Beowulf as Bildungsroman
June 17, 2007 § Leave a comment
The NY Times has a fairly new section on book reviews for the “young adult” set. I have only of late begun to take more of an interest in books for youth and the marketing campaigns and critical conversations that accompany their release.
The Times offers an overview of recent adaptations of Beowulf in the Sunday Review, and both the range of new versions of the text and the commentary on them are telling. Two extremes prevail. The frighteningly historic-sounding Beowulf is tempered immediately by McGrath’s reassurances that this 3000-line epic poem is really just a damn good blood and guts yarn. Right off, there are the more predictable allusions to the hybridity of “Christian” and “pagan” themes (a hit with ultra-suburbanites negotiating their way around secular malaise and consumerism) ; the “first significant text written in [what will become] English; and so forth. Slightly more interesting (and seemingly un-self-reflexively so) are the boundaries set forth demarcating the jouissance of youth and the epic “elemental” tale. The first group reviewed fits neatly into the new parenting cult of “visceral” transparency. McGrath moves comfortably from images of underwater sword fights, the slowed-down-by-gutters violence of comic strip superhero battles, comparisons to the “dripping” monster in Alien, and, finally, to how all this surfaces as a spectrum of experience intimately related to the beginnings of language: “visceral as the Old English, which was consciously onomatopoeic.” On the other hand, we have Janice Rumford’s edition, which according to McGrath, is decidedly more quiet and “realistic” – in this case, more conspicuously old school bourgeois (“…attention to domestic details of the Danish court – pets, houses, the fire pit the king sits at.”).
Somewhere in all this is a connection to an earlier article in the LA Times charting the decline of audiences willing to pay for the Hollywood horror formula. The article speculates that waning interest in the film horror genre is just a typical slump explained by audience saturation. There is some caution in a lament over the possibility that we have a reached a kind of limit to spectral violence: Over and over again, people are breaking the boundaries of the body, hurting people, chopping people up, ravaging people…. For things to be truly scary, we’re going to have to find new boundaries to tread on.”
Beowulf for the young is a promising trend, but McGrath’s subject matter seems stymied by a rhetorical scene of medieval visceral, “elemental” ooze, and the saturated subject of suburban greed gone wild. What Beowulf can bring to all this is that tremendously complex look at boundaries and bodies re-constituting themselves at every turn. Does it take tearing the bourgeois subject every which way asunder before we make room for something other than the premodern elemental ooze as a counterpoint to the right of violence? Can Beowulf for the younger set stimulate interest in the violence “in” rather than the violence “of”….SHMUMPF! (Beowulf finds himself in the gutter between State and Non-State, Grendel happy for some company).
My favorite line in McGrath’s piece comes from Janice Rumford’s forthcoming rendition, “a deep wound now opened up on Grendel’s shoulder and widened. The sinews were bursting, the arm bones loosening. There was only one way out. The ogre tore himself free and ran one-armed into the night!”
Some exit strategy; Disney’s Shrek married to the allegory, War in Iraq.