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  • The Cinematic Sexualizing of Beowulf
  • E. L. Risden

A golden, naked Angelina Jolie (with a whip ponytail!) who with her erotic power melts a would-be hero like adolescent goo; a troll who impregnates, but then protects an abused sybil with an American accent; a tough, golden-haired Viking maiden who medicates then falls for an exotic Arab; a buff playboy bunny who metamorphoses into a spidery man-crushing Monster-Mother; the sexual tension between a glib, hard-drinking, fire-breathing monster and a cute, vulnerable, but brave young reporter: with all these examples of sexualized revisions of the Beowulf story, filmmakers must assume they have no audience for traditional, heroic adventure stories without the addition of sex. So in the name of innovation they have brought to cinematic Beowulfs a comic-bookish element nearly absent from the poem. Sex refigures Beowulf entirely: we get not the epic with its ideals of heroism, loyalty, and personal accomplishment balanced with martial service and self-sacrifice, but exoticisization and titillation that reshape the story as fable about the problems of male sex-drive.

In A League of Their Own, Manager Jimmy Dugan, played by Tom Hanks, tells a tearful player, whom he has just chewed out for missing a cut-off throw, “There’s no crying in baseball!” If Dugan had thought about it—though probably not just at that moment—he might have added later, “There’s no sex in Beowulf!”—or at least there is very little sex in Beowulf, certainly not enough to foreground it in any version of the story one may call Beowulf. Yet sexuality creeps in, hardly on little cat feet, probably because in this age of the world, with all our obsessions and compulsions, we simply cannot keep it out. It comprises not one small vector that rounds a character into sympathetic realism; it controls films like a dominatrix with a willing client, one who returns again and again for the same treatment, perhaps without knowing he may choose reasonable alternatives.

Beowulf the poem has, on its own, remarkable cinematic qualities of landscape, [End Page 109] fully visualizable monster battles, and personal and political tensions within and between characters, but it supplies only light sexual tension (PG 13 at most, unless we consider the violence that may up the rating to R). One can call attention to Wealhtheow and Freawaru and Higd: Beowulf may hold a little candle for any one or all of them, though he does nothing about it. Before the Grendel battle, the poet does say that Hrothgar rises from the drinking hall to seek Wealhtheow, eager to go to bed with his queen. Or as some critics have done, in a silly Freudian way, we may consider the fact that the magic sword Beowulf uses to fight Grendel’s Mother melts after he cuts off her head with it. But then her head is hardly her maidenhead—she has already birthed a monster—and a real fight to the death seldom ends in what Victorians called the “little death,” at least for participants (I do not know what happens among pay-per-view event audiences). The persistent perceiver of epic peccadilloes may add, too, that Grendel’s Mother “sits on” Beowulf before he beheads her, though Fred Robinson disputes that point: he believes “set upon” better translates ofsæt than does “sat upon,”1 thus relieving the sexual suggestion—though from my point of view the pun, at least, remains, regardless of the primary meaning of the word.

If I were to insist on the sexually intimate rather than the martially intimate reading of Beowulf, I would not be the first to accuse the Beowulf-poet of puns—see particularly Raymond Tripp’s work: he finds a pun in about every third line.2 The perhaps too-old-for-her Hrothgar shuffling off to the marriage-bed with the perhaps too-young-for-him Wealhtheow while his retainers wait in danger of mortal attack and monstrous ingestion may come across as unsuitably libidinous in light of the king’s martial impotence. Hildeburh’s brothers returning home with their sister after her blameless failure as peace-weaver suggests the shortcomings of...


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