Primitivism and the Warrior

My major project for the next few weeks is to write and, with luck, complete an article on accommodating the recent spate of Beowulf films in teaching Anglo-Saxon literature. This involves tracking down the little that’s been written on the topic, learning a bit about film theory, limbering up my pedagogy-speak, sifting through some recent Beowulf scholarship for some important bits I’ll be using, and reviewing my own notes on the poem from grad school and several years’ teaching (my undergraduate notes on medieval literature were, mercifully, almost entirely destroyed in a house fire in 1998; this conveniently allows me to complain bitterly about losing all that hard work without the awkwardness of actually having to confront just how bad most of it was). It also involves re-viewing the six films that have been released in the last dozen years–and believe me, that’s going to be the hardest part of the whole project. I’ll undoubtedly be reviewing them here; pain shared, after all, is pain divided. Or sadism made manifest. Perhaps a miniseries is in order–can one write a miniseries on a blog?

Among the articles I’ve collected is Stephen T. Asma’s reflection on the 2007 Zemeckis Beowulf in the context of other releases of the same time (Snyder’s 300; the HBO Rome series) which seemed to be about unfettered (i.e., pre-Christian) masculinity. Asma’s point seems to be that modern interpretations of these stories are, inevitably, colored by contemporary masculinities–so that the Zemeckis Beowulf is defeated not by his own arrogance or the inevitability of senescence, but by a weakness of moral character. As Asma notes, the modern movie Beowulf is “basically a jerk, whose most sympathetic moment is when he finally realizes that he’s a jerk.” The article is rather brilliantly titled “Never Mind Grendel. Can Beowulf Conquer the 21st Century Guilt Trip?”1 and you can read it if you have a Chronicle of Higher Education subscription. There’s a lot of food for thought there, and in general I agree with Asma’s conclusions–particularly his point that this “Nietzschean version” of Beowulf is no more a construction than (and, in some ways, not all that different from) the Tolkien version that preceded it. I’ll have more to say about this when I get to the film.

In the meantime, I’m boiling a bit about the other “hit” I got when looking up Asma’s article on the Chronicle site—a letter responding to the article, titled “An Afterlife for Beowulf.” I could (and do) take exception to the author’s reading of the poem as a whole, but what got my dander up was, predictably, the apparently unintentional condescension toward medieval culture. In a short letter, the author manages to work in two descriptions of medieval culture and writers as “primitive”; given the context, it’s hard to imagine this was meant even in the problematic Victorian “noble savage” mode. The reference comes when the author, having already mentioned that his interest in Beowulf stems in the main from an interest in Tolkien and Seamus Heaney, posits that an “important theme [runs] through the story: The pre-Christian fixations on gold and reputation can be read as a primitive longing for something that does not die.” In the following paragraph, he echoes this statement: “In Beowulf we see, among many other things, a primitive warrior culture groping for something beyond this world.”

Look. I could spend all day going into detail about why this is not a useful comment, and enjoy myself thoroughly in the process. But in fact, shorn of its benighted adjectives, the point is entirely valid. Let’s try that first sentence again without the disdainful attitude: “The fixations on gold and reputation can be read as a longing for something that does not die.” This is, I think, a reading that most of us would be happy to have our students walk away from Beowulf with–not the final word, perhaps, but a reasonable and illuminating approach to understanding the text. One can even imagine turning this analysis around on moments such as Hrothgar’s farewell speech to Beowulf and the search for an “eternal” monument that does not rely on wealth or fame.

So why a primitive culture? Three possible responses leap to mind in response to this kind of thing (four, really, but since our own culture does not highly prize dueling with large axes, let’s stick with three). The first is to add this to the poisonous collected wordhord most medievalists nurture somewhere behind their bile ducts–the same heap where we keep Pulp Fiction’s sodomy, CNN’s descriptions of war zones, and anything by or about Jacob Burckhardt. The second is to make a lengthy and impassioned argument concerning the complexity of Anglo-Saxon (or late Roman, or Byzantine, or Abbasid Caliphate, or Carolingian, or Scandinavian, or Ethiopian) culture; this might perhaps include a few salient remarks about the comparative values implied by, say, Germanic feud culture and the modern American prison system.

The third option, of greater interest and probably more illuminating, is to consider whether contrasting the culture of Beowulf with our own is less useful than considering whether they’re all that different in the ways the author means. Let’s briefly investigate just what is being called “primitive” here:
The desire for fame? A 2009 survey2 showed that the top three dream careers of modern British children are Sports Star, Pop Star, and Actor.
The obsession with mortality and the possibility of immortality? Visit a cemetery sometime. Better yet, visit a cryogenics lab, or the Immortality Institute’s website.3
The question of (or desire for) life after death? Religious institutions still argue for this with some force, and a comfortable majority of Americans believe in some form of an afterlife.
The pursuit of wealth? I’ll forgo the dubious pleasures of laying bare the soul of modern capitalism, a task for which I am not professionally or temperamentally suited; I do, however, enjoy the minor irony that this letter was written early in 2008, just as the worldwide economy was about to crash down due to the unbridled pursuit of unearned riches. The dangers of the dragon’s den, indeed…

So the question is—does treating Beowulf as an artifact of a “primitive” culture demonstrate a lack of understanding of that culture, or a (possibly warranted) cynicism about our own?

All right, I’m off to re-watch the first of six Beowulf movies and take notes. Wish me luck…

~jpsexton

1 http://chronicle.com/article/Never-Mind-Grendel-Can/1974/
2 http://www.taylorherring.com/blog/index.php/tag/traditional-careers/
3 http://www.imminst.org/

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Filed under Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf, Pop Culture, Uncategorized

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