An Anglo-Saxon Epic

When darkness falls, beware Heorot.  A monster has arisen, and when night comes he lurks in the hall of King Hrothgar of the Shieldings, slaying whomsoever he finds.  Brave warriors have fallen; the king despairs; the Shieldings fear.  But unbeknownst to them, a hero is coming to deliver the people from the monster or die in the attempt.  He is a man of fame.  His name is Beowulf.

Titled for its main character, Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon epic and the longest poem written in Old English.  It was composed sometime between the middle of the seventh and the end of the tenth century A. D. and was passed down orally.  Although the poem is set in pagan Denmark, it is full of anachronistic Christian references which most likely became part of the text as it was handed down through generations.

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney (lived from 1939 to 2013)

This school year I have been studying medieval literature, and one of the best works I have read is Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney.  As with other poems recited orally, the poetic devices the authors of Beowulf employed were ones that affected how the poem sounded:  rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance.  The translation by Seamus Heaney is filled with the vivid beauty and resonance of the original poem, which makes it an excellent work to read aloud.

Beowulf is a classic tale of a hero and his adventures and feats of arms.  The poem goes beyond its plotline, however, for it demonstrates the character qualities the Anglo-Saxons valued, presenting Beowulf as an ideal hero.  Unlike the French medieval hero Roland from The Song of Roland, Beowulf displays more than just courage and strength.  Beowulf is also defined by wisdom, forgiveness, kindness, and foresight.  He is a loyal subject to Ecgtheow king of the Geats, a helpful friend to Hrothgar of Denmark, and later a good monarch to his own people.  Although he is not perfect and perhaps cares too much about glory, Beowulf is an admirable character who deserves the respect and love which he wins from his friends, enemies, and countrymen.

Eadgils' Barrow
Eadgils’ mound in Uppsala, Sweden

Note: A wonderful version of Beowulf read by Seamus Heaney himself is available online for free.  The recording is divided into two parts and can be found through the following links.

Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaB0trCztM0

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zsxxg5P-DnY

Braveheart: A brief review

braveheart-film-1995

A couple weekends ago some friends and myself hunkered down for a movie epic: Braveheart. Over the next several hours our eyes and ears were deluged with Scottish accents, massive battles, and gorgeous music–a winning combination under most circumstances. In the following few paragraphs I want to review this movie epic. However, a word to the wise: I am ignoring any debate of historical accuracy since Scottish history is not a subject I am well versed in.

From a cinematic point of view Braveheart is incredibly well executed. The balanced approach of director Mel Gibson between the gritty reality of Medieval life with the joy, love, and pride of those who lived is very well done and keeps the movie from becoming overly depressing or exhausting. Also, Gibson makes ample use of the Scottish countryside as a beautiful backdrop for the film, and the movie avoids excessive use of slow motion shots which were common during the 1990’s (think Last of the Mohicans).

braveheartWhile the movie is well executed from a cinematic perspective, the plot is not quite so polished. The narrative follows a basic revenge plot-line: someone the main protagonist loves dies in the early portion of the movie and provides the impetus for what unfolds throughout the rest of the film. While this is all fine and great and provides for entertaining moviegoing, one main aspect was bothersome in my opinion. Through events that occur early on in the film, it is made clear that Wallace is taking vengeance on the English for the death of his love. However, Wallace is later shown to sleep with the English princess, and she is carrying his child by the end of the movie. For a man who is portrayed throughout the film as seeking vengeance for his dead wife, to have such a scene of adultery seems to go against everything that Wallace represents in the movie. While this event is probably Hollywood doing their thing, it hurts the credibility of Wallace’s character tremendously. However, despite this one instance of cliche Hollywood immorality, the film offers a compelling and inspiring story.

Finally, the music of Braveheart is one of the best parts of the whole film. With a swelling score written by James Horner,the film embodies (in my opinion) some of the best movie music ever produced. With a combination of orchestra and more traditional Scottish instruments, Horner manages to produce pieces of music that are emotionally charged and full of energy and life. In fact, it is one of my favorite sets of music to listen to whenever doing schoolwork.

Braveheart is a movie epic in every sense of the word: expansive shots, a compelling story, and a soaring soundtrack. Despite some annoying flaws in its plot (ignoring any historical ones that is), the movie is an inspiring tale that leaves the viewer wanting more. For me, the film raised an interesting question: what would I be willing to die for? William Wallace (in the movie) was willing to die trying to give his countrymen freedom–largely driven by a desire for vengeance on the English. However, haven’t we as Christians also been called to die, but for an even greater cause than national freedom? Living in a country and time whenever people rarely talk of death, and the norm is to “accept” differences regardless of belief or behavior, this concept of being willing to die for a cause is one foreign, but much needed, in modern American culture and Christianity.