An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 23, 2016

Traidl: Telling Tales About Beowulf

Veronika Traidl, Telling Tales about Beowulf: The Poem and the Films. Munich: Herbert Utz, 2016.

Reviewed by Oliver M. Traxel ( 

Film makers intending to bring the Old English epic Beowulf to the screen have one big advantage. In contrast to other well-known legendary figures, such as King Arthur or Robin Hood, there is only one surviving manuscript version which can be drawn upon. It is therefore surprising that none of the films based on this poem has adapted the material successfully for a modern audience, as has been shown by Nickolas Haydock and E.L. Risden.[1] However, they do not treat each film individually, but take them as a group to be examined with regard to various topics. Moreover, they omit Beowulf (1972), which Jodi-Anne George has considered the most faithful version so far.[2] Veronika Traidl’s Munich dissertation remedies this situation by gathering all films associated with Beowulf and subdividing them into three categories according to their closeness to the poem. She calls seven of them “major”, another seven “minor”, and four “marginal”. This attribution makes sense, though four of the “minor” ones are TV episodes from Star Trek: Voyager (1995) and Xena: The Warrior Princess (2000); the Xena episodes even make up a trilogy and could therefore have been treated as one. Another “minor” film, Animated Epics: Beowulf (1998), is actually a condensed retelling of the story and therefore very close, but rated as “minor” due to its brief length of merely 27 minutes.

The introduction contains a chronological list of the eighteen films and explains the aim and structure of the study: to provide a comprehensive analysis of each film in several sections focussing on one particular aspect. Chapter 2 outlines the principles of categorisation as “major”, “minor” and “marginal” films and offers some brief background information on all of them. The following chapter treats them in chronological order and critically discusses the existing academic work. This information is comprehensive and well researched. The beginning chapters can therefore also serve as a quick reference guide for anyone who is looking for material on one specific film version. Chapter 4 gives a general overview of the Old English poem and gathers academic views on relevant points, such as structure, dating, and the depiction of religion. This part does not offer anything new, but it is sound and shows the author’s excellent familiarity with the current state of Beowulf scholarship. Moreover, it is very helpful to those readers not familiar with the extant text or who need some refreshing.

With 215 out of 300 pages, Chapter 5 on the seven major films occupies more than two thirds of the book and can be seen as the centrepiece of the study. It comprises Beowulf (1972), Beowulf (1999), The 13th Warrior (1999), Beowulf & Grendel (2005), Beowulf (2007), Grendel (2007), and Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008). There are no less then fifteen sections dedicated to specific topics. These concern fundamental points (Contents & structure; Differences to the poem; Place & time of action), key characters (Beowulf; Grendel; Grendel’s mother; Hrothgar; Unferth; Queens & other women), linguistic features (Language; Onomastics), and other important aspects (Religion; Anachronisms; Motifs; Further aspects). Section 5.2 on “Differences to the poem” is subdivided into films which omit the dragon fight (four) and those who include it (three) as it is one of the key elements of the original plot and therefore merits separate discussion. If a film is irrelevant to a specific aspect, it is not contained in the section in question. In most cases this concerns Beowulf (1972), which does not appear in Sections 5.8 (Unferth), 5.11 (Onomastics), 5.13 (Anachronisms), 5.14 (Motifs) and 5.15 (Further aspects). Generally, the entire chapter is remarkable as it covers the major films in great detail and also gives precise references to the timing of film passages, line numbers of the original poem as well as secondary literature. The argumentation can therefore be compared very easily. Moreover, each section concludes with a table that briefly summarises the most important points in each film and therefore provides a quick and helpful reference tool.

The following two chapters are devoted to the seven minor and four marginal films respectively. Besides the summaries they consist of only two sections each of which mirrors the first two in Chapter 5. However, while Section 5.2 points out differences to the poem, Section 6.2 deals with both parallels and differences, and Section 7.2 focuses on parallels only. This alteration of focus makes sense as, in contrast to the major films, the marginal Clash of the Titans (1981), Predator (1987), Beware: Children at Play (1989) and No Such Thing (2001) are not directly based on the poem and it is the determination of parallels rather than differences which merit their inclusion in this study. In fact, Traidl sees hardly any similarities to Beowulf in the marginal films and includes them only as they are associated with the poem in the secondary literature (p. 296). Given this approach she could have referred to even more films in Chapter 7, e.g. Alien (1979), which she mentions on other occasions (p. 118, n. 153; p. 146). The minor films, on the other hand, show greater affinities to the poem, but have different purposes. Some issues are incorporated into ongoing TV series, namely Star Trek: Voyager (1995) and three episodes from Xena: The Warrior Princess (2000), as well as the science fiction film Outlander (2008). The two remaining minor films are either based on a modern literary version, namely Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981), or retell the story in rather concise way, namely Animated Epics: Beowulf (1998).

The book is written by a native speaker of German (p. 202, n. 246) who shows an excellent command of the English language. The few linguistic problems could have been fixed by more diligent proof-reading. They include additional words, as in “but it Grendel” (p. 118) or “Grendel’s as mother” (p. 141, pic. 22), inconsistencies, as in “cross bow” (p. 73), “cross-bow” (p. 96) and “crossbow” (p. 110), random usage of “blond” and “blonde”, with “blonde” also being used for the male form (p. 161) and “blond” for the female form (p. 188), or the American verbal spelling “practice” rather than “practise” (p. 203) in the otherwise British English text. The layout is very tidy, and occasional issues, such as larger empty spaces near illustrations (pp. 87, 88, 90) or the incorrect division of Old English words, as in “Ecgth-eow’s” (p. 61), and “Heal-fdene” (p. 221), were probably caused by the word processing software. German rather than English punctuation is consistently used for decimals, such as “1,96” and “1,74” (p. 103, nn. 124, 125). Slightly more problematic is the author’s occasional difficulty in transcribing film passages correctly, as she even admits herself (p. 209, n. 253). Examples for Old English include her suggestion of an unattested “clattrym” rather than clatrung (“noise”), and singular “ēare” rather than plural ēaran (“ears”) (p. 209). Moreover, she does not identify Modern English long-legged in a passage from Beware: Children at Play (1989), but provides an empty space instead (p. 294, n. 332), failing to recognise the reference to a well-known Cornish litany.[3]

Traidl has delivered a remarkably detailed survey of all film versions of Beowulf produced until 2015. She is also aware of later projects, such as the TV Series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016), which premiered on ITV after she submitted her study (p. 300). The task of gathering the material cannot have been easy as the DVDs of some films, in particular Beowulf (1972) and Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008), are no longer commercially available. In fact, it was the director of Beowulf (1972) himself, Don Fairservice, who provided her with a copy (p. 11, n. 21). Traidl was also in touch with others when researching her study, for example Scott Wegener, the director of Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008) (e.g. p. 264, n. 315), and Karl Hagen, language consultant for Beowulf (2007) (e.g. p. 209, n. 253), which proves that a great deal of the argumentation is based on first-hand information. Several colour screenshots from Beowulf (1972), Beowulf & Grendel (2005), and Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008) are found throughout, whereas no free rights could be obtained for the other major films. Quotations from Beowulf are from Klaeber’s latest edition,[4] while translated passages are from Heaney,[5] which are of course seminal primary works and therefore well chosen. The book is diligently researched, has hardly any shortcomings, and will doubtless remain the reference work on Beowulf films for the time being. Any supplements whenever a new version comes out would also be very welcome. It can only be hoped that one day there will also be a film that is actually good.

Oliver M. Traxe
University of Stavanger

[1] Nickolas Haydock and E. L. Risden, Beowulf on Film: Adaptations and Variations. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, 2013.
[2] Jodie-Anne George, Beowulf: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, 2010, pp. 115-149.
[3] Don E. Post, Ghosties and Ghoulies and Long-Legged Beasties and Things That Go Bump in the Night: Christian Basics for the Twenty-First Century. New York, Lincoln, NE, and Shanghai: iUniverse, 2004.
[4] Frederick Klaeber, ed., Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 4th ed. Robert D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
[5] Seamus Heaney, ed., Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney. Bilingual Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.