Friday, October 30, 2009

Beowulf meets the 20th century

Dr Catherine Clarke, a specialist in medieval culture at Swansea University's department of English has been given a grant to explore representations of masculinity in modern re-workings of the Beowulf story.

In particular she has been looking at the 2007 film Beowulf starring Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie and Port Talbot-born Sir Anthony Hopkins.

And she has also travelled to Indiana University's Library in the United States to study the 1970s DC Comics series Beowulf the Dragon Slayer.

The Old English epic poem Beowulf - the oldest surviving epic in British literature - is widely held as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature.

Although the epic was written and recited in Britain, Beowulf is about characters in Scandinavia - Danish and Swedish warriors who battle fabulous monsters as well as each other.

It was because the early Anglo-Saxons who settled in modern-day England were the descendants of Germanic and Scandinavian tribes that invaded Britain beginning in the 5th century.

Dr Clarke said: "Central to the poem is the heroic ideal of masculinity immortalised through the figure of Beowulf, an image perpetuated through the Beowulf DC comic book series and other re-workings of the tale."

Dr Clarke teaches an undergraduate module entitled Transforming Beowulf in the 20th century as part of the English BA scheme at Swansea University.

Dr Clarke said: "The DC Beowulf comics present a deeply divided and conflicted idea of masculinity. This version of the Beowulf narrative presents a hyper-masculine hero and a homosocial world of physical competition and prowess. The advertisements within the comics aimed at a younger male audience reinforce the masculine culture of the comic strips featuring body-building, karate, and air guns.

"Another interesting element I've been exploring is the way these comics introduce a female character into the Beowulf narrative - Beowulf's feisty, bikini-clad side-kick Nan-Zee! This, together with discussion and acknowledgement in the back-matter of the comics is an intriguing response to contemporary feminist politics in the 1970s US.

"I also aim to reflect on my reading of the DC Beowulf comics to ask what these comics might add to our understanding of the 'original' Old English poem. The comics call attention to issues of masculinity and maturity which bear relevance to the Old English text (for example, Beowulf's apparent failure to move from the role of youthful, ambitious hero to that of older ruler and patriarch), and raise interesting questions about the appropriation of the Beowulf narrative by different groups of readers."

Dr. Clarke is a specialist in earlier medieval literature and culture, with a particular interest in the period 900-1200. She has published widely on Old English, Middle English and Anglo-Latin. She is also currently working on a major new monograph project provisionally entitled Patronage and Power in Anglo-Saxon England, which aims to recover Anglo-Saxon ideas about the role of the patron in literary and artistic production and the ways in which patronage and formal friendship relationships were imagined.

Beowulf, written in Old English sometime before the 10th century AD, describes the adventures of a great Scandinavian warrior of the sixth century.

Beowulf attended the court of King Hrothgar to slay Grendel, a cannibal with super powers who was devouring warriors in Hrothgar's great mead hall of Heorot.

Beowulf killed Grendel by wrenching off his arm and later killed his equally ferocious, magically enhanced mother in her underwater lair then later killed a dragon but died of his wounds.

Beowulf exists in only one manuscript. The precious copy survived both the wholesale destruction of religious artifacts during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and a disastrous fire which destroyed the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. Still bearing the scars of the fire, the Beowulf manuscript is now housed in the British Library in London.