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Beowulf

Beowulf

We can overlook the strange nature of the alien creatures who ride horses and terrorize the northern community that stands in for the Danes terrorized by Grendel in the Anglo-Saxon epic. The important issue is that the people over whom Hrothgar (played by Sven Wollter) is king are helpless, their community effectively defenseless. The arrival of Buliwyf (the stand-in for Beowulf) and his crew, twelve in all plus the thirteenth, the Arab Ahmahd ibn Fahdalan (played by Antonio Banderas) is a hope-filled event as the new arrivals go about refortifying Hrothgar's town in anticipation of an attack by the formidable aliens, who wear bear-skin costumes but who are not charmed against weapons and courage (Grendel in the epic is charmed against weapons.).

A number of odd changes have occurred in the shifts from poem to novel to movie. Beowulf's eventual comrade in need, Wiglaf, becomes Wigliff in the movie, Hrothgar's son and sarcastic challenger in the hall when Buliwyf and his company enter. He takes over the function played out by Unferth in the poem, a Wendel unrelated by blood to Hrothgar (as far as we know). In the movie, Wigliff's verbal challenge is nicely met but he continues to plot, eventually finding his champion tricked into facing Buliwyf's deceptively able champion, who triumphs. That killing presumably ends the court intrigue, freeing Buliwylf and his crew for their most dire of tasks: raiding the aliens' home base and killing their deep-cave dwelling voodoo earth mother (who is a nice touch, actually--a parallel for Grendel's mother in her underwater cave).

The ibn Fadlan character brings a cultural mix to the story, given that he has to learn the Vikings' language and try to understand their barbaric but finally worthy values of courage and stoicism. This too differs from the Anglo-Saxon epic, in which all the central groups involved--the Danes, the Swedes and the Geats--essentially share the same culture of warrior and communal values. One can easily multiply such observations about matters large and small into an impressive list of annoying differences. But given all of that, could this movie still perform a classroom service for those of us trying to expand interest in the early literature, language and culture of northern peoples? If not much is asked of the movie, I think it will serve. In relation to Beowulf, for example, the great hall, Heorot, is impressive; the characterization of the...

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