Beowulf, the Fisherman and Heroism
“A hero for soup, haha?”
aving discussed the theoretical framework within which meaningful questions can be asked about Beowulf and Grendel (2005), about a filmic adaptation as a commentary, it is time to ponder about the film itself. In the following posts, I am going to meditate about five scenes in which a commentary on the heroic code is made. The first post begins in medias res with the scene that introduces Beowulf with a fisherman discussing what it means to be a hero. This scene should provoke the viewer inasmuch as heroism is conceptualized and represented from a rather mundane and pragmatic point of view.
First let us watch the scene:
This scene with the fisherman consists of four parts. First, the fisherman occasions Beowulf’s introduction in the film after the latter has reached the seashore. The second part is a discussion about heroism when having supper. Third, during this evening discussion there is a flashback illustrating military heroism. The fourth part lies in the continuation of the discussion after the flashback. All these four parts rest on provoking the viewer and even frustrating their expectations in various ways.
The first part of the scene is a provocative game with the swimming contest in the “original.” Beowulf is introduced as emerging from the sea and arriving at the seashore. The viewer’s expectation when finding Beowulf in the sea and later inquiring about Breca is that this must be the swimming contest. Which expectation, however, is frustrated when it turns out that this is mere necessity: they did not intend to swim, but were hunting, got into a storm and had to swim on the open sea. This ironic play, winking at the viewer and frustrating their expectations creates a context in which the sea-monsters of the “original” turn into funny little eels hanging from Beowulf’s legs, indicating that here is no great matter.
The playful and ironic attitude to the original is further confirmed by the presentation of Beowulf. Beowulf is presented as an exhausted (half-lying, half-sitting on the ground), helpless (his legs are spread out, eels wriggle on his legs), as someone who needs information (does not know where he is) and even protection (the fisherman saves him from the eels), and as somebody who is not known, is not even recognized as a warrior hero. To foster this presentation the filmic narrator presents him from a strange perspective: the viewer looks at Beowulf from above, almost looks down on him, which ironic representation is even confirmed by placing the old man hierarchically above the main character. This perspective is corroborated by the mocking atmosphere of the dialogue. This is even more conspicuous when the fisherman calls the hero “Great Beowulf,” and it immediately undermines greatness with: “Great Beowulf, the what? Beowulf, the eel meal?” instead of a possibly expected “Beowulf, the hero!”
The first part is concluded with a cut preparing the way for the evening discussion about heroism. The cut itself is significant to the extant that the viewer is reminded of the passage of time, and implying that there may have been a long dialogue between the two characters but the narrator focalises on a particular theme. This focalisation plays the ironic game with the original insomuch as it counterpoints the first meal-scene, taking place in Heorot in the poem. In the “original” Beowulf first engages in discussion in a noble environment, in Heorot where he demonstrates and defends his heroism. In the filmic adaptation, the meal is eaten in an unheroic surrounding, there are no long speeches delivered but rather short and fast exchange of ideas. It also fosters the unheroic atmosphere as the vocabulary hits a rather low register, and also as the pronunciation is far from RP. Instead of an indoors scene, this is shot outdoors, there are panoramic long shots and there are close-ups to indicate the intimacy and honesty of the discussion.
In this context the Fisherman directly invites Beowulf to reflect on his heroism with the question: “So what’s it like to be a hero?” Before, however, letting Beowulf answer the question, he sets the tone of the reflection by naming it a “kind’o bloody madness.” Beowulf partly contradicts him by claiming: “In truth, I don’t get all that mad,” but at the same time partly accepts, i.e. does not refute explicitly the idea of madness, but only lessens it. This emblematic and down to earth meditation precisely foreshadows one of the leitmotifs of the film: in a realistic, down to earth manner, in mocking contexts there is no room for elevated and noble justification of killing people, but heroism can only surface as pure bloodshed. The rest of the answer is introduced with a close-up preparing the way to his mind to be disclosed in a flashback only for the viewer.
The third part of the scene is the flashback, a confession about military heroism. The scene on the one hand in harmony with the viewer’s expectation presents a fighting scene, a sword- and axe-play for approximately a minute during which Beowulf kills six men. During this fight there is war-like music in the background dominated with the drum. He really does not seem mad, but rather cold-headed in contrast with his opponents, who yell and groan constantly, while Beowulf remains silent and concentrated. On the other hand, however, the viewer is alienated from the action. First, the choreography is not complicated or artful, but rather focalises on pragmatism in the economy of killing people.. Second, the movement of the camera documents slaughter in an uninterested manner: there are no fast and interesting cuts, angles, but only a movement between showing entire bodies and occasionally Beowulf’s face. Third, the perspective is suffocatingly small, what is shown is just the usage of sword and axe, but we are not allowed to look around. This lack of perspectivity signifies the lack of explanation why this manslaughter takes place, i.e. there is no explanation and introduction to the fight, and there is no description of what follows from this victory. It is not clear whether this is a battle, (but then where are Beowulf’s companions?), or this is just self-defence, or the very end of a battle or only a domestic affair. This lack of explanation confirms rather the Fisherman’s understanding of the basics of military heroism, especially because Beowulf’s opponents rather seem weak and clumsy beginners than mighty opponents who present challenge to Beowulf.
Other problematic issues concern the costumes and the references to filmic traditions. The hero and the enemies are dressed up in the same type of clothes, which implies that they, Beowulf and the nameless warriors are rather identical than different, which also undermines the nobility of heroism. This democratic representation places the scene silently in a comic tradition, especially with the over-realism as far as blood is concerned. In a fighting scene like this the gushing of blood may enhance the horror of the hand-to-hand combat, but this is avoided here. One can hardly see blood, maybe bloodstains, but nothing else. This is the most conspicuous in the last case, killing the last foe, when there is a head severed and it rolls on the ground with only patches of blood, and to make the horror stranger, the decapitated body takes two more steps and then falls down reminding the viewer of King Arthur’s fight with the black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). To heighten the bitter comic effect, music is silenced when the headless body takes his last steps, and the viewer listens to the sounds of stumbling and the sword hitting the ground. The lack of music together with these noises leads the viewer back to the profane comic madness of the manslaughter. All these elements make this flashback rather melodramatic, senseless than heroic.
The last, i.e. fourth part of the scene directs the viewer's attention back to mundane reality. The Fisherman displays again his practical wisdom. Without words after some telling nods, he harmonizes the great and the everyday in a complex manner in his first remark: “So a hero!, A hero for soup, haha?” This remark does not only juxtapose heroism and a bowl of soup, but also displays the honour of hosting the stranger by calling him a “hero.” This is further emphasized with his humbleness when Beowulf acknowledges that he is in the fisherman’s debt, and he reacts “And I’m in the fish’s” meaning that he owes his living to the fish and he respects them for this without reducing them to a means of living. It is also clear that his respect to the fish surfaces in that he does not think that just because he caught the fish, he may own them, but he is ready to share it with someone who is in need. At this point, when the Fisherman confesses his indebtedness to the fish, romantic violin music underscores the honesty and even nobility of the statement. The respect to the stranger and to the fish gains further significance later when it turns out that the whole gigantic problematics with Grendel is related to fish and handling the stranger.