If you recall my posts from August 2005 titled “Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary, and Robert Zemeckis are spitting on our grandmothers” and “I’m ‘an overly literal twit’,” you probably won’t be surprised that debate over the Gaiman/Avary/Zemeckis Beowulf movie is heating up again on ANSAXNET as various trailers get released. I’m not going to go into the gory details this time around, but I will be watching in fascination as discussion over the latest trailer starts. (I will, however, point you to Michael Drout’s take on the subject, with which I whole-heartedly agree with.)
What I want to point to is what this newest trailer seems to suggest. Keeping in mind, as I argued on ANSAXNET, trailers are often deceptive these days, I think we finally have a trailer that’s revealing exactly how Gaiman and Avery rewrote the story: Grendel’s mother is the dragon.
If you haven’t been watching the trailers or if you’re not on ANSAXNET, this leap of logic may have lost you. From the various trailers, it’s clear that they rewrote the story, while at the same time they’ve been stating that they’ve stayed fairly true to the story. (That is, I’ve suggested on ANSAXNET, true to the mythology/tradition and not the extant poem). As they’ve explained in interviews, the poem gives us differing accounts of events, and they used those discrepancies as openings to tell a new story. The differing accounts of what happens with Grendel and his mother are the result of Beowulf not telling the truth. Early trailers have hinted at Grendel’s mother tempting Beowulf with fame and fortune, and this latest trailer makes that explicit. But what this latest trailer also suggests quite strongly is that Beowulf is himself the theif who steals the cup from the dragon’s hoard, and that the dragon at the end of the poem is Grendel’s mother. (The trailer shows a scene in which Hrothgar asks “Did you kill her?” in such a way as to imply that Beowulf did not). Finally, there’s been some debate on ANSAXNET about Grendel’s mother being presented as some sort of snake-woman, a lamia, maybe, because she has some sort of serpentine tail in the temptation scene. It is a serpentine tail, but it’s not because she’s a lamia. She is, let me repeat, a dragon. Let me rephrase that: She is the dragon.
To put this puzzle together, you have to know your Germanic mythology. If you’ve read the Poetic Edda or other Norsey texts, you know that humans can become dragons by hoarding treasure: you hide it away, you guard it, and you become a dragon. The dragon Fafnir of Germanic legend was actually the dwarf Fafnir who betrayed his brothers, hoarded the family treasure, and became a dragon. (Treasure, if you know your Germanic literature, or even your Old English literature, or even just Beowulf, is to be shared, not hoarded.) As I argued on ANSAXNET, Gaiman knows his stuff, and the rewriting was going to resonate with the tradition if not the extant poem. (Because, you know, from a storyteller’s point of view, what’s the purpose of making a literal adaptation of Beowulf. Gaiman doesn’t need to do hack writing jobs to make money. He’s going to write something because the writing itself interests him.) If my speculation here is right, then, well, I’m right.
What’s cool about all this, I think, is that we also see echoes of Tolkien. Tolkien’s dragon sickness, what corrupts the mayor of Laketown and Thorin Oakshield in The Hobbit, is greed induced by treasure — it’s what causes people to hoard treasure and eventually become dragons. Dragon sickness is the antithesis of Anglo-Saxon/Germanic social values (community, gift giving, fealty, etc.), and it can overcome the best of people (Thorin Oakshield and, in much larger terms, Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings). And that brings us back to Beowulf. In the Gaiman/Avery retelling, Beowulf doesn’t kill Grendel’s mother in their encounter, and Beowulf lies about not killing her, because he succumbs to dragon sickness. In other words, if what we’ve got are echoes of Tolkien here, Gaiman (and Avery) reinscribe Germanic mythology/tradition back onto Beowulf through the lens of modern Fantasy (Tolkien) in much the same way as Terry Pratchett and Tom Holt reinscribe the Victorian conception of the Old North back on to itself through the lens of that other major figure in 20th century fantasy, Robert E. Howard. (The argument of my 2004 MLA paper, “Holt’s Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? and Pratchett’s The Last Hero: Comedic Fantasy and the Reception of Old Norse Literature.”) And in case it needs to be said, Gaiman and Pratchett not only friends but sometimes collaborators whose views on storytelling and narrative mesh exceedingly well.