Returning Beowulf To Its Pagan Roots

The very first film adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon classic Beowulf has just hit theatres in Canada, Iceland, and the UK. The film “Beowulf and Grendel” stars Gerard Butler as Beowulf and Stellan Skarsgard as King Hrothgar, the picture is directed by Sturla Gunnarsson.


Film still from “Beowulf and Grendel”

Maclean’s magazine takes a look at the Beowulf phenomena (a computer animated and opera version are also on the way) and Gunnarsson’s attempt to capture an authentically pagan Beowulf.

“Gunnarsson’s movie tries to strip this sixth-century tale of a Scandinavian hero down to its pagan roots…The director says he wanted to tear down the Christian scrim through which the poet filtered Norse sagas. “Beowulf is a western hero,” he says. “Buddy rides into town, slays the evil-doers and rides into the sunset. But when you look at the sagas, you find a more ambiguous morality. It’s not monotheistic. The heroes are flawed and the villains are interesting.” The movie even invents a character to represent Beowulf’s author — a crazed Irish priest who bewilders the locals with talk of Christ and Cain. As for the profanity, it may sound modern, but Gunnarsson points out that those four-letter words are among the oldest in the English language.”

Andrew Berzins who wrote the film adaptation had this to say about his attempt to get to the essential nature of Beowulf.

“…there is the fact that this story is not written down by a “pagan” Dane at the time of the purported events. It is written several hundred years later by a Christian Anglo-Saxon ? someone removed in time, in language, in bias, in culture, and in religion from the characters about which he writes. And even those characters and story elements he’s working with have been passed down to him likely in oral form. Anyone who’s played “telephone” knows what sort of fidelity emerges from that. So what are we true to? The bones of the story. The horror. The beauty. The doom? the weird. If the Beowulf poet rolls over in his grave, I’m trusting it’ll just be to get a better view of the screen.”

The visuals of the film are stunning (the entire film was shot in Iceland) and the trailer for the film is leaving me wanting much more. Sadly there is no American distribution as of yet, but hopefully that will happen soon. Could this film be the Pagan epic film of 2006? With this plus the Mel Gibson produced Boudicca epic “Warrior” and the Frank Miller inspired “300” (about the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae) scheduled for 2006 it could be a good year for Pagan-friendly epic films.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Freyja’s Valkyrie

    My very favorite Beowulf “re-telling” done in film. The Icelandic scenery is stunning. The scene where the ship comes into “Denmark” is incredible. Nice to see all the Icelandic horses zipping along with their unique “tolt” gait. My only complaint? I would have stuck to realism & wish someone would portray poor Grendel’s mother as other than a monster.