Beowulf in the 21st Century

suttonhoo1I will be presenting at Kalamazoo (International Medieval Congress) on “Beowulf in the 21st Century.”

The following is an email about my presentation, including the main point of my argument.

Reasonably accurate revenants indicate a frame of reference, a cultural literacy, which includes Beowulf. These lend credence to Fradenburg’s argument that there is a “vast popular knowledge” of medieval texts and D’Arcens’ argument that there is a resurgence in the popularity of medieval history and literature.

Thus I would argue that the audience for science fiction and fantasy novels can be considered very aware, the audience of movies are less aware, and video game audiences are basically unaware of the text, except perhaps for the name. (The video game references are unrelated to those characters’ experiences in the original text.) The graphic novels, on the other hand, are increasing the reader’s knowledge of the text, since they follow fairly closely the work, but probably presuppose little exposure to the text, since otherwise the readers would be bored. The board games argue for a familiarity with in one case the movie only and in the other the poem.

I would try to interview the designer of the board games in order to determine familiarity with the Old English text prior to the work on the games and to see the expectations regarding the audiences. I think I could probably also interview the graphic novelist. The other authors have a strong fan base and probably are less available for interviews.

Specific texts:
Patricia Briggs Cry Wolf
Eric Flint and David Weber Torch of Freedom
Larry Niven, Steven Barnes, and Jerry Pournelle Beowulf’s Children
Christopher Stasheff’s The Oathbound Wizard
Beowulf & Grendel (movie 2005)
Beowulf (movie 2007)
Grendel (movie 2007)
Beowulf: The Compilation (graphic novel)
Final Fantasy (video game)
Devil May Cry (video game)
Beowulf: The Game (video game)
Beowulf: The Legend (board game)
Beowulf: The Movie (board game)

If, in the interest of time, I had to limit the texts, I would delete the video and board games first, or at least refer to them only at the same level of depth (or close to it) that I included in the proposal.

If I had more time, I might refer to those works which are reacquainting a new generation with the text, such as Rumford’s Beowulf and Johns’ The Saga of Beowulf or Kiernan’s Beowulf or Godwin’s The Tower of Beowulf or Crownover’s Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf. These are works which can afford to presuppose no previous exposure to the text and use their literature to introduce it to the audience.

If you would prefer one version over the other (leave out video and board, add introductions), I would be happy to do that as well.

Basically I think that academics tend to assume that students, if they were introduced to Beowulf at all, met the story in our classrooms or perhaps in a high school English course. I believe that the plethora of literature referring to and retelling the story argues that this is not the case.

I am going to take the approach of looking at works which are introducing Beowulf to audiences who might not have a familiarity with it from school, because I am starting to wonder if anyone actually remembers they read this thing, even if they did.

The image is of a Sutton Hoo helmet.

One thought on “Beowulf in the 21st Century”

  1. Dr. Davis,

    Thank you for mentioning my novel, The Saga of Beowulf, in your consideration of texts pertaining to this proposed project. This is, of course, a subject very near to my heart, and I would strongly support both your and Fradenburg’s contentions. However, resurgences of interest wax and wane, and while Beowulf as a subject has gained in recent popularity, I would argue that knowledge of the actual text has suffered, partially as a consequence. My purpose for undertaking a novelization of Beowulf was to bring the story as accurately as possible to a modern audience, in a format which they could readily understand and, hopefully, enjoy. The fact is that, while a common popular awareness of Beowulf may permeate Western European culture, familiarity with the text on which it’s based does not.

    Of your other choices, not one is, in fact, an accurate representation of the original text. The graphic novels are the closest, but are intended for children and young adults, Kiernan’s is based on the CGI movie, which itself was far from accurate, and Godwin’s novel was published in the 1970’s, and so does not fit into your 21st century timeframe (and is, in addition, more inaccurate than the others). While I understand that adherence to the primary story form is not your focus, I would argue that a theme of “reintroduction” would require it, at least to some degree – lest modern audiences come to believe Beowulf was originally a 1970’s science fiction novel (or worse, a 2007 film).

    Should you like further information concerning my purposes and method in reproducing Beowulf as a 21st century novel, please visit the Author’s Afterword and Adaptation Notes sections of The Saga of Beowulf page at

    Best of luck with your project,
    R. Scot Johns

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