Beowulf is the stuff of legends. Set in a world that is no more, where heroes battle dragons, and fair maidens sing tales of adventure, one hero faces the greatest challenge of his life when a sexy and seductive she-demon, the mother of the beast Grendel that he came to Denmark to slay, sets her eyes on him. This movie is about the enormous power the dark Feminine holds over the man who has not yet fully dedicated his life to service of his people, and the vulnerabilities of the hero archetype. Enjoy!
- Action adventure
- Production year
- Robert Zemeckis
- Male actors
- Ray WinstoneAnthony HopkinsJohn MalkovichCrispin Glover
General spoiler alert!
» The hero and the spell of the dark Feminine
Historic origins of the poem
Beowulf is the computer animated heroic epic based on the famous and lengthy thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon poem by the same name. It is a classic story, set in Sweden and Denmark, of heroes and kings, brave warriors, terrible monsters, and beautiful women.
I have not read the poem, but in preparing this piece, I have read about it. Beowulf dates from between the 8th and the 11th century. It is penned by two scribes, probably from a Christian scriptorium, and is therefore thought to be adapted for decency in the transcribation process. It is clear that the story is part fact, part fiction; Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, really lived in the region of current-day Denmark in the early 6th century. And the mead hall Heorot, which is attacked by the terrible monster Grendel, has been found in an archeological dig.
So it is with Beowulf as it is with most myths and legends; the boundaries between fact and fiction are fluid and create a field of uncertainty that entice us into speculation about the lore of this ancient world, the age of heroes and monsters.
An ancient classic is adapted for modern audiences
If you haven't previous encounters with the story, it tells the heroic saga of Beowulf's battle with the monster Grendel and its demon mother. Script writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have with director Robert Zemeckis taken liberties in their adaptation of the poem, tightening and adapting the plot for the big screen. It is this adaptation I will deal with from here on out.
The film portrays Beowulf as a mighty and fearless warrior. He has a group of loyal men at his command, the thanes, who are prepared to follow him to the gates of Hell. Beowulf is a powerful warrior and an inspiring leader, but he has a weakness – he hungers for glory. This is a theme we will recognize from Patton, a movie previously featured on this site. In fact, that movie ended on the note that "all glory is fleeting".
We may also remember that the hunger for glory is a feature of the Hero archetype, which is the last rung on the ladder of boyhood in the KWML system. When the mighty Beowulf lands on the shores of Denmark and is approached by a Dane who foresees no less than their death in their pursuit of Grendel and the gold which Hrothgar has put on Grendel's head, Beowulf pompously states "If we die, it will be for glory and not for gold." As I see it, boys die for glory (which is nothing other than the desire to be loved and admired by many people), while men die (if they must) in service of those they love. Although I'd rather not die at all.
The spell of the dark Feminine
While Beowulf's lust for glory is dangerous, it is his weakness in relation to the Feminine that is his downfall. We see the power the Feminine weaves on him when he first encounters the beautiful Wealthow, Hrothgar's enthralling wife. Wealthow, as the movie portrays her, is a deep and mature woman, way ahead of the rest of the Danes in her own personal evolution. I interpret her sorrow and resignation in witnessing the hedonistic debauchery in the guild hall as en expression of that.
This is a deep woman who wants to be seen and felt for her depth, not merely for her surface beauty. It seems to have taken its toll that not a single person in her life has been able to truly see her deep feminine core. Would you not like to offer your Wealthow the freedom and love of this gift?
I find Wealthow a fascinating woman, clearly at the bright end of the spectrum of the Feminine. Beowulf is enthralled, on his knees in worship when she sings him her song of heroes:
Just wait though wide he may roam
Always a hero comes home
He goes where no one has gone
But always a hero comes home
I hear in her song that Wealthow will patiently wait at home in anticipation for the man who deserves her. There is no weakness in her words, just love and a desire to serve the Masculine. She is just the kind of woman Beowulf desires, but does he deserve her? Is he, in a sense, man enough?
When King Hrothgar was seduced by a female demon, conceiving Grendel in the process, he proved that he wasn't. Wealthow cannot live with the fact that this female demon, the dark side of the Feminine, has such power over her husband. Hrothgar had sex with a demon, so how can he have sex with her? Will that put her on the same level as a creature of Hell?
But as I watch the film, I become present to an even deeper cut. And I start believing there is more to her refusal to have sex than mere infidelity. Indeed, there is also indication here of her discomfort with the dark side of her own Feminine core. This is true for Hrothgar and Beowulf as well, who are both more at ease with the bright side of the Feminine. That side they can handle. It is fair, loving, beautiful and radiant, whereas the dark Feminine is unpredictable and dangerous. It leaves them helpless. This, I believe, is what Wealthow recognizes in Hrothgar, and eventually also in Beowulf. She sees that when faced with the dark Feminine, they become unreliable and untrustworthy, completely spellbound and seduced beyond their mind, into the murky waters of their subconscious.
If they were truly mature men, they would maybe come to recognize the dark side of the Feminine in Wealthow also. They would coax it out of her with love, so as to release much of her inner pain. In my experience, women who are uncomfortable expressing their darkness internalize a lot of hurt (the darkness projects inwards), and I believe it is a man's job to help her balance that out. He can do so by meeting her lovingly also at her dark side of the spectrum. I personally find this scary and challenging and I see that it requires a man to be in integrity with himself, lest the chaos of the dark feminine capture him and convince him that he has done wrong. That happens to me anyway.
After his seduction, Hrothgar has lost integrity – that is part of his curse – and there is the understated sadness on the part of Wealthow at discovering that even her dragonslaying husband loses himself completely when faced with the dark Feminine.
Grendel and his mother
Beowulf, of course, kills Grendel in a display a macho manliness and with typical immodesty. The monster Grendel, a scared and pathetic creature, is a mama's boy who seems to carry resentment for not having had a father in his life. As the monster tries to flee, Beowulf traps it, screams in bloodlust and goes for the kill.
In David Deida terms, this is clearly a display of 1st stage machismo, and in KWML terms, it is closely aligned with displays of heroism. It is theoretically possible that Beowulf "becomes the devil of Heorot" to serve his men in a mature way, like Remington became the "devil of Tsavo" in the Ghost and the Darkness. But I don't buy it. It seems here that Beowulf yet again shows his yearning for glory and excessive displays of power.
That said, the primal aggression embodied by Beowulf in this scene is important in the life of any mature man that wishes to serve the world fully. There is great power here. For the man who has moved on from heroism to the realms of the mature man, this aggression exists as a dormant but ever-present potential and makes him shine with natural authority. He knows he can back up his values with power in the unlikely event that he must and that gives him confidence to move through life staying true to himself.
Grendel's mother responds with grief and anger at her son's death by killing all of Beowulf's men. Beowulf's second in command Wiglaf is spared, because he is away checking on their ship. This massacre brings Hrothgar's dark mistress back into his life. Confronted with a guild hall full of dismembered warriors, he is forced to face the shame from many years ago, when he conceived Grendel with the demon mother.
Beowulf, on his part, must go a-monster hunting yet again. He fails. Grendel's mother is a shapeshifter and can take human form. Beowulf arrives at her lair expecting a monster, but finds there only a sexy and seductive creature, given life by Angelina Jolie. She knows how to get a hero to his knees: Tempt him with ideas of grandeur, power and glory and top it off with abundant feminine sexuality. She is striking at all of the weak points of the Hero archetype, and Beowulf loses himself. Since the Feminine is not a problem to be solved or a monster to be killed, the tools of the Hero fail him, and the unexplored parts of his psyche envelop him and pull him down into dark and unchartered waters.
The sins of the fathers
When Beowulf returns to Heorot, Hrothgar knows what's happened. He presses Beowulf for the truth, yet doesn't get it – Beowulf is still shocked. He has lost his honor now, leaving it at the feet of his main weakness – the dark Feminine – and now Hrothgar's curse has been passed to him. Hrothgar throws himself from the battlements and Beowulf is crowned king, and gets his Wealthow. His royal aspirations and dreams of a lovely queen have come true, but at a tremendous price.
Many years later, Beowulf is an old an broken king. He is someone who, he says with sadness, "died many years ago, when I was young". Indeed, in embodying the Hero archetype, Beowulf served mostly himself. And this painful truth now causes him heartache and grief in the twilight of his life, when wisdom has caught up with the mistakes of the past. This experience is of great importance in any man's life, leading to enormous humility and openness if navigated properly and shared fully. Still, Beowulf has not found a way to lift the curse, mainly becuase he has noone in whom he can confide; not Wiglaf (who won't listen to the truth) and not his wife (because their relationship is built on secrets).
But any curse that goes unconfronted will eventually catch up with us, in life or in death. For Beowulf, the time is ripe, and a dragon shows up in his kingdom. He understands what has happened when Ulferth, once Hrothgar's main advisor, now the kingdom's priest, arrives scorched within the castle ramparts and tells him how his family has been slain and the last thing he heard was "the sins of the fathers". The fathers, we understand, are Hrothgar and Beowulf, brave warriors, but fallible in their inability to confront the truth of what they've done.
Slaying the dragon
We may have noted the strong presence of dragon symbology in the film up to this point, particularly in the royal dragon horn and the art on the royal crown. Hrothgar claims that the horn became his after he killed the dragon Fafnir, and much of his personal mythos and power base is founded on this story. Now there is the eerie sense that everything is as it was and a circle has been completed – Beowulf is a disillusioned and weary king, once a great hero, whose power base is built on half-truths. He is king, but for all the wrong reasons, much like was probably the case with Hrothgar.
So now that a dragon shows up to torment Beowulf, there is the strong sense that his and Hrothgar's stories are somehow connected, in their shared strengths and weaknesses, and at both having conceived a bastard son with the same demon mother.
The dragon is the most powerful creature human legends have created, and the fight between dragon and human can be seen to symbolize the fight between man and nature, which is the fight between the Masculine and the Feminine.* The Hero who slays the dragon is symbolic of the boy who lifts the spell of the Feminine from his life through taking the Hero archetype to its ultimate conclusion. Free from attachment to Mother, he is finally enable to serve the Feminine in a mature way. And then, the Feminine, even the darkest of it, holds no more power over him.
Beowulf has finally reached maturity, some years too late. As he prepares for the showdown with the dragon, this time in service of those he loves, he looks at Wealthow, suspecting it is the last time he will be blessed by her wise and gentle eyes. She knows everything of course, but still has a softness for him. Beowulf admits before he leaves:
I have always loved you. Keep a memory of me, not as a king or a hero....but as a man...fallible and flawed.
His aspiratons for grandeur are now gone, truth and love now on his mind. He rides to confront the demon mother, and finds that she is out for blood. She sends his dragon son after him and after a ferocious battle, he slays the creature, his own son and guilt, and they both plummet to the ground.
Beowulf lies mortally wounded next to the dead body of his son (shapeshifted post mortem back to humanoid form) while waves are lapping their legs. He says goodbye to his son, who shines with the colour of gold like his mother. As his glowing body is washed out to sea, there is genuine sorrow in Beowulf's eyes. He has lost his only child. There is the sense here that when a father has too much guilt weighing on his conscience, relationship with his son becomes impossible, and the heart-rending truth of such separation comes clear only on the doorsteps of death.
"There's no time for lies," Beowulf pleads as Wiglaf arrives; he doesn't want to hear Beowulf's authentic confession. "Do you hear her? Grendel's mother? My son's mother!," Beowulf begs of him. "You killed Grendel's mother, many years ago. They sing of it," Wiglaf responds. But a deathbed is no time for lies as Beowulf points out. And since the time of death is uncertain, there is never a time for lies. When the lie that has haunted him for a lifetime is shed, Beowulf dies, on the beach where his son lay, as the last of the heroes.
Beowulf's body sails out to sea, and the she-demon descends on him. She is victorious, yet she mourns him in her own way. There is the question here, as she looks deeply and seductively into Wiglaf's eyes, whether he, now King, is strong enough to withstand the threat of her deep, dark feminine sexuality. As I examine Wiglaf, I see much to indicate that he is. There is evidence of this prior to the battle with Grendel when he admonishes his fellow thanes to not blur their head with women and fornication before a major battle. Beowulf may have been a greater Hero, but Wiglaf, perhaps, the greater man.
Beowulf is the story about heroes who would be kings, and the challenges they face when they realize that the duties as King are of an entirely different calibre to those of the ego-driven Hero. It is also a story about male companionship and loyalty among warriors, which is the very positive aspect Beowulf brings to the table. But more than anything, it is a story about the tremendous power the dark Feminine wields over the man who doesn't maintain integrity and who hasn't yet dedicated himself fully to serving others. When Beowulf finally realizes that this was what his life should have been about, it is too late. Let's make sure not to make the same mistake.
That means, in real life terms, no more lies, maintain perfect integrity, work through and transcend the desire for glory and heroics, and then set up base on the throne of mature masculinity, in service of the kingdom – the people whom you love.
* There are many other possible interpretations to this dragon symbology.
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