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"The newest possible technology to tell the oldest story in the English language":1 Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary's Beowulf

Beowulf manuscript from British LibraryJust over a thousand years ago, very close to the year AD 1000, two men began to write down a story about the legendary deeds of a long-vanished hero called Beowulf. Both had been well-schooled in the difficult art of penmanship, though the one who started the story, perhaps a younger man, seemed to have trained on the continent and wrote in a fancy new style of script that was to become widely fashionable in the early eleventh century.

After writing two thirds of the story - a task that must have taken weeks and weeks of intense, hand-cramping labour - this man suddenly stopped mid-sentence. Whether he was set to work on a new, more important commission, banished from the scriptorium by a superior for bad behaviour, took ill, or even died at his desk... no-one knows. Perhaps the dragon, who had just entered the story a few lines before, leapt from the page and took him to a land 'beyond the grey stone'.2

But a colleague, a co-writer, took up the unfinished task. In slightly blockier, less graceful handwriting, a style that in fact had been popular during the last decades of the tenth century, this man methodically went back over his collaborator’s work, making small changes (he preferred to call the hero 'Biowulf', for instance), and finished the story to its end. To scholars these men are known, somewhat prosaically, as Scribe A and Scribe B. If it were not for them and their work, we would know nothing of the feats of Beowulf; their manuscript was the only copy of his story to survive from the Middle Ages. And that only narrowly escape complete destruction when, in 1731, it was thrown, its singed pages curling at the edges, out of a first-floor window to save it from the raging inferno of dragon-fire that had broken out in the library where it was kept.

Why did A & B decide to re-tell the story at the precise moment in history that they did, close to the year 1000? Some have thought that they feared an impending Apocalypse, intensified by the passing of a millennium since Christ's birth.3 After all, the poem ends with a dragon and forebodings of doom, and Grendel certainly has more than a touch of the Antichrist about him. Others think it was part of an urgent need to define English identity at a time when large parts of England were settled by Scandinavians, and when continental kings and rulers sometimes cast a covetous eye at the English throne.4

What is clear is that A and B weren’t inventing the story from scratch, but re-telling and re-purposing stories that may have been eddying and swirling around the character of Beowulf for as long as five hundred years, and perhaps before the technology of pen and ink was known to the English.5

Beowulf film titleNor was theirs the last telling of Beowulf's story. Far from it. Almost exactly a millennium later, in 1997 to be precise, Neil Gaiman would begin drafting a new version of this tale, a film-script in collaboration with the writer Roger Avary. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the Gaiman-Avary Beowulf was released in 2007, a date that might plausibly have been the exact millennial anniversary of A and B's manuscript Beowulf. This film was only the second ever to have been filmed completely using performance capture technology, and the first to use a newly designed version of that technology; it was, as Gaiman put it, 'the newest possible technology to tell the oldest story in the English language'. Once again, Beowulf found himself at the cutting edge.

What, then, are the themes and preoccupations of Beowulf in the new millennium? In the Gaiman-Avary film we see a hero who openly lies to his people. We see the blurring of good and evil. The monsters in this new Beowulf, do not live 'out there' in the wilderness; they are born from within. Gaiman and Avary show us corrupt leaders who sometimes put their own interests before those of their people. We see a world in which there is much anxiety about the future – an uncertain future created by the self-gratification of our own desires. In short, we see a very twenty-first century Beowulf.

Scribes A and B were, in their own way, a Gaiman and Avary of 'The Dark Ages', part of a long line of people who tasked themselves with the re-telling of this story. And Gaiman and Avary are not merely adaptors of an 'original', but two of the story's 'shapers'.6 Beowulf was always on the move; we simply do not know what an 'original' Beowulf looked like. Each generation is responsible for changing the story in its own way and for its own reasons. What will the next iteration look like? Who can say?

Five (of many!) differences between the film and the poem: (Spoiler alert!)

  1. In the poem we are told that the monster Grendel is descended from Cain, the biblical brother-slayer. In the film we are told that Grendel is descended from... Hrothgar!
  2. In the film, after Beowulf defeats Grendel he remains in Denmark, becomes King, and later fights the dragon there. In the poem Beowulf returns to his homeland of Geatland (in modern-day Sweden).
  3. In the film Beowulf marries Wealtheow, the Queen of Denmark, after Hrothgar's death. In the poem we are not told what happens to Wealtheow later, or whom Beowulf marries (though he never has a son).
  4. In the film, and once Beowulf is King, we hear a poet reciting a part of the Old English poem which describes the fight with Grendel (from the section at lines 760-812). Because of the way the film has told the story, this 'official' version is now seen to be untrue. The poet tells us that one of Hrothgar's men began to compose a poem about Beowulf's deeds on the way back from Grendel’s lake, but the story he actually tells is about Sigemund the dragonslayer, not Beowulf.
  5. At the end of the film Beowulf is given a 'pagan' ship burial, and pushed out to sea by his mourners. In the poem a funeral like this happens at the very start, to a character named Scyld, who is a shadowy ancestor of Hrothgar. Beowulf is instead buried in a funeral mound which can be seen by passing ships.

Download our Beowulf Discussion Questions (Word, 15 KB).

  1. Neil Gaiman in interview for Movieweb, uploaded 17 September 2010:
  2. In Old English poetry 'the grey stone' appears to have served as a boundary marker between the normal world and the world of myth and monsters. When we are told that someone crosses ofer harne stan ('beyond the grey stone'), or that something happens under harne stan ('beneath the grey stone') it normally means something dangerous or bad is about to happen...
  3. Or death: there wasn't absolute agreement among medieval scholars about when to start counting The Book of Revelation's thousand-year period.
  4. Almost three hundred years earlier the writer Bede had written that the ancestors of the English consisted of three ancient tribes of boat-borne migrants who had crossed the North Sea to enter Britannia: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. There is some evidence that Bede's Jutes later became confused with Beowulf's people, the Geats (pronounced 'yaahts'), so that the poem might have been understood as the origin myth for the mysterious third tribe of the ancestral English. This idea has recently been re-explored by John Niles in his book Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts (2007). Other details that might link Beowulf with an origin myth for English identity: our poem also mentions in passing one 'Hengest', the same name, according to Bede, of one of the leaders of the three original English tribes; and according to some Scandinavian sources, the wife of the Danish King Hrothgar (who is called 'Wealtheow' in our poem) is said to have been English.
  5. The one datable historic event mentioned in the poem – the death in battle of Beowulf's King Hygelac in Frisia, which is now part of the Netherlands – took place, according to the writer Gregory of Tours, in or very near to the year AD 521. The traditional date for the coming of literary to the English is AD 597, when St Augustine's mission arrived from Rome.
  6. The word for a poet in Old English was scop (pronounced 'shop') and which most scholars think meant a 'shaper of words'.