For those of you who enjoyed Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, a rollicking good film adaptation of the old English poem––I certainly did (I watched it twice)––my 1-hour storyteller’s version of Beowulf may surprise you. Firstly, Ms. Jolie is much prettier than I am, but then again, I’m a man, and the “Grendel’s Mother” that screams from the fens in my version of the story isn’t pretty anyway, or supposed to be.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Like Grendel himself, she’s much closer to an immense werewolf demon than to a golden-skinned houri, but that’s because in my version I keep fairly close to the original tale. Would Hrothgar go philandering with this Grendel’s Mother? I don’t think so. Unlike her son, who in my version is incapable of speech (but roars magnificently, I must say), this Grendel’s Mother hisses and screeches out words at best, but can run fifty miles an hour. Ten foot strides. Coming over the moors in the moonlight, bent on revenge, she’s mean from her fur down to the bone. No seduction involved.
For years people asked me, “Odds, when are you going to create a version of Beowulf?” And for years I replied, “When somebody commissions me to do it.” Well, helmets and mail off to The Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts. They commissioned the first performance of it about year ago and now Bodkin’s Beowulf is perfected and ready for prime time.
The score on 12-string guitar is haunting and intense, I must say, and rivals that of The Odyssey or The Iliad: Book I––other pieces of bardic heavy lifting I offer to audiences regularly. The Beowulf score runs the emotional gamut, from minor themes for the darkest of souls to sparkling motifs highlighting mercy and gratitude. Sounds lofty, doesn’t it? Well, it is.
And it’s not only lofty because of the music. It’s also lofty because as with other nearly unredeemable warrior tales I’ve told where death dealing is the prime virtue, my Beowulf bleeds. Not blood, mind you, but reflections on the nature of his life. One of the finest quotes from the poem, which I have Beowulf intone any number of times, is:
“Fate will often save an undoomed man, if his courage holds.”
Think about that. That’s a solid piece of advice from the Vikings, notwithstanding other gems of theirs such as, “As you walk in a door, beware that there is no man behind it with a sword.” Then again, those were savage times. Can’t blame Odin for including that in his Havamal., the Viking book of etiquette.
I digress, however. So to try to find a narrative path to allow Beowulf to be something deeper than an invincible cardboard warrior, I thought long and hard about how to make his death at the story’s end more poignant. Yes, he’s old and the Fire Dragon kills him. But the theme of “rescue” by someone from your past, such as Beowulf was in Hrothgar’s past? That, I said to myself, is worth exploring. Recall that as a boy Beowulf accompanied his father to Hrothgar’s court. Guilty of a feud slaying, Beowulf’s father was a marked man. The Wylfings––one of many warring Baltic tribes––wanted his blood for the killing. Hrothgar paid the blood price for him, and saved his life.
Little Beowulf never forgot it.
So I followed that thread, and emphasized it. Beowulf journeys to Heorot to kill Grendel not only for glory and gold. He goes out of gratitude as well. And upon killing Grendel’s Mother, old Hrothgar declares that Beowulf is now his son. No small gift from the richest man along the Baltic. The old man cries on Beowulf’s chest. At last, the old king sobs, he can sleep in peace at night.
Fast-forward fifty years. Beowulf himself is now past seventy. A thief awakens a Fire Dragon that attacks Beowulf’s mead hall, built to look like Heorot. And at this moment in the tale, I as the latest interpreter of this timeless mythic story steal a dram of fictional license. I create a scene not in the original tale. Hey, why not? Zemeckis did it all the way through. In this scene, the aged Beowulf asks Wyglaf, his oldest and most trusted thane, if any young, impetuous dragon-killers have arrived to do what Beowulf did for Hrothgar. Has anyone come to save him?
And Wyglaf says, “No, Lord, no. No one has come.”