Monthly Archives: November 2007

Tolkien and Beowulf … in 3D

I let my son persuade me to take him to see Beowulf this weekend, and truth be told I didn’t need too much persuading when I found out that Neil Gaiman was involved with the screenplay. I’m not going to talk much about the technical aspects of the film, except that it reminded me of how my father told me a long time ago that one day computer animation would be used to make movies with lifelike people. I thought he was mad — this was over twenty years ago, we’d barely moved from Pong to Pacman (perhaps I exaggerate), and at my house we owned a Commodore 64. Some might say we haven’t quite reached the “lifelike” part, but we’re closer than I could have imagined then.

What interests me is the story. As someone who often teaches Beowulf, the poem, I was curious to see how it might be translated to film. I don’t find it an easy poem. A rare remnant of a lost cultural world, it points outward to so many vanished histories and tales that it feels incomplete. Its narrative seems episodic; the scenes with Grendel and his mother are disconnected from the final battle with the dragon. How would modern audiences respond? The first thing that struck me was that what has prepared audiences to appreciate this film is seeing JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series brought to the screen. Visualizing the world of the Rohirrim will allow audiences to accept the world of Heorot, of the Danes, Geats, and Frisians. And this is no accident since Tolkien’s Middle Earth was itself an attempt to work backwards from scraps found in Anglo-Saxon literature to a half-forgotten earlier world of elves, dwarves, and dragons that he found in elliptical and opaque fragments of ancient European literatures.

The movie is in dialogue with the poem; it purports to be the “true” story of Beowulf which the poem distorts with heroic praise. But it is a fantastical vision of truth. This is a very different Beowulf than the one we saw in The Thirteenth Warrior, the 1999 movie version of Michael Crichton’s very clever Eaters of the Dead, both of which attempt to rationalize the monsters, to give them a scientific or historical explanation, albeit in different ways. No, in this Beowulf the monsters are really real, and in this claim, I believe its authors are true to Tolkien’s vision.

Its authors are especially to be praised for the ethical question that is raised by these really real monsters, a question that is implicit in The Lord of the Rings and in almost every good guy/bad guy fantasy novel and movie, namely, what makes the good guys good and the bad guys bad, other than the fact that we are rooting for one side rather than the other? Why are Grendel and his mother bad and Beowulf good? Both sides live for violence and treasure, and attempt to kill and destroy the other. One could argue that Grendel attacks first, but his mother would probably counter that her kind lived in Denmark long before humans arrived, and since they have been hunted almost to extinction, they are the real victims. Beowulf, the character in the movie, recognizes this dilemma after the monsters are vanquished and he is at the height of his heroic reputation when he says, “We have become the monsters. There are no heroes anymore.” In a nation grappling with waterboarding and Abu Ghraib, it may be hoped this message will have resonance.

What I’m reading now

Steven Brust, The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.

I have to admit that my interests in the fantasy genre are both specific and narrow, hovering mostly in the fairy tale end of the fantasy spectrum and branching no further afield than Charles de Lint. I started as a child with Czech folk and fairy tales, like those collected by Karel Capek, moving through Andrew Lang’s rainbow as I grew older. But I forgot about them as I entered the dull slog of adolescence — we’re too old for fairy stories, right? — until I fell upon the Fairy Tale Series edited by Terri Windling when I was in graduate school. I pounce on each one the moment I see it and I have read most in the series by now. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin will probably always be my favourite, but there was one that proved elusive, Steven Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, which was also the first in the series. I finally read it this weekend.

At first glance, apart from the Hungarian folk tale about how the gypsy Csucskári killed three dragons and rescued the sun, the moon and the stars that is told in stages throughout the book, it is hard to see why this novel belongs in the series. On the surface it is a story of five struggling artists sharing a studio as told by Greg, one of their number. By the end of the book, it looks like the five are going to put on a show, and Greg has finished a very large painting. Explicitly, it is a book about the creative process and Greg’s musings on the subject are as valid for writers as they are for artists. There is more to be learned about the craft of writing from this novel than from many a how-to book.

But it isn’t a book about every kind of artistic creation, whether in words or oils, and here’s where the fairy tale comes in. It is a book that argues for myth-making, mythopoeia, a genre far less in vogue when Brust published his novel in 1986 than it is now, in our Harry Potter, LotR world. Greg isn’t just painting any old thing; he’s painting the death of Uranus, the old god, at the hands of Apollo of the Sun and Artemis of the Moon, a tale that mirrors the folk story of Csucskári that comes from Greg’s Hungarian background. Brust shows how the real life struggles of his five artists gain life and expression through the myths of tale and image.

What I’m reading now

Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games.

Did you know that English literature as an academic discipline was invented in colonial India?

While schooboys in Britain were still having Latin and Greek beaten into their backsides, in British India the locals were being taught the classics of English literature, as a way to create a class of people with an appreciation for the culture of their northern rulers. And could this be the reason that two of the best examples of novels that promise to become classics of our time were written by people named Vikram? For I think the least interesting point of comparison between Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Chandra’s Sacred Games is their common Indian setting since the plots that unfold in each are so different. Much more interesting is the way they both felt like classics the moment I started reading them. By classics I mean novels that are widely popular in their own day and have the quality of writing, depth of theme, and breadth of vision to speak to each generation anew. I fully expect Sacred Games to be read by my great-grandchildren. I think a conscious or unconscious awareness of this kind of enduring appeal is what has earned the novels of these Vikrams comparisons to Tolstoy and Dickens, more than their intricate plots or their length.

Yes, I liked this book. And I would love to see it made into a movie, which is a first for me since I shun movies made from books I love. In fact, I’d like to see it filmed three different times. The first should be a big Hollywood blockbuster, fast-paced and dramatic. The second should be a meticulous BBC production in many, many parts so every scene and every line of dialogue of Chandra’s could be lovingly represented and we could savour it over months. And the last, of course, is a big, splashy Bollywood number with an intermission, and songs and dancing, and tragedy and despair, followed by love and a happy ending and everyone in the audience, men and women, crying.