“In off the moors, down through the mist bands/ God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.” (Beowulf. Seamus Heaney, trans. 710-1)
I have seen many adaptations of Beowulf, from art house films like Beowulf and Grendel and low-budget science fiction like Christopher Lambert’s Beowulf of the future to Neil Gaiman’s Beowulf and its rotoscopery and The Thirteenth Warrior‘s stealth adaptation.
There are a multitude of crappinesses that could be named in each of these, but all stem from the same misapprehension. And it was through reading Gareth Hinds‘ Beowulf graphic novel (Candlewick, 2007) that I realized what it was and why Beowulf has been adapted so badly so many times. In contemporary terms, Beowulf is not fantasy, historical drama or even barbarian adventure. Beowulf is a horror story.
Hinds initially self-published his Beowulf in three books, using Francis Grummere’s 1910 translation for the text. Candlewick’s trade paperback uses A.J. Church’s more prosaic 1918 translation. Instead of using dialog balloons or expository boxes, Hinds frequently blocks off sections of this text and then elaborates on it through his art in separate panels. The result is more like a picture book than a standard comic, but it also creates a sense of immediacy, a sense that there is no barrier between the reader and the story depicted in Hinds’ art.
And being faithful to the text has allowed Hinds to open up with his art, his astonishing art. Each book is illustrated with different materials. Book 1: With Grimmest Gripe, tells the story of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel in a pen and ink style reminiscent of Art Nouveau national epics, but nervous, edgy Art Nouveau with the romance undercut. Book 2: Gear of War portrays Grendel’s mother’s revenge in luminous and ethereal paint on board. Book 3: Doom of Glory renders Beowulf’s death in black and white, ink and charcoal. (In keeping with Nordic Fatalism, a spoiler alert hardly seems required). Angular panels and fractured frames make the action desperate and dynamic. They also make the books sometimes read like annals gone askew, as if the violence, terror and doom can no longer be tidily contained.
Beowulf is often presented as epic fantasy or as historical drama. Sometimes it’s adapted as a Viking or barbarian adventure, which is probably why, in comics, Beowulf so often appears as a generic Viking/barbarian who could be comfortable anywhere from Gail Simone’s Wonder Woman to, say, Sakaar, the swords and science planet of Planet Hulk.* But it’s also been presented as serious, respectable art house drama—Beowulf and Grendel—where filmmakers and viewers generally avoid perceived genre elements like Vikings and literal monsters and prefer more complicated motivations than the ultimate fatalistic reason for killing a monster, “because it is evil.” But somehow these adaptations, while often entertaining or interesting, never feel like Beowulf to me. Hinds work does—and I don’t think it’s only because he uses the poem for his text.
Hinds’ art does not portray Beowulf as fantasy or historical drama, let alone as a barbarian adventure, which leads me back to horrror. Horror stories are often simple, but resonant. They gel nicely with other simple narratives, especially ones based in morality and struggle like Westerns, which I’ve written a little about before.* In fact the ground often covered in horror now was once covered—at least in the West—in things like morality plays and tragedy. I should note that Hinds says in an excellent interview with Sequential Tart that he considers his adaptation a superhero story without the spandex. But for me, in Hinds’ telling, the darkness, the inexorability of fate and the struggle against evil in Beowulf come through as horror.
In fact, Beowulf might be a slasher story. Well, maybe not all of it, but Beowulf among the Danes at Hrothgar’s mead hall, Heorot, is. There’s a killer outside, accidentally summoned, and he’s watching. Grendel evokes something from our own time—Friday the Thirteenth‘s Jason Voorhees in the woods, Halloween‘s Michael Myers on the edge of suburbia. Or maybe it goes the other way, and they evoke Grendel, the monster outside looking in.
“Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, / nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him / to hear the din of the loud banquet / every day in the hall[.]”(85-89)
Grendel’s murderous irritation with feasting in Heorot isn’t all that different from Michael Myer’s irritation with suburban teenagers having fun in Halloween, Jason Voorhees’ irritation with teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake.
There’s something “spurned and joyless” (720) out there and it resents our fun. It has for a long time. And now it’s in the house. Kill it and in the sequel it, or something worse, comes to take revenge. If Grendel’s mother stars in the sequel, Book 2: Gear of War, then I guess Beowulf’s the final girl, the woman or girl who survives and fights the killer when so many others have died.
*I should emphasize here that I don’t meant that the narrative structures or the execution of the narratives are simplistic or even simple themselves.
Carol Borden likes Grendel more than you’d think. Just ask her sometime about her theory that Grendel and Boo Radley are brothers. She’d also like to thank David Ferris for his conversations about Beowulf.