Everyone who took 12th-grade English knows the story of Beowulf.
When I entered my first class of English Literature, Mrs. Gane told the class, “Yes, I’m Grendel’s mother.” We had no idea who she meant, but by end of the first six weeks, we did.
Robert Zemeckis directs the new motion-capture animation film, “Beowulf,” which follows the story of the epic poem of the same name. We know that Beowulf (Ray Winstone) slays the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) and then battles Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie), but the film develops the story.
Drunken king Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) builds a huge mead hall to celebrate his greatness through carnal pursuits. The nightly abandon, however, antagonizes a creature, Grendel, that dwells below. Grendel is tormented by the merry making and comes to stop the noise by terrorizing any who would enter. He kills many in a display of power and horror.
Enter Beowulf, who journeys from across the sea and declares he will kill the monster. In a mighty battle, he sends the monster down to his mother, mortally wounded. She vows vengeance, which sends Beowulf to face her in her lair.
Beowulf does not vanquish the mother, but instead lies with her and gives her a new son. In exchange, Beowulf is given the kingdom and throne.
As the years pass, so does the age of the warrior hero. Beowulf becomes an old man, a memory of his former self. Though his story is still told, the former glory is not as satisfying.
What makes “Beowulf” interesting is not the story, which is familiar, but the subtext of the story. At the beginning of the film, we overhear a conversation in which Unferth (John Malkovich) speaks of the Roman God, Christ. He speaks of belief in only one God, which sounds strange. Christianity lurks in the background.
When the monster Grendel first attacks, Unferth is told to give sacrifice to the gods. He asks if sacrifice should be given to the new Roman God, but is told by Hrothgar that the gods will only help as much as men are willing to do for themselves. This is a key theological thought.
Later, Beowulf laments that the Christ has taken all the glory for those who would fight to gain it. He says that all glory now goes to those who would fall down and martyr themselves. The spread of Christianity thus changes his world forever; now, those who submit are great, not those who act and battle.
“Beowulf” offers a view of the world where Christianity is new, but that newness is more threat than promise.
The script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary sees Christianity as a cause of concern for the world, in which the sword used to conquer all. A world in which a cross conquers is not cause for celebration, but for lament, in “Beowulf.” Power no longer resides in the will of the hero.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary
Cast: Beowulf: Ray Winstone; Hrothgar: Anthony Hopkins; Unferth: John Malkovich; Grendel: Crispin Glover; Grendel’s mother: Angelina Jolie; Wealthow: Robin Wright Penn; Wiglaf: Brendan Gleeson.