Monday, November 26, 2007

"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas..."

Cross Symbolism?
Or just annoyingly ambiguous...
(Image from Out Now)

In his excellent review of the Beowulf movie, my cypher-cyber-buddy Scott Nokes -- whom I've also met offline at a Medievalist conference here in Seoul -- wondered about the religious angle to the film:
The Christian/pagan thing never quite got worked out well. I was under the impression that the film was trying to be anti-Christian, but it never really came to thematic fruition.
Anti-Christian? I didn't get that impression, and I would be surprised if the director, Robert Zemeckis, were intending an anti-Christian film. I've read in an interview somewhere that he was raised as a Catholic by his Lithuanian father and Croatian mother. In itself, that wouldn't mean anything since one could rebel and become anti-Catholic. But in an interview with American Academy of Achievement, he's asked a question about his values:
AAA: There's a sense of quality and a value system that has infused your later work to a greater and greater degree. Where did that come from?

Robert Zemeckis: I think that was bred into me, growing up. It was really a very healthy, balanced system when I look back at it. I was sent to a Catholic school when I was in grade school, and I think in those days, the 50s, that was a bit more heavy. I carry a lot of emotional scars from that, but that's all changed now. The idea of having solid values, coupled with the reality of how the world and the system works, I think is ultimately pretty healthy, because you're not walking around completely naive.
Moreover, in addition to his movie Beowulf, Zemeckis also directed The Polar Express, which seemed to me to be a movie about faith, in which the spirit of Christmas can be experienced by those who truly believe. The official US website for The Polar Express movie says "This Holiday Season ... Believe." And there's that iconic image of the poor boy from the wrong side of town who, finally experiencing Christmas when he finds the gift that he first saw at the North Pole now waiting under his family's Christmas tree, runs out onto the porch and holds up his still-wrapped present whose bright-green ribbon forms a cross that stands out against the red-stripped wrapping, the dark night, and a world of snow.

I haven't located that image online, but in the image above, you can see the boy in the lower right looking down at his gift soon after he had first seen it in Santa's workshop. Note, as well, that the above image bears the words "If you truly believe" ... though any 'spiritual' mood is somewhat marred by the words that follow: "find all 5 stocking stuffers."

Anyway -- to get back to the Beowulf movie -- the old Germanic paganism didn't come off looking especially positive. The pagan Danes and Geats are drunken louts prone to ready sex and even readier violence. Beowulf himself, though a cut above his thanes, is not entirely reliable in word or deed despite being a hero.

The only fully admirable character in the entire story is Wealtheow, who falls for Beowulf and becomes his wife. In the latter part of the film, she has apparently converted to Christianity, for she wears a small but prominantly displayed golden cross about her neck and serves as Beowulf's conscience.

Not that this redeems the film, which remains flawed, but on the evidence, I can't say that the movie was intended as anti-Christian.

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At 9:23 AM, Blogger Dymphna said...

This is OT, but I thought if I put it in its proper category, you might miss it...

I was very pleased to see your post about Piers Plowman. I love that work. Along with The Pearl, those are two of my favorites.

Can you recommend a good edition of P.P. in modern English, with perhaps some annotation? It's been too many years since I've read it -- I need some background again.

Meanwhile, congratulations on your standing as a Plowman expert. Whowee!

At 12:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dymphna, because I'm automatically notified of every comment posted to any blog entry, I never miss a comment posted where it 'belongs' (unless the notification system is flawed somehow -- a frightening thought!).

But there's no problem in posting your comment here.

As for Piers Plowman, I used online sources, which you can investigate by scrolling down my blogroll to:

Medieval English Literature Websites

Under that, you'll find:

Piers Plowman (Luminarium)
Piers Plowman Cambridge MS B.15.17 (University of Virginia Library)
Piers Plowman Electronic Archive (Virginia)
Piers Plowman Cambridge MS B.15.17 (W) (Virginia)
Renaissance English Literature

I don't recall which ones I used, and I'm really no expert anyway, so you could probably locate one that works for you.

Happy searching (and Thanksgiving).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:11 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

For what it's worth, the alliterative verse translation into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson (published by W.W. Norton) is a pleasant read for someone who's looking to return to the poem after a long absence (or who's looking to read it for the first time).

At 12:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, Dymphna, there you have it -- Charlesmagne has spoken and likely knows far more than I since he founded the Medieval system.

Well, maybe not, but Jeff knows better than Jeffery.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:30 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

I confess, I'm no expert on Piers Plowman, but I used that edition a few years ago when I decided to spring an excerpt on my students, and they found it both readable and interesting.

At 4:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeff, you still know more than I do. I didn't even read the entire poem but merely wrote on Passus 18.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:38 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

You flatter me: I haven't read all of Piers Plowman either. But if we continue to compete at figuring out who knows less than whom, I may have to confess to complete illiteracy. It's true: I never learned to read!

At 9:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeff, you're not going to believe this -- and I've never admitted it to anyone before -- but I'm ashamed to admit that I don't even know the alphabet!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the movie, but: isn't Beowulf considered a Christianized version of a pagan story? It was always presented by my (two) professors of medieval history as an example of the Christian co-optation of pagan mythologies.

Well, I grew up an atheist in the bluest state there is (WA), so . . .

At 3:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I may double post:

You claimed that Wealthow was the only admirable character in the film. Is she a well-grounded character? The whole "token nice guy" character has been pretty much run into the ground, would you say the cliche fits or not?

At 4:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, thanks for posting a comment or two.

On Beowulf as a Christianized pagan myth ... well, that depends on whom you ask. My hunch is that there were some pagan tales of Beowulf but not this particular poem, which I think (following Fred C. Robinson) was composed as a Christian work.

You might want to take a look at my article on this: Praeparatio Evangelium: Beowulf as Antetype of Christ.

On Wealtheow as a character? No, she's not fully developed as a character -- if that's what you mean by "well-grounded". A "token nice guy" (or gal)? I don't know. If Zemeckis intended her to be indicative of the Christianization process that Scandinavian culture was undergoing, and assuming that he intended to imply that this Christianization was a good thing, then she wouldn't be just a token, but these are still to many "ifs" for me to securely decide.

Jeffery Hodges

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