical treatment!

Though, according to this article, this musical isn’t going to be a straight telling of Beowulf. Not entirely, anyway.

The twist with Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is that while the events of Beowulf unfold (simplified so that all three monsters attack Heorot), a panel of academics criticizes and unpacks what’s going on in the story.

This sounds like a really cool concept, especially because of the “rock” label that’s being applied to it. Musicals with the flavour of rock music are some of my favourite operas, after all. From prog rock concept albums to early attempts like The Phantom of the Paradise — the rock musical is a solid genre.

But what sticks out about this to me more than anything is that a new Beowulf musical suggests that history does indeed repeat itself.

Back in the 70s there was a musical version of Beowulf, simply called Beowulf: A Musical Epic. It might have slipped under the radar of many because it was a Canadian production, and I don’t think it had much of a run south of the border. But this production’s varied (too varied for “Rock” alone to suit, I think) musical score by Victor Davies and the lyrics by Betty Jane Wylie make for a fantastic retelling of the story.

But what I like most about the 70s adaptation is that there really aren’t any changes to the story.

Some of the digressions in the original are cut out or reworked, and at least one character is renamed, but other than that, Beowulf: A Musical Epic stays true to the poem: Beowulf goes to Heorot to fight Grendel, fights Grendel’s mother, then goes back to Geatland where he eventually becomes king, has to fend off a dragon, and leaves his warrior legacy in the hands of Wiglaf. For its fidelity alone, I think Beowulf: A Musical Epic is worth listening to, since so few adaptations let Beowulf grow old and show us his end.

In the popular culture (all of the movie, and book adaptations) Beowulf is usually seen only defeating Grendel and maybe Grendel’s mother, but we never really see Beowulf fighting the dragon as an old man and his death, and I think this is an essential part of the poem. The fact that the poem covers it suggests that the early audience of the poem thought much differently (maybe more complexly?) about heroes than many of us do today, and certainly more so than most modern people would give early medieval people credit for.

So I’m excited for this new musical, but, whenever (and however) I manage to engage with it, I know to approach it as something more than just an adaptation. Though, that said, I’m hoping for some raucous academic commentary to go along with the brutal physicality of so much of the story.

How do you think this new Beowulf musical will work out? Will it be the next Hamilton, or just enjoy a small run in Providence, Rhode Island? Leave your thoughts in the comments!