Sunday, November 25, 2007

Beowulf Retold

Beowulf is the oldest epic poem in the English language. Dated around 700 AD, it is the source from which most of the Western mythology and ‘heroes’ stories originate. The epic starts in Denmark. King Hrothgar’s palace (mead hall) named Heorot was under nightly attacks by a monster called Grendel for 12 years. Grendel attacked them every night and carried off his warriors as food. Beowulf, a prince of the Geats of southern Sweden arrived with a small band of warriors to aid King Hrothgar. That night Beowulf engaged Grendel in fierce hand to hand combat. Grendel could not match the strength of Beowulf, was mortally injured and escaped by tearing off his arm. The next day was a day of rejoicing. However that night, Heorot was attacked by Grendel’s mother. The next morning, Beowulf tracked her to her cave and killed her, bringing back to King Hrothgar, Grendel’s head.

In second part of the epic, Beowulf returned home to King Hygelac. After the death of the king and his son, Beowulf succeeded to the throne and ruled for 50 years. The country was attacked by a fire-breathing dragon. An aged Beowulf fought the dragon, finally killing it with the loss of his own life. The epic ends with his funereal rites and lament. Unlike most early epics, Beowulf is an altruistic hero. Most scholars agree that the epic was gradually infused with Christian symbolism as the monks duplicated the manuscript. Some scholars regard the epic as a Christian allegory; as a battle between good and evil. It is significant that Beowulf’s three battles are not against man but against a monster, an evil demon, and a destroyer of civilization. His sacrificial death is the fulfillment of a hero’s life.

In the movie, Beowulf (2007), screenwriter Avery and Gaiman went beyond the epic to show us a very different portrait of Beowulf. Their Beowulf was not the altruistic hero of the epic but a flawed human being. He was a fighter with an appetite for glory, land, gold, women and be immortalized in songs by their bards. He enjoyed the stories being told about him and was not above embellishing some details to make himself look better. In the movie, after killing Grendel and in turn attacked by Grendel’s mother, Beowulf tracked her to her cave. There instead of killing her, he was seduced by her promise of a kingdom, land, gold, women and invincibility in return for impregnating her. This sin will come back to plague him. The movie continued with Grendel’s mother fulfilling her part of the bargain. Beowulf became king.

The kingship, glory, land, gold, women and invincibility became wearisome as King Beowulf soon discovered. He was constantly in battle with those who wanted to kill him and thus become legend themselves. Then the country was attacked by a dragon which turned out to be his son (by Grendel’s mother). Beowulf succeeded in killing the dragon by sacrificing his life. It was interesting how Avery and Gaiman turned the epic story about good versus evil to an examination of personal sin and its consequences.

Beowulf was led down the path of self destruction by his pride. Thus he was unable to resist the temptations of kingship, lands, gold, women, invincibility and celebrity. By his Faustian pact with Grendel’s mother, he laid the seed for his own self destruction. He sold his soul for worldly success. A small sin grew into a big one. Beowulf redeemed himself in his final act of self sacrifice to save those he loved.

This movie version of Beowulf reminds me of another action hero in the Bible- Samson (Judges 13-16). Samson was proud, and arrogant about his great strength. Thus he was unable to resist the temptations of beautiful Philistine women and wealth. He sinned by marrying them thus breaking the Mosaic Law. The consequences of his sin was that he was blinded and chained like an animal. His redemption came when he sacrificed himself by pulling down Dagon’s temple, killing himself and many Philistines. In spite of his flawed nature, Samson is considered a Judge and a leader of the Israelites. Beowulf and Samson revealed a flawed humanity, prone to pride and sin. Before we are too quick to judge them, we must remind ourselves that we too shared the same flawed humanity.

The lesson is how not to sin and suffer its consequences; to avoid the temptation to sin. 1 Peter 5:8 and James 1:14-15 warns us about the danger of temptations to sin. Our vulnerable to temptations arise from our false self (also called old nature and old man). Our false nature tells us that we can only be happy if we have power, lands, gold, sex, fame or invincibility. When temptations appear, it whispers in our ears that it is okay to commit a small sin so that we can get what we want. “It is only a small sin,” it croons, “probably no one will notice.” It quotes Scriptures to show us that all our sins have been forgiven, so just do it! Our false self neglect to tell us what our true self already knew. We are forgiven for our sins but we still have to bear its consequences. Sometimes the consequences of our sins may affect many generations. King David, the apple of God’s eye had to watch his newborn child (conceived in adultery) die, and suffer the treachery of his son Absalom. When we sin, it is often not only we who suffer but those whom we love. So when temptations to sin appear, run away as fast as you can; in the opposite direction! G.K. Chesterston remarks, “It is always simple to fall; there is an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”

Reflection Questions
1. What are some temptations to sin that are facing you at this moment? Is that in a relationship that should not be developed further? Some aspect of your work? Your ambition? Your priorities?
2. How will you go about resisting temptations to sin?
3. Are you accountable to anybody? Accountability groups of two or three persons are very helpful to help us resist temptations to sin.

We acknowledge that we are flawed beings. We thank you that you have redeemed us and given us a true self (new nature). Yet we know our false self (old nature) is still working on us. We know the temptations of the world are very strong. There are also those who will trip us to watch us fall. Father, we ask for the help of your Holy Spirit to strengthen us to resist temptations to sin. We also ask that you will send us brothers and sisters to whom we can be accountable to. Help us, we pray.



jan said...

Your post is a temptation for me to watch Beowulf, the movie, to lust for it's violence and illicit sex. I've seen the trailers for the movie; they do the same.

Davin Wong said...

Good one, Dr Tang

Alex Tang said...

Hi jan,

is that good or bad?

Jan said...

Hello Alex,

What "that" are you asking me to categorise, the temptation, the lust, or something else?

Chang Wei Hao said...

Hmm.. One is always free and possess the right to close both eyes during scenes where the swords flash or when Angelina Jolie shows up :)

I cant see anything in the post that would arouse temptation though hehe.

But again, if that is too tempting, please don't watch it :)

Alex Tang said...

Hi Jan,

is that good or bad?

you mentioned the temptation to watch the movie and to lust for the violence and sex.

is that good because of your self awareness of the temptation which leads you to lust?

is that bad because you are afraid of the temptation and your ability to resist its seduction?

Alex Tang said...

hi Chang Wei Hao,

Thanks for your comments about my post.

BTW, the movie did not show much violence and sexual scenes except by suggestion, i.e shadows on the wall, reflection on the water surface etc.

Tempias said...

dr tang -- care to comment about pornographic passages in the bible? tq

Alex Tang said...

hi Tempias,

please see my comments here.

Jim said...

We Christians should reclaim our great literary heritage, which includes the likes of “Sir Gawain” and “Beowulf”–the real story of Beowulf, that is, not the cheap Canaanization of it recently produced by Hollywood. The makers of that smut should be ashamed that they defiled the fine name of “Beowulf” with their filth.

The true story of Beowulf is one of nobility, bravery, self-sacrifice, and the victory of good over evil. And that is also the true story of this world through the triumph of the Lord Christ. Something of that triumph is also captured in the victory of virtue portrayed in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

Enjoy the ennoblement of your soul as you read this great work of literature!