4 Dec 2007

Sorry, guys, Beowulf was not naked in the poem

Submitted by Karl Hagen
The notion that Beowulf's nudity in the movie can be justified by the original poem seems to be floating around out there on the web. I seem to recall Neil Gaiman himself making that claim in an LA Times interview several months before the movie opened, so perhaps that's the origin of the idea. (I can't find a link for this article, though.)

I'm afraid, though, that that's a misreading (or at least reinvention). The relevant passage starts at line 661.

Ða he him of dyde, isern-byrnan,
helm of hafelan, sealde his hyrsted sweord,
irena cyst ombiht-þegne,
ond gehealdan het hilde-geatwe.
Gesprac þa se goda gylp-worda sum,
Beowulf Geata, ær he on bed stige:
"No ic me an here-wæsmum hnagran talige
guþ-geweorca, þonne Grendel hine;
forþan ic hine sweorde swebban nelle,
aldre beneotan, þeah ic eal mæge."

Translated: "Then he took off the iron byrnie,
the helm from his head, gave his decorated sword,
the best of iron, to his attendant,
and ordered him to hold the war-equipment.
That good man spoke boastful words,
Beowulf the Geat, before he went to bed:
"I never supposed myself poorer in battle-strength,
in battle-deeds, than Grendel himself;
Therefore I will not with a sword put him to sleep,
deprive him of live, though I easily might."

So sure, Beowulf takes off his armor and hands over his weapons, but to imagine that he strips completely is pure fantasy.



I don't have a direct link for you, but Dr. Virago attributes a quote to Roger Avery in Entertainment Weekly (#956, Sept. 28, 2007, p.55), in which he says: "In the original epic poem, Beowulf decides that swords and armor are just going to slow him down. So, he strips and waits for Grendel to come and then does some medieval ass-kicking in the buff. When we were first working on the script, Robert Zemeckis said, 'Guys, does he have to fight him naked?' We were like, 'Yes, actually he does -- it's in the poem!'"

That quotation leaves enough ambiguity to leave me wondering if Avery and Gaiman were really just putting one over on Zemeckis.

Naked or not, that scene was also a bit goofy. I reminded me of the scenes from the Austin Powers movies where phallic and round objects obscured various body parts. At least it also managed to link together Beowulf and Bart Simpson, a connection that has yet to be adequately explored in my opinion.

Actually, it comes from scholarly interpretation that he does fight naked. If you read on, when the Grendel surprises them in the hall, despite the deliberate description of Beowulf taking off his clothes/armor, there is no further mention of him putting them back on. This is was not a hollywood invention but rather an academic one.