Beowulf manuscript from the Nowell Codex
Earliest known manuscript


Poem, c.700
approx. 30,000 words
On Greatest lists
Notable lines
First lines

We have heard of the thieving of the throne of Denmark,
how the folk-kings flourished in former days,
how those royal athelings earned that glory.

trans. Michael Alexander

Great lines

His misery leaped
The seas, was told and sung in all
Men's ears.

trans. Howell D. Chickering, Jr.

And then, in the morning, this mead-hall glittering
With new light would be drenched with blood, the benches
Stained red, the floors, all wet from that fiend's
Savage assault-and my soldiers would be fewer
Still death taking more and more.

trans. Howell D. Chickering, Jr.

Hanging high
From the rafters where Beowulf had hung it, was
the monster's
Arm, claw, and shoulder and all.

trans. Howell D. Chickering, Jr.

For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end.

trans. Seamus Heaney

Last lines

...they said that he was of all the world's kings
the gentlest of men, and the most gracious,
the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.

trans. Michael Alexander

Beowulf scene 1999

The monster has the hero Christopher Lambert by the neck in the first Beowulf film.


1999, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2007

A medieval monster for modern movie-goers

For some reason Hollywood producers have never engaged in bidding wars to adapt epic Old English poetry for the silver screen.

More strangely, they suddenly seemed to catch on in the dying years of the twentieth century that the old English poem Beowulf might offer some engaging plots for modern audiences.

The classic themes and characters had already been showing up in popular culture regularly. A 1990s episode of Star Trek: Voyager, for example, replayed the story with a holographic Grendel and a phaser-equipped hero.

When the movies got around to full treatments of Beowulf though, it was with mixed results, to say the least, usually recasting the characters, setting and themes to fit current genres of action, science fiction, fantasy or horror films—sometimes all at once.

B-movie horror

Beowulf (1999): Director Graham Baker; writer Mark Leahy; featuring Christopher Lambert, Rhona Mitry, Oliver Cotton

The first English-language film to call itself "Beowulf" is one of the worst offenders. The 1999 film Beowulf, starring Christopher Lambert in the title role, is more a horror-cum-action-cum-scifi flick than a retelling of the Anglo-Saxon classic.

Beowulf scene 1999

Lambert's Beowulf as scifi hero

Nonetheless, it's actually a diverting B-movie, once you stop expecting anything particularly meaningful—or anything to do with the original story.

The time period has been moved up to...well, I'm not sure exactly when. The setting seems to be some kind of future post-apocalyptic world in which medieval knights slug it out with swords and maces—when they're not using power tools to hone those instruments and intercom systems to communicate in their stone castles. (To be fair though, is this any worse than the Star Wars scifi world in which our futuristic heroes have mastered laser technology and shape it into swords for hand-to-hand combat?)

Lambert's Beowulf is a knight errant who arrives at the castle where the monster Grendel is killing folks off each night. And why don't they leave? Because the fort is under siege by other soldiers who don't want the monster to escape and therefore they kill everyone who tries to get out. Okay, so logic is not a strong point in this movie's favour.

Beowulf it seems is fated to confront the beast. He's half-god, half-man, with a shameful past requiring him to redeem himself by roaming the world on horseback with his cool crossbow, looking for evil to confront. When he finds it, he backflips all over the place until he's in position to stab the beast. The drawn-out battle scenes seem the raison d'être of the movie. That and chances to stare at the exposed chest of co-star Rhona Mitra (better known from TV's Boston Legal).

Several subplots involve secondary characters, but they never get in the way of the main action. At one point the beast massacres every non-combatant woman and child in the castle, a horrendous bloodbath of the innocent, which makes for an emotional impact...lasting about three seconds. Then it's entirely forgotten as attention is turned back to the hero's impending showdown with the monster.

Trailer for Beowulf as a horse-riding action hero.

At one point I thought the film was going to take off into an interesting psychological direction, speculating the monster was created by the mind of man—or the mind of one man in particular. But, alas, I was reading too much into it. Reading does that to you.

And, oh yes, the monster has a vengeful mother just as in the poem. Another battle. Some more backflipping and some more not-bad CGI special effects.

— Eric

1999, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2007


Anonymous author of Beowulf


On Amazon:

Beowulf, trans. Heaney

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