Beowulf: A her for our times

The name used to mean little to those who weren't studying Anglo-Saxon literature. But now Beowulf is big box-office. As a new film about the macho monster-slayer opens, Paul Vallely looks for the truth behind the legend

Being Anglo-Saxon we revere the past, but only so far as it fits with our present. Take Beowulf, the oldest surviving piece of literature in the English language, which is about to re-emerge into the national consciousness with the release of Robert Zemeckis's film version starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and the preternaturally-proportioned Angelina Jolie who plays – scholars take a deep breath – the monstrous mother of that incarnation of evil, the half-demon Grendel.

Beowulf is burdened with superlatives. It is the oldest narrative poem in English. It is the major surviving work of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry. It is routinely described as "England's national epic", despite the fact that it is about the adventures of a Swede in Denmark.

Epic in more senses than one, it survives only in a single charred manuscript of some 3,000 lines which can be read aloud in three or four hours, depending upon how dramatic is the actor's declaration. But though it was set to parchment around AD1010 – and may well have had an existence in oral form up to 300 years earlier – our acquaintance with the work is comparatively recent. It was transcribed and published in a modern language, Danish, only as late as 1815. The first English manuscript dates from 1837.

In those early days it was the province only of scholars who preoccupied themselves with questions such as whether the manuscript was the product of two different scribes transcribing an earlier original. Why, they wondered with incisive precision, did the spellings mix the West Saxon and Anglian dialects of Old English? They engaged in close study of its measure and meter, its heavy use of poetic "kennings" – evocative euphemisms describing the sea as the "whale-road" and so forth – and its preoccupation with Anglo-Saxon alliteration. They were denizens of dusty diphthongs. Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagumþeodcyninga þrym gefrunonhu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Or as they construed the opening lines:

Lo! Of the Spear-Danes, in days of yore, we have heard; of the glory of the people's kings, how the noble ones did deeds of valour.

It was the romance of obscurity with its Scyldings, Scylfings and Wulfings, giving fodder for 19th-century archaeologists to argue that a mound in Uppsala – in which a powerful leader was buried around AD575 – might be the grave of Beowulf himself.

But it was not until the translation by J R R Tolkien, who was later to go on to create his own elvish epic in The Lord of the Rings, that the sheer power of the story began to reach a wider audience. His seminal 1936 essay "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics" is widely credited as the turning point in modern times when the poetry overpowered the pedantry in a work primarily regarded until then as of purely linguistic interest.

The poem tells the story of Beowulf, nephew of the king of the Geats, a tribe in the south of Sweden, who journeys over the sea to Heorot, the land of the Danes, to repay a debt of honour incurred by his uncle to the Danish king, Hrothgar. He has come to release the people from the 12-year tyranny of a creature named Grendel who, night by night, has been attacking Hrothgar's noblemen and courtiers, killing and eating them.

In a great battle Beowulf slays Grendel, whose charmed skin cannot be pierced by any blade, by wrenching his arm and shoulder from his body. Grendel flees to his home in the marshes to die. The next night Grendel's mother appears to avenge her son and devours Hrothgar's favourite courtier. Beowulf then tracks her back to her underwater lair and, despite his armour, swims down to kill her in a ferocious battle. He then cuts off Grendel's head and takes it back to the king.

Laden with wealth of honours he returns home to his uncle's court where he becomes king and rules, graciously and fairly, for 50 years. But then a dragon, whose hoard has been robbed of ancient treasure, devastates the countryside. Beowulf attacks the fearsome beast and kills it, cutting the wyrm in two. But in doing so he sustains a fatal wound from the dragon's poisonous horn. His people burn his body on a great clifftop pyre and bury him, along with the dragon's treasure. So ends the story of the man who, of all the kings of the Earth, was most eager for fame.

The story continues to grip. Michael Crichton's 1976 novel, Eaters of the Dead, was based on Beowulf. So was an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Then there were cheap action movies like the one starring Christopher Lambert, of Mortal Kombat fame, which featured less than lapidiary lines like: "The only thing that keeps me from becoming evil is fighting evil." In 1999 there was a new translation, brooding and blood-black, by the poet Seamus Heaney. And a couple of years back Beowulf featured in Spartan: Total Warrior, a PS2 game.

What has been revealing is the subtext each new incarnation has assumed. Beowulf has long been characterised by such inculturation. The original written work did more than record the values of a pre-literate society. It critiqued them. The poet took the early pagan elements and tempered them in the crucible of his own imagination. He was a Christian who cast Grendel and his mother in a biblical context as the cursed kin of the archetypal first murderer Cain. And though he appeared to take at face value the codes of honour and kinship, which sought revenge or weregild, a blood-money reparation, he depicted war as a business which was steeped in the gory as much as in the glory that Beowulf seeks.

One of the most interesting interpretations has come from John Grigsby's Beowulf & Grendel: The Truth Behind England's Oldest Legend. Grigsby sees the work as a poetic account of forceful suppression of an older fertility cult, with human sacrifice central to its religion, in 5th-century England, and its replacement by an incoming warrior cult. Grendel stands for a vibrant English pagan religion as rich and complex as that of the early Celts. Grendel's mother represents the outgoing fertility goddess in whose sacred Danish lakes, Tacitus recorded, human victims were drowned.

It is their bodies, Grigsby suggests, that have been found by modern archaeologists preserved in peat bogs in Denmark – naked, strangled or stabbed and whose stomach contents show had eaten a meal of barley contaminated by a hallucinogenic fungus just before they died. It was this fertility goddess – now played, not perhaps so bizarrely, by Jolie – that Beowulf swam down to in his full armour to slay.

The two scriptwriters in the latest version Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have their roots in science fiction and comedy. "Our theory," said Gaiman, "was that at any point where the poem tells you what happened, it's telling the truth. But at any point when somebody in the poem goes offstage, and then comes back on and says, 'While I was in the other room, this is what happened...' they could be lying."

So that when Beowulf disappears for eight days on the trail of Grendel's mother and returns looking rather exhausted with Grendel's head, said Avary, they asked since he had already killed Grendel, why did he not return with the mother's head?" We just started going, 'This is very unreliable'," said Gaiman. "It's the concept of the unreliable narrator."

"You have to ask yourself a lot of questions," his partner continued. "For example, Grendel is described as half-man, half-demon. The mother is described as a water demon. So who's Grendel's father? Grendel's always dragging men off alive to the cave? Why is he never attacking Hrothgar [the Danish king]? Perhaps Hrothgar is Grendel's father.

Thus the great hero is remade. Not as the leader of a warrior cult out to replace an ancient religion of fertility. Not as a Christian corrective to a prehistoric paganism. But as a kind of lying Hollywood vigilante out for revenge. Thus the world progresses. Not so much with reverence for the past, but to see how we can make it fit our present.