Last Wednesday, a colleague invited me to give his students a lecture on the cultural and religious background of Beowulf. I came into the lecture prepared for the possibility that they had all watched the movie instead of reading the book (thankfully, they had all read the book, proving themselves to be the intelligent, attentive students that their instructor had promised me). While preparing, I asked myself, what would make a student desire to watch the movie version of Beowulf? Why did I watch them myself?
I tell people that I watched the movie versions of Beowulf so that when students put incorrect answers on their tests, I know where they got them. Really, I’m deluding myself. I watched them because the Anglo-Saxons have a rich visual history that I long to see.
Let’s try this another way. Have you ever been to the British Museum to see the display of Anglo-Saxon artifacts? You probably have, patron, but those students certainly haven’t. Texas is also remarkably short on historically-accurate mead halls (if you built one, dear patron, it would be a great advancement for the scholarly community). These students have also not had the benefit of years of study in the field. They don’t know what Anglo-Saxon ring mail looks like. They’ve never seen a historically accurate helmet. They don’t know what Saxon tapestries or carvings look like. They don’t even have the background to research these things. The closest they can get is vague ideas of Vikings from popular culture, which gives them images of men in horned helmets pillaging villages and smashing victims into dust before drinking from the skulls of their enemies.
No wonder Beowulf is confusing. The Beowulf poet was writing for an audience that needed no cultural orientation. When we’re 1000 years removed, it becomes more difficult. No wonder the bright hero retreats into a series of shadows in a vague, misty past.
This is why I began my lecture with clips from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I would love to post links to the scenes I used, but I can find no YouTube clips that are legally posted, so you’ll just have to pull them up on your own DVDs. The first scene is Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf being asked to leave their weapons outside the mead hall Meduseld before they enter to see King Theoden (by the way, “theoden” is usually translated as “king” or “prince” in Old English). This is a nice parallel to the scene in Beowulf where the titular hero and his men are asked to leave their swords, shields, and spears at Heorot’s doors before they enter to speak to the king, Hrothgar. I turned the volume down and bade the students to focus on the architecture as the camera pans around, showing the glorious mead-hall on the hill, the center of the city. This scene allows a great look at the armor, too. The shoulder plates and gorgets are not typical of Anglo-Saxon armor, but the mail is a good representation, the helmets look like they could be reproductions of existing artifacts, and the Anglo-Saxons would have adored the gold embroidery on the cloaks. As the characters all entered Meduseld, I pointed out the intricate gilded carvings on the columns, walls, and floor, the tapestries, and the fire in the center of the mead-hall. Even the size of Meduseld is perfect. In reading Beowulf, it’s easy to imagine Heorot as a much, much larger hall than would have realistically been built. I gave the students permission to picture Beowulf exactly as the scene appears in The Two Towers, because Peter Jackson’s set designers did great research.
The second scene that I showed was the next one on the DVD, Theodred’s funeral. It is unlike Beowulf’s in that Beowulf was burned on a pyre before the remains were interred, but this scene gives a wonderful look at the type of burial mounds that dot England’s landscape. The most valuable part of this scene is Eowyn’s funeral dirge, which is written in correct Old English. The first line is almost exactly the same as one in Beowulf. This scene is perfect not just because it is the only source I have for a woman’s voice speaking Old English, but I suspect that Peter Jackson’s crew read Beowulf’s funeral scene. In Beowulf, a Geat woman sings in sorrow, “bunden-heorde.” This is the only scene where Eowyn wears her hair bound up (save the scene directly after, which is before a costume change). I could have taught the whole lecture on the influence of Beowulf on The Lord of the Rings.
I think the students enjoyed the lecture. They asked some great questions at the end, including whether the flowers on the graves were wildflowers or part of the burial ritual. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to teach them again, either as a guest or as a professor. For now, I’ll have to remain a freelance medievalist.
hēo hwā is lærestre and leornere