Friday, September 29, 2006

"Beowulf and Grendel" Review

Now that Beowulf and Grendel is available on DVD, here's my long-promised review/critique. Please note that there will be plenty of spoilers herein, so if you don't want spoilers, stop reading. There's also a bit of foul language quoted from the film later, too. I'm going to critique the film on two fronts: quality as a film itself, and as an interpretation of the poem Beowulf.

First, as a film -- Beowulf and Grendel is high enough quality that it would have been worth the money to see it in the theaters, but that's about it. The costuming and photography are good, with lots of wind-swept vistas of rock and snow, and the costumes have enough verisimilitude that they appeared authentic enough to me at first glance.

It has a few problems, though. I found the accents rather annoying. Along with the vaguely Scandinavian accents are mingled a few Irish accents, and one notable American accent. With the exception of the Irish missionary (who had the appropriate accent), let's just pick and accent and stick with it, OK? If the Geats and Danes had used different accents, that would have been fine, but there was no consistancy.

The pacing of the film was off, too. I was rather put off by the long stretches of angst. The action scenes are oddly short and understated. Grendel's first attack on Heorot Hall is not even shown; we just get to see the carnage. The final battle with Beowulf is very, very short. In fact, there is a scene of Grendel urinating (not, by the way, the only urination scene in the film, which has as much urine as blood) that I suspect is longer than the battle in which Grendel is mortally wounded.

Instead, we get long periods in which Beowulf broods on how terrible it is to be famous, and on the justice of killing Grendel. Even then ... and this point seems lost on everyone in the film ... Beowulf does not actually kill Grendel. The reactions of the various people to Grendel's death seem at odds with what happened in the film. It was like the characters in the film had read the poem, rather than experienced the movie. Grendel's death is an act of self-mutilation/suicide. As far as I can remember, Beowulf never actually draws blood on Grendel, which leads me to wonder why he felt so guilty about killing a troll he never actually killed. Selma (a character invented for the film) too talks about how Beowulf "killed" Grendel. I think the writers got lost, and forgot what was theirs and what was the poet's.

All this seems rather negative, but overall it was a good film. The characters of the Geats are developed enough that I was able to distinguish one from another, and when one of them died, I was able to identify who had died and why. Too often in these kinds of films "Geatish Warrior #1" and "Geatish Warrior #6" are indistinguishable.

Even better, it was a poetically beautiful film. It opens with "Hwaet!" and a few lines of Anglo-Saxon style verse that is not actually out of the poem. The character Thorkel acts as scop, developing the tale of Beowulf as it unfolds, and the quality of their fake Anglo-Saxon verse is really quite high. If I had the money, I'd get the actor who played Thorkel to come to my classes and read aloud real Old English poetry. It was delightfully evocative.

The love interest (one dare not call it "romantic interest") for Beowulf that was developed for the film is rather good, I think. Because of the complexity of the relationship Beowulf develops with the witch/whore Selma, I began to find her an interesting character. Coming into the film, my expectation was that the "Selma" figure would be a Meg Ryan-style bland, cardboard cutout love interest. I am glad to be wrong.

The film's hostility toward Christianity is distracting (and confuses the themes ... more of this in the next section). Very quickly I began not to care about the subplot of the missionary coming, and wished that Grendel would just kill all the Christians so the filmmakers could stop posturing and get on with the movie. Yes, we get it -- you think Christianity is just a bunch of lies spouted by madmen, that people accept out of desperation and fear. If you want that to be your theme, why not try doing a film of Tartuffe, or something that actually fits that premise?

The film as an interpretation of Beowulf -- as far as faithfulness to the poem goes, this is far and away the best, but then again, the competition isn't very stiff. The basics are the same -- Geatish warrior Beowulf goes to help the Danish king Hrothgar fight off a troll, Grendel, who has been attacking Heorot Hall. After the death of Grendel, Grendel's mother arrives to avenge him, so Beowulf goes into her underwater cave to confront her and kill her. The story does not go on to the dragon episode.

Any professors out there who are worried that their freshmen might watch the movie instead of reading the poem have no need to worry, though. There are enough changes that someone trying to fake having read the poem will out themselves. The time frame is stretched out quite a bit, and the character of Selma (the aforementioned witch/whore) is one of the main characters, even though she has no analogue in the poem.

Grendel is, very explicitly, a troll. He wasn't a Tolkien-style cave troll, nor a rubbery D&D style troll. Instead, he was much more like trolls seem in the old Scandinavian epics -- large, burly, hairy, and man-like. On the one hand, I think this vision gets closer to the image of Grendel that the original audience would have had.

This Grendel, though, is what I refer to as the Postmodern Grendel -- deeply misunderstood. Way back when John Gardener was re-imagining Grendel as simply misunderstood and flawed, this reading was audacious. Now, it is simply boring and pedestrian. I find that my students are incapable of understanding Grendel as evil, or as an enemy of God.* This film advances that postmodern image. Our first scenes of Grendel are of a very cute child (with a beard) playing with his father, who is pointlessly cut down by Hrothgar and his men. Again and again, Grendel's refusal to enter into a dishonorable fight is drilled into the viewers' minds.

Beowulf too, is envisioned as a foil to the poem-Beowulf. He's not a boaster. Instead, he is full of humility, and grows weary of the over-praise of him. If I can use a comparison from Shakespeare, the poem-Beowulf is an Othello -- a man who never talks when he can act. The film-Beowulf is a Hamlet -- a man who never acts when he can talk. By the end of the film, peace is possible not because Beowulf has defeated evil, but because he has made peace with that which was considered evil. While I think this worked thematically for the film, it is obviously a reversal of the ideas of the poem. Evil in the poem is to be vanquished; evil in the film is to be understood.

Two themes, though, didn't work so well. One was the theme of Beowulf's fame leading to an exaggeration of his abilities, presumably leading to the epic we have today. Frankly, I'm getting sick of these materialistic, hyper-secularlized reimaginings (consider Troy, for example). What's wrong with having the gods? Even if I weren't grumpy about it, it still doesn't work for the film, and again it is a problem with consistency. OK, so Beowulf was just a normal man whose hero-myth got blown out of proportion ... then why have trolls be real? Why have sea hags be real? According to the film, Beowulf really did swim for two days in the open sea wearing armor. If he could do that, why then is he not really powerful enough to tear off Grendel's arm? Instead of magical realism, we get a film that can't decide if it wants magic or realism.

The other theme is the anti-Christian theme. An anti-Christian Beowulf could work, I think, if one replaced the Christian God with the Northern Germanic pantheon, or if you did a Thirteenth Warrior/Eaters of the Dead completely materialist Beowulf. In this case, though, it doesn't work at all. In the last scene, Thorkel is making the connections between Grendel and Cain -- connections that are essential to the poem because they allow the Christian poet to navigate through the shoals of having a pagan hero, and because they reinforce the theme of kinslaying. In the film, a character explicitly rejects the Beowulf poet's reading, referring to it as "shit." Well, OK, but THAT'S the way the poem works, not something later scholars added. By trying so hard with the anti-Christian theme, the film ends up rejecting Beowulf itself. This is, in my mind, a terrible, horrible choice, akin to making a re-telling the Odyssey in which marriage is shit, or Paradise Lost in which faithfulness is shit, or Gilgamesh in which friendship is shit. You can add and subtract characters, alter personalities, and change vital plot points, but you cannot reject the basic themes of a work when you are adapting it to film. For this reason, I think the film is ultimately an artistic failure.

Artistic failure though it may be, it is still an entertaining film, and also still the best film version of Beowulf I've seen to date. I recommend it for the entertainment value, and I especially recommend it to those who teach the poem, so that they can recognize where their postmodern students' prejudices lie.

*For more on this, see my article “Teaching Grendel as a Villain in a Post-Modern Age.” Alabama English 14 (2004): 6-17.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I'm One Hot Chili Pepper

The Chronicle of Higher Education today has an article entitled "The Art of the Bogus Rating," in which I have been accused of writing my own Rate My Professors rating.* The horror! The only evidence the Chronicle has to that end is this post and a suspicious-looking rating of me that reads,

He isn't just the best prof at TSU -- he's the best prof that ever lived! We worship Prof. Nokes as unto a god! Legend has it that touching a paper he has graded instantly raises your IQ 10 points! If you touch his bald head, you'll make the Dean's List!

Very, very weak evidence indeed.

Seriously, though, I find the idea that RateMyProfessors is the second sign of the apocalypse** kind of silly. It might bill itself as accurate, but then again, ESPN bills dog shows as a sport. By having a chili pepper "hotness" rating, RMP outs itself as a novelty site.

Is that novelty bad? I don't think so. Students need, I think, a space to blow off steam. In most cases, students aren't really foolish enough to think that professors are their enemies, but in the crush of a difficult semester, when your boyfriend has just dumped you, you have eaten nothing but ramen noodles for a week, and your roommate's drama queen antics are preventing you from getting any real studying done, when that professor springs a pop quiz on you it can feel like he's springing it on you, specifically. The easiest way to deal with that stress is by deflating the image of that professor in your own head. If not for Rate My Professors, students would simply do this in the old fashioned way -- by impersonating you for their friends.

Nor is it like Rate My Professors is the only venue out there. MySpace, for example, has a "Grade My Professor" section that looks awfully similar to Rate My Professors. Given how much Facebook is trying to emulate MySpace, I would expect it won't be long until Facebook has a rating sysem. Indeed, if these spaces didn't exist, someone would have to invent them. One college I taught at in Lithuania had a tradition that the students would put on a skit night near the end of the spring semester -- primarily composed of skits skewering the profs.

One concern raised in the article is that administrators may take these ratings seriously. I agree that could be a problem -- but that is a problem of incompetent administration, not with online ratings sites. In the example given in the article of someone allegedly fired for bad Rate My Professors reviews, the school denied RMP is a factor, and called inclusion of them in the personnel file "a mistake." Even if it were intentional, their denial is tacit admission that RMP is not an appropriate measure of an instructor's merits.

So, gentle readers, I again invite you to rate my on Rate My Professors, or on MySpace, or in any other non-official venue. Facebook has no rating system, but I do invite people to join the Nokes Bow Tie Brigade Facebook group which encourages "cult-like mindless adherence to the teachings of Dr. Nokes," as well as the wearing of bow ties.

*Full disclosure: Dr. Matt Julius, prominently mentioned in the article, has been a friend of mine since we went to undergrad together.
**The first, of course, being blogging.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Claymation Grendel

I ran into this claymation version of the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. Though I find the music itself obnoxious, I rather like the way that the creators have combined music and a minimalist approach to good effect here ... though why does Beowulf sprout wing?

Medievalism/Arthuriana Open Thread

I've found people trying to push the Arthurian envelope into general medievalism in my conversations of late, so I thought I would try to open the thread up into general medievalism. Yes, Dan, this means you can write about samurais as Eastern medievals.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Arbitrating My Hero-Myth on Netflix

I have been working my Netflix queue and the US Postal Service to try to get Beowulf and Grendel as soon as possible after its official release tomorrow. My efforts have paid off -- it now reads as "processing" on the queue. The plot summary on Internet Movie Database reads:
Adapted from the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, BEOWULF & GRENDEL is a
medieval adventure that tells the blood-soaked tale of a Norse warrior's battle
against the great and murderous troll, Grendel. Heads will roll in this provocative take on the first major work of English literature. Out of allegiance to the King Hrothgar, the much respected Lord of the Danes, Beowulf leads a troop of warriors across the sea to rid a village of the marauding monster. The monster, Grendel, is not a creature of mythic powers, but one of flesh and blood - immense flesh and raging blood, driven by a vengeance from being wronged, while Beowulf, a victorious soldier in his own right, has become increasingly troubled by the hero-myth rising up around his exploits. Beowulf's willingness to kill on behalf of Hrothgar wavers when it becomes clear that the King is more responsible for the troll's rampages than was first apparent. As a soldier, Beowulf is unaccustomed to hesitating. His relationship with the mesmerizing witch, Selma, creates deeper confusion. Swinging his sword at a great, stinking beast is no longer such a simple act. The story is set in barbarous Northern Europe where the reign of the many-gods is giving way to one - the southern invader, Christ. Beowulf is a man caught between sides in this great shift, his simple code transforming and falling apart before his eyes. Building toward an inevitable and terrible battle, this is a tale where vengeance, loyalty and mercy powerfully entwine. A story of blood and beer and sweat, BEOWULF & GRENDEL strips away the mask of the hero-myth, leaving a raw and tangled tale that rings true through the centuries.

While the plot summary on Netflix reads:
In an adventure imbrued with blood and tragedy, the legendary Norseman Beowulf
(Gerard Butler) must command an army across the seas of ancient Northern Europe to conquer the evil troll Grendel. Anticipating his epic crusade against the wrathful monster, the warrior must arbitrate his emanating notoriety and his relationship with the enchanting Selma amid a time of barbaric turmoil and transformation with the emergence of the Christian faith.

He must "arbitrate his emanating notoriety?" Yeesh, put down the thesaurus for a moment. That use of "arbitrate" strikes me as awfully MLA-esque. I suppose I should be happy that Beowulf has finally got himself a girlfriend, but Selma? I'd have thought he could do better.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Manuel II Paleologus? Never Heard of Him.

One side effect of the flap over the Pope's comments is that people are suddenly expressing an interest in the late-medieval Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus. Several people have asked me about him, and asked me why I haven't blogged about him.

I haven't blogged about him because I don't know anything about him. Most of what I study is far, far away in both time and space from Manny II. Read this link, and you'll already know more than I do.

I implore the Pope, please start quoting Alfred the Great or Wulfstan in controversial contexts. I'd like to be considered relevant.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Shame on Medievalists

A few weeks ago, I discovered, through some e-mails and blog posts, that had on their website a piece on Beowulf called "Beowulf: Fact or Fiction?" The article seeks to argue that Beowulf is an historically accurate account, and furthermore that Grendel is a dinosaur who somehow survived into the early medieval days -- an apparent attempt to bolster creationism through the poem (I'm still not clear on how it does that, but no matter). The best that can be said about the piece is that it tries really hard, and that the author may have been misled by a book called After the Flood, which I've not read.

As a medievalist and a Christian, I found the article embarrassing. It was being cited in some rather bigoted e-mails and posts as just the kind of stupid thing those idiotic Christians think. I sent a very polite e-mail to Crosswalk, identifying myself as a medieval scholar and a Christian, and pleading with them to remove the article. I explained in as much detail as their "Contact Us" pop-up box would allow why the article was wrong.

I have not received a response, nor has the article come down. After a week went by without Crosswalk removing the article or contacting me, I began warning Christians and homeschoolers that Crosswalk was not a reliable resource. I discussed it with my Sunday School class*, talked with some people I know who homeschool about where they got their materials (I found none who used Crosswalk, incidentally), etc.

I felt I had done my part -- I had warned Crosswalk, and when they showed no interest in heeding my warnings about the flawed article, I warned Christians. I guess I did not do enough, though.

Even now, links and discussions of it are flying across the internet ether. Everytime I check my e-mail I find there are several more comments on the AnSaxNet e-mail list. Some of the comments are of the benign eye-rolling variety, while others are exercises in bigotry carried on in high dudgeon. The few temperate voices are shouted down (which is why I'll not bother posting this to AnSaxNet).

The real shame on medievalists, though is not that we have hateful ideologues among us -- heck, I'm hard-pressed to think of a group that doesn't -- the real shame is that, so far as I can tell, no one else has bothered to correct the article in a public forum. If anyone has e-mailed Crosswalk as I did, they haven't mentioned it. Since my e-mail, Crosswalk has opened up a forum to discuss it. At the moment, only one person who may be a medievalist (and I'm not sure if it is a professional medievalist or just a well-informed person), "Timo888," has bothered to post any kind of correction.

So rather than trying to correct misconceptions, we medievalists would rather sit back in our enclosed professional forums and mock the ignorant. Shame on all of us, and if you are a medievalist without the moral or scholarly clarity to understand why you should be ashamed, I am embarrassed for you.

*Yes, I teach adult Sunday School ... at an evangelical church, no less (a non-denominational Christian church, a.k.a. a "Stone-Campbell" church here in the South). No doubt many of those who have been describing Christians as evil ignoramuses will be horrified that I am gainfully employed even while carrying on these nefarious weekend activities. Those who live in the Montgomery area, horrified or not, are welcome to join our class Sundays at 9:30, at the Cornerstone Christian Church, where you can be corrupted by Christian thought and occasional Krispy Kream doughnuts.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

About Medieval History

As regular readers of this space know, while I'm a friend of medieval history, I'm not a friend of excessive intrusion of history into literature, especially of the You-Can't-Understand-Chaucer-Unless-You-Understand-the-Peasants'-Revolt variety. Nevertheless, I'm pleased that the Wordhoard has been included in the short list of blogs at the Medieval History page.

It's not really a history page, but rather a gateway into general medieval studies links. If you follow the links through "Arts, Literature, and Music" to "Literature and Poetry," you get a set of links that is not exhaustive by any means, but can link you to some of the better sites, like the Camelot Project, Peter Baker's Beowulf sound files, etc. Interestingly, there are more links listed to Arthurian sites (52) than all the other literary sites combined (37), and there are only two links to general Old English literature, both of which appear to be dead links. Nevertheless, if you were a high school student looking to do some research for a paper, there could be worse places to start. The trick would be in culling out the bad sources from the good -- still, better than a Google search would be.

By the way, I rather like their "This Date in Medieval History" link. Poor Hildegard of Bingen died on this day in 1179 ... and we still mourn her.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Open Arthuriana Thread 1, Facebook 3

Once again, here I post an open Arthuriana thread. Why the above title, then?

Because I previously posted an Arthuriana open thread, and all of my students who commented did so on the "Notes" feed section of my Facebook page. In other words, they posted only where Troy students could see it.

I originally tried the open thread to experiment in the ways in which the Wordhoard could be used in conjunction with classroom pedagogy. In a sense, the experiment was a success, in that it looks like students are more likely to use Facebook than an open blog page. When I asked them to post to the blog page itself, they stopped commenting on Facebook as well.

Elisabeth Carnell is putting together a blogging session on K'zoo dealing specifically with the issue of blogs and pedagogy. Looks like I'll have something interesting to say after all...

Anyway, anything interesting and Arthurian out there in popular culture, note below.

Prof. Awesome, Ph.D., comes to SMCA

As my alter-ego of Professor Awesome, Ph.D., I did a little community service today by delivering a lecture on Beowulf at the South Montgomery County Academy in Grady, Alabama. Note the rapt attention of the students, hanging on my every word. Though it appears that they are struggling to retain consciousness, do not be fooled; they are in fact deep in thought, contemplating the profundity of my insights into the poem.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Impending Death of Medieval Forum

Medieval Forum, the online medieval literary journal, has announced that its sixth issue will be its last, as the editor, George W. Tuma, is retiring.

Six issues doesn't seem like much, and the journal has only been around since 2002. Normally, the demise of an occasionally-published, non-peer reviewed journal that lasted for only a few years wouldn't be newsworthy, but MF was a trail-blazer in the internet wilderness. Scholars (and tenure & promotion committees) continue to be suspicious of online journals, so the creation of, editing of and submission to an online journal can be an act of scholarly courage, particularly when the work being edited/submitted is might find publication in a traditional bound paper venue.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Beowulf as Christ

Over at Gypsy Scholar, Jeffery Hodges has a post about reading Beowulf as a Christ figure. The Beowulf-as-Christ reading is an oldie but a goodie. I spend a little time each semester talking about it, though even Catholics here in the South don't seem to have ever heard of the Harrowing of Hell, whereas in the North I could assume every Catholic and a few Protestants would know what it is, and get the connection with the descent into Grendel's mere.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Arthuriana Open Thread

As part of an experiment in my Arthurian Legends course, I'll occasionally be posting Arthuriana open threads here. Though this is intended to be a forum for students in that class to post about modern Arthuriana they've run into, everyone is welcome to contribute.

Yes, Alan Kellogg, this means you are welcome too.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

DARC Iron, not Dark Ages

Steve Muhlberger has an interesting post about the Dark Ages Re-creation Company (DARC), which got together to smelt iron with early medieval techniques. I find the whole "Dark Ages" thing a little tiresome (re-creators, more than anyone else, should understand that the "Dark Ages" weren't so dark), but I guess VARC (*Viking Age Re-creation Company) would sound a little too much like a swear word from a cheesy B science fiction flick.

Grousing about the name aside, the re-creation appears to have been more experiment than roleplay. I'm generally not too interested in the history side of medieval studies, but this looks pretty cool. Plus, in the image Muhlberger posts, the guys look like Tolkienian dwarves in plaid!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Hail to the King, Baby

In my Arthurian Legends class the other day, we were discussing some of the various man-out-of-time versions of Arthuriana, mostly of the Connecticut Yankee strain, but also containing a little bit of "some vaguely Arthurian person comes to the present" tradition. In this discussion, I brought up the film Army of Darkness. Interestingly, most of the student had seen it (though they could not have been more than around seven years old when this R-rated film was released) -- but none of them seemed to realize that it is a demonic parody of Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

First of all, I should note that sometimes when we say "demonic parody," we mean it in the figurative sense of following Milton's themes. The genre of a work does not have to be parody, nor does it have to contain characters that are literal demons. In this paper, for example, someone makes the case that Max Max: Beyond Thunderdome is a demonic parody of the present -- even though the film doesn't actually have any demons, and is not what we would normally call "parody." In the case of Paradise Lost, of course, the demons actually set up a reign in Hell that parodies Heaven ... the ur-demonic parody.

Army of Darkness, of course, is both a literal and figurative demonic parody, and then has its own embedded demonic parody as well. Ash is the Yankee, wielding Excalibur (primarily represented by his chainsaw hand, but also sometimes represented by his "boomstick"). Unlike Twain's Yankee, he does not seek to make the lives of those in Arthur's court better. Instead, as the anti-hero, he uses his superior weaponry (and undeserved sense of intellectual superiority) to make his own life easier at the expense of others. Twain's Sandy, Hank the Yankee's beloved, is replaced by Sheila, who quickly learns a bitter lesson about Ash's late-20th-century sense of commitment, when in response to her protestation, "but what about all those wonderful things you told me?" he replies, "That's just pillow talk, baby."

Here it might just be one of the better films in the tradition of Connecticut Yankee parodies, including such notable works of high art as Black Knight, A Spaceman in King Arthur's Court (originally released as Unidentified Flying Oddball, and A Kid in King Arthur's Court. Sam Raimi, though, takes it a step further, folding the parody in on itself. A demon-clone-sorta-thing of Ash abducts Sheila and transforms her into a zombie Deadite (where they actually appear to have a more committed relationship than the non-zombie Ash can manage), set up an alternative Deadite court/army, and attack the living, finally forcing the living to band together against them. The demon-Ash parodies both Ash himself (looking like an undead version of Ash), as well as King Arthur (here divided into "Lord Arthur" and "Duke Henry").

So, why haven't I published a paper on Army of Darkness as medievalism? Probably because the above is about all I have to say on that subject, but also because it is hard to write about something you love. I live my life according to the teachings of a few wise thinkers, and Ash occupies a position in the higher pantheon.

By the way, Bruce Campbell has a new book out, entitled How to Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way. This book will no doubt occupy a position of great honor on my bookshelves.

Friday, September 01, 2006

My Hip Facebook Page

Given the tone of called "Why I Registered on Facebook," I am apparently hip and cool and cutting-edge for having a Facebook page -- which is a great way to make announcements.

My own Facebook page is here.* I never felt the anxiety about numbers of "friends" on Facebook, since my "friends" aren't really friends at all -- they are all students and relatives and colleagues. By the way -- I have 83 friends, but Steven Taylor has only 27 friends. This is because he is a social outcast, no doubt a result of his penchant for wearing white after Labor Day.

The dumbest thing about Facebook? At the top of your own page, just over your picture, the heading reads "Your Name's Profile (This is you)." I like the "This is you" aside -- Facebook must have many users with identity crises.

*I'm not sure how or if that link will work for Facebook users. If it goes nowhere, my apologies.