Beowulf Filmfest

On 2 June, Medievalists.net, an excellent blog and website on all things medieval, posted links to eight different YouTube videos about the Old English poem Beowulf. The videos vary widely in quality, so here I re-present them, in a different order, with some commentary. Overall, this presentation shows that there is quite a bit of material about Beowulf out there, but it varies wildly in quality. The videos that make the most of the audio-visual medium tend to be low quality in terms of scholarship and accuracy, while the most insightful commentary is usually framed in achingly dull presentations of a person standing at a lectern and reading from a script.

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First up is the best of the summary videos, which is surprisingly by Thug Notes. Usually such presentations sacrifice accuracy and analysis for humor. But not only is this video amusing and engaging, the writers clearly know the poem well, and their analysis of the poem is dead on. I note only one factual problem: the etymology of the name Beowulf as “man-wolf.” They pulled that one out of thin air. The only other problem is that there is so much more to say about the poem, but that comes with the territory when you try to condense an epic into four and a half minutes. This one is well worth watching.

Next is Beowulf by 60second Recap. It provides a very brief summary of the poem’s main plot points, a summary that is accurate, but by constrained by time is not at all detailed. That would be okay, except the brief analysis that follows is stunningly superficial and wildly off the mark. Beowulf is not relevant to today’s audience because it outlines the model hero: brave, strong, wise, compassionate, etc. Rather it presents the model hero and then continually undercuts him. Beowulf, despite his prowess in killing monsters, is basically a failure; all his victories come with a cost in additional lives and suffering, and he dies leaving his kingdom without an heir and at the mercy of invading armies. So, while sixty seconds isn’t much time, this video is proof that even a small amount of time can be wasted.

Educational Portal provides a fourteen-minute summary by Elspeth Green, whom I gather is a graduate student at Princeton. Green provides a reasonable summary of the poem and its alliterative form. But it’s evident that Green is not an Anglo-Saxonist and doesn’t know the poem all that well. While her summary is decent, she gets minor details wrong, and the video falls apart when she starts trying to explain why people study Beowulf today. The main reason, which she omits entirely, is that it is truly a great work of literature, well-crafted, intricate, emotionally powerful, and hauntingly beautiful as it recalls a nostalgia for pagan past that has slipped away with the coming of Christian “modernity.”

Almost not worth mentioning is the summary of the poem by R. J. Stephenson. (Who that is, I have no idea.) It’s wildly inaccurate and not very funny. Plus at eight and a half minutes, it’s too long. It might work if it were either accurate or funny, but Thug Notes does far, far better job in half the time.

In the category of non-summary videos, Francis Leneghan, a professor of Old English at Oxford, gives a twelve-and-a-half-minute lecture on the question of authorship, and what an analysis of Beowulf has to say about Anglo-Saxon ideas about what the role of a poet and author should be. It’s an excellent lecture. The only problem is that it is a lecture. You can do so much more with video than simply record a person reading a script. Still, the content is excellent.

Brian Patrick McGuire, a history professor at Roskilde University in Denmark, gives a four-minute summary of the poem in Danish with English subtitles. This one is chiefly interesting because McGuire connects the poem to historical characters and events, and it’s filmed at Lejre, a Viking-age site that might have contained Hrothgar’s mead hall. Be forewarned though, the historical connections to the poem are tenuous. Beowulf is a work of fiction containing a smattering of allusions to real people and events. Still, a neat video that evokes the landscapes in the poem.

Jonathan Broussard of Louisiana State University gives a conference paper that contends Beowulf was intended to be a “mirror for princes,” a medieval genre that sought to instruct future nobility on how to act properly. I have a lot to say about the pointlessness of the format of academic conferences in the humanities, but I’ll leave that for another day. Broussard’s paper is a good summary of the topic, which has been raised before. But the video is a low-quality one of a man reading from a script. If you’re interested in what Beowulf has to say about kingship, it may be worth sitting through this eighteen-and-a-half minute reading. Otherwise, give it a miss.

The final video is actually a series of videos that cover another conference presentation, one by Craig Jordan-Baker on adapting Beowulf to dramatic performance. All told, the videos total about an hour. This presentation does better than the last one, in that Jordan-Baker is talking to the subject, using notes, rather than reading from a script, and the video is edited to incorporate Jordan-Baker’s slides—a minimal use of the capabilities of video. (Ironically, this presentation of adapting Beowulf to another format is another poor example of adapting a conference presentation to another format.)

Jordan-Baker’s content, however, is quite good. Of all the videos listed here, this one, in part two, gives the most comprehensive coverage of the themes of Beowulf, what the poem is about beyond the narrative elements.

  • Part 1: a short introduction
  • Part 2: an overview of some of the themes of Beowulf
  • Part 3: Jordan-Baker discusses his own adaptation
  • Part 4: a four-minute discussion of interdisciplinary in the academy and the integration of creative and critical enterprises
  • Part 5: Q&A

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Part two of the presentation is here:

Of all these videos, only two are probably worth the time of people who have a general interest in the poem, the Thug Notes recap and part two of Jordan-Baker’s presentation. Venture into the others if the specific topics seem to be of interest.

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