An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

September 26, 2016

Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage

Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage. Book & lyrics by Jason Craig; music by Dave Malloy; directed by Curt Columbus. Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, RI. September 8 - October 9, 2016.

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (

Medievalism and a fascinating example of Brecht’s epic theatre are on full display at Providence’s Trinity Rep. Originally presented in 2008 by Berkeley’s Shogun Players, Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage stages the Anglo-Saxon poem as a rock opera that opens with three academics, armed with transparencies and an overhead projector no less, seated at a table about to deliver their conference papers on Beowulf—think of the worst possible sessions at the annual medieval congresses in Leeds or in Kalamazoo. At stake in the academic babble are weighty matters such as the proper pronunciation of Geat and Heorot, and whether the underwater lair of Grendel’s Mother is a feminist response to the oppressive patriarchy of the male/hero-centered world of the poem. But, before we can doze off—again think of Leeds or of Kalamazoo—one of the panelists is transformed into Grendel in all his fury as he rips the head off of one of Hrothgar’s thanes—substituted for by what appears to be a Ken or GI Joe doll.  Eventually the other two panelists will be transformed into the poem’s other two monsters—Grendel’s Mother and the dragon from Beowulf’s fatal final battle.

For the production, the folks at Trinity have basically cleared out their main theatre space and filled it with scaffolding, risers and planks, leaving behind odd bits of stage props perhaps from other production, perhaps not—a ship’s wheel, a cannon, a clown’s head, a table from an Italian restaurant—later used by Grendel when he dines on bread stick bones and pasta with thane-meat sauce Bolognese. 

Costumes are a pastiche from a grab bag of styles. Hrothgar wears a silver lamé evening jacket. Beowulf—who is more brawn than brains (or, as we academic might have it, he is a bit heavier on fortitudo than on sapientia)—sports a pleather kilt and black football shoulder pads, to which at first an American flag is attached.  In his battle with the dragon at the end of the play, he will don a winged helmet and a maroon cloak. The academics are appropriately dowdy in their attire when they play academics, but easily transformed into marvelous giant puppets thanks to the addition of all kinds of props.  Grendel’s Mother—at first a frumpy feminist academic of a certain age and type—is further transformed into her monstrous shape with the aid of turquoise swimming flippers and a matching snorkeling mask. The musicians too sport a variety of outfits including deer heads and antlers, and their music reflects a mix of styles from Klezmer to heavy rock to country to the balladic. As I indicated early, the production is nothing if not Brechtian.

The production also takes aim at contemporary issues. Hrothgar is cast against type—the actor playing him is young and African American—and four of his five thanes are gender-bending shield maidens.  Grendel and his Mother are clearly foreigners—terrorists even—of which to be wary.  The heroic idea that it is better to get vengeance than to mourn has some uncomfortable echoes today. Hrothgar and his court make the mistake of letting their guard down after Grendel is dispatched. Nonetheless, act one ends on a high note, though a banner drops from the ceiling to proclaim “Mission Accomplished”—pace George W. Bush’s 2003 speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.  Both Grendel and Beowulf, we are told, are mentally challenged—Beowulf admits to being dyslexic.  Grendel’s Mother even lectures Beowulf about his attack on Grendel as if the eponymous hero were a playground bully. 

The acting and singing are uniformly excellent.  The humor is genuine—the battle between Grendel’s Mother and Beowulf is staged using an overhead projector and transparencies in a style that echoes Javanese shadow puppetry (another nod to epic theatre)—and includes an excursus on the magic of some swords including Excalibur (another nod to—against?—the academy, in this case with a dig at the scholarly obsession to compare and contrast almost anything—when we were in graduate school, my classmates and I thought about founding a journal called Non-influence Studies).

The lobby bar had Grendel’s Grog and Battle Axe Malbec on offer, and the house staff distributed free cups of Grendel’s blood—cranberry juice—during the interval. One could have wished for some mead, and definitely for some tee shirts.  At the end of the interval, audience members got to play volley ball with the cast using a balloon that was supposedly Grendel’s head. The highlight of the production was the singing in Old English of the passage in the poem describing the battle between the agéd Beowulf and the dragon—the song was truly moving. 

Part of the premise of the production is that Beowulf is a boring fossil that generations of high school and college students have been forced to study. But the production itself belies that premise as it demonstrates that the poem is far from boring or fossilized.  It continues to speak to us—I had just finished discussing Beowulf with a class of first-years and the members of my senior seminar before attending the Trinity production.  Certainly both groups of students found much to admire and to discuss in the poem. 

Beowulf, which continues to have an amazing afterlife, more properly has a continuing legacy, not a thousand years of baggage—despite the efforts of some academics at conferences.  That legacy includes any number of novels, multiple graphic novels (a least one, Kid Beowulf, an eight-part series), other musical works, several operas, a spate of recent films, an on-going television series on the Esquire Channel (that is admittedly a hybrid of a Western and Game of Thrones), individual episodes and story arcs in several unrelated television series (Xena: Warrior Princess and Star Trek: Voyager), board and video games, and comics.

In 2010, Trinity staged a wonderful production of Camelot set in a London Underground station during the Blitz. Trinity’s production of Beowulf is, likewise, an example of stage medievalism at its best—but I really do wish that there had been tee shirts for sale with the wonderful poster—see above—for the production on them—life may in part be a series of missed marketing opportunities!

Beowulf, A Thousand Years of Baggage, book and lyrics by Jason Craig, music by Dave Malloy, direction by Curt Columbus, musical direction by Michael Rice, choreography by Jude Sandy, set by Michael McGarty, costumes by Olivera Gajic, lighting by Dan Scully, sound by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, puppets by Soshanna Utchenik, production stage managed by Kelly Hardy.  With Charlie Thurston (Beowulf), Stephen Berenson (Academic One/Grendel), Anne Scurria (Academic Two/Grendel’s Mother), Janice Duclos (Academic Three/Dragon), Joe Wilson, Jr. (Hrothgar),  Rachel Warren (Warrior One), Rebecca Gibel (Warrior Two), Rachel Clausen (Warrior Three), Laura Lyman Payne (Warrior Four), and Brad Wilson (Warrior Five), also with Michael Rice on keyboard, Karen Orsi on guitar, and Mike Sartini on percussion.  A production of Trinity Repertory Company, the State Theatre of Rhode Island, at the Lederer Theater Center in Providence; Curt Columbus, Artistic Director, and Tom Parrish, Executive Director.

Kevin J. Hary
La Salle University

September 21, 2016

Morton: William Wallace: a National Tale

Graeme Morton, William Wallace: A National Tale. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014. 2nd Edition.
Reviewed by Laura Harrison (

In William Wallace: A National Tale, Graeme Morton revisits the central figure of his 2001 (second edition, 2004) book William Wallace: Man and Myth. As Morton reveals in the preface, the original book was an attempt to sort through the post-Braveheart ‘tumult’ surrounding Wallace. This 2014 re-examination explores how Wallace’s biography became Scotland’s national tale, “a term taken out of its literary moorings to examine how personal biography has been reforged and presented as the nation’s biography…” (13).  Morton posits Wallace has contributed to Scottish nationalism since long before it was identified as such, due to the dearth of reliable sources for his life. Morton is certainly not the first to make this claim, but the depth to which he examines the various uses of Wallace’s biography makes this book a useful and welcome addition to scholars of both medieval and modern Scotland.

Morton is currently Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee.  He was previously the inaugural Scottish Studies Foundation Chair at the University of Guelph, and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.  Morton has published widely on the Scottish diaspora, national identity, modern politics, meteorological history, and economic and social history, all with a focus on Scotland, Britain, and the diaspora.  As mentioned above, this book is an update to his previous flirtation with medievalism in William Wallace: Man and Myth. Other notable publications include The Scottish Diaspora (2013) with T. Bueltmann and A. Hinson, and Unionist Nationalism: Governing Urban Scotland, 1830-1860 (1999).

In this book, Morton is arguing the Wallace story has provided a strong foundation upon which Scottish national identity has been built for hundreds of years. To illustrate this, he traces receptions of the Wallace story across time, from text and images to film and digital reproductions. The twelve chapters are largely chronological, beginning from chapters three and four. These outline the major chronicle sources available for Wallace, including the Lanercost Chronicle, Fordun, Bower, Wyntoun, Mair, and Blind Hary, which is the central focus for chapter four.  Like most scholars, Morton questions the authenticity of Hary, but recognizes, “Hary provided enough certitude, alongside even greater fabrication and romantic embellishment, to sustain a verse that spread into the modern period…” (60). Chapter four also shows Hary’s prevalence in the club books produced during the nineteenth-century Wallaciana.  Reflecting the popularity of the Wallace ‘cult’ in the period, the nineteenth century continues to be the focal point for the next several chapters.  Chapter five reflects on stories, songs, and poems produced during this century, while chapter nine highlights the monuments, souvenirs, and material culture associated with the life of Wallace. Chapters six and seven are focused on author Jane Porter and her extraordinarily popular historical romance The Scottish Chiefs.  Chapters ten and eleven move into the twentieth century with a discussion of why the life of Wallace was appropriated much more regularly than that of Robert the Bruce, despite the two men being contemporaries during the Scottish Wars of Independence.  Chapter ten also looks at Wallace and religion, politics, and nationalism in twentieth-century Scotland.  The book ends with a discussion of the film Braveheart, and twenty-first century uses of Wallace, in the age of the internet.

There are several recurring themes and topics in Morton’s book. He begins by discussing Janusian history, referring to the ancient Greek god known as a “signifier of a future forged from the past in communication with the present” (1). He continues to refer to a biography acting as a 'Janusian conduit' throughout the text, for example he refers to Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs as “Janusian nationalism in the making, piecing together past events in order to construct a suitable historical future” (28).  Porter, and her historical romance based on the lives of Wallace and Bruce, are another common topic in the book.  Morton argues the novel has contributed more to the Wallace biography than any other modern source.  He also discusses her relationship with Sir Walter Scott (chapters two and six), whether the novel can be considered a historical novel (chapter two), her personal life and how it contributed to her legacy (chapters six and seven), and the positive reception of the novel throughout the diaspora (chapter seven).  Morton gives a lot of attention to Porter, assumingly because that is how many people from the early nineteenth-century on have first encountered Wallace.  A further issue is the significance of the lack of contemporary sources for Wallace’s life.  This allows his biography to be adaptable to a variety of motivations, which is crucial to its enduring popularity and use. 

Morton’s book is perhaps most notable for his discussion of feminine nationalism, which he explores in chapter eight.  He argues that Scotland had a feminised identity due to its relationship within the United Kingdom, “it was the product of a peripheral nation in partnership with a core nation, a union envisioned, if not in actuality, as one of equality” (130).  Morton also maintains the malleability of Wallace owes a lot to Porter’s feminisation of his masculine biography, “Feminising the most masculine of Scottish heroes ensured the greatest impact…This caught the popular construction of Scottish nationalism like no other in the decades before political nationalism of the twentieth century” (132).  As Morton himself says, the role of gender in discussions on nationalism in Scotland has not been given adequate attention, and its inclusion in this book seems to be a call to arms from the author. 

Morton is also largely focused on the history of national identity in Scotland.  This is not entirely surprising, given Morton’s research interests and also the role of Wallace in discussions of national identity.  National identity is nearly synonymous with Scottish history, but the history of that identity is not always examined.  Wallace provides a useful microcosm from which to study Scottish national identity since the early modern period, and particularly since the nineteenth century.  In chapter four Morton uses the publishing history of Blind Hary’s The Wallace to show early modern trends in popularity.  For the nineteenth century, Morton emphasises how the anti-English aspects of Wallace’s biography were downplayed, in order to present a Wallace who would have been supportive of the Union.  Morton also points out how, in the twentieth century, Wallace was used by most of the political parties, not just the Scottish National Party, though they are often criticised for their appropriation of Scottish history.  He then outlines the decline in the appeal of Wallace in the twentieth century, until the release of Braveheart in 1995.  In the twenty-first century, Morton argues Wallace has become a part of national identity through a self-fulfilling prophecy, “Wallace is Scotland’s national tale because he is our national tale” (208).  Thanks to the internet, Scottish identity has recently been globalised, with many people having a stake in Wallace’s story, as well as Scotland, despite living abroad.

There are many strengths in Morton’s work.  The discussion of feminine nationalism adds an interesting and entirely necessary perspective to the study of Scottish national identity.  The long timeline of the book allows the reader to see larger trends in commemoration and identity formation in Scotland.  It is also a very readable text, and could certainly be read for interest as much as for its contributions to the field.  The greatest strength of Morton’s book is his approach to the topic of national identity, or the 'national tale'.  By using Wallace as a lens he is able to cover hundreds of years and a variety of topics in a relatively short book.  This strength, however, also leads to the greatest weakness of the book.  Due to the focus on one individual, the role of Wallace in the history of Scottish identity can sometimes seem overinflated.  I was left wondering when Bruce would enter the picture, particularly during the discussions of The Scottish Chiefs in which he is a central character – though admittedly not as central as Wallace.  Morton uses Bruce as the antithesis to Wallace, to show how Wallace suited nineteenth-century mentalities better.  While no doubt true, it seemed that part of the story was missing.

Overall, this book is an excellent contribution to the fields of medievalism, Scottish history, diaspora studies, and national identity.  Morton covers a variety of topics and time periods through the use of Wallace as the connecting link, and draws a clear conclusion as to how he has influenced the national tale.  It would be of use to medieval and modern historians of Scotland and the Scottish diaspora alike, as well as anyone with an interest in the appropriation of Wallace. 

Laura Harrison
University of Edinburgh


August 23, 2016

Traidl: Telling Tales About Beowulf

Veronika Traidl, Telling Tales about Beowulf: The Poem and the Films. Munich: Herbert Utz, 2016.

Reviewed by Oliver M. Traxel ( 

Film makers intending to bring the Old English epic Beowulf to the screen have one big advantage. In contrast to other well-known legendary figures, such as King Arthur or Robin Hood, there is only one surviving manuscript version which can be drawn upon. It is therefore surprising that none of the films based on this poem has adapted the material successfully for a modern audience, as has been shown by Nickolas Haydock and E.L. Risden.[1] However, they do not treat each film individually, but take them as a group to be examined with regard to various topics. Moreover, they omit Beowulf (1972), which Jodi-Anne George has considered the most faithful version so far.[2] Veronika Traidl’s Munich dissertation remedies this situation by gathering all films associated with Beowulf and subdividing them into three categories according to their closeness to the poem. She calls seven of them “major”, another seven “minor”, and four “marginal”. This attribution makes sense, though four of the “minor” ones are TV episodes from Star Trek: Voyager (1995) and Xena: The Warrior Princess (2000); the Xena episodes even make up a trilogy and could therefore have been treated as one. Another “minor” film, Animated Epics: Beowulf (1998), is actually a condensed retelling of the story and therefore very close, but rated as “minor” due to its brief length of merely 27 minutes.

The introduction contains a chronological list of the eighteen films and explains the aim and structure of the study: to provide a comprehensive analysis of each film in several sections focussing on one particular aspect. Chapter 2 outlines the principles of categorisation as “major”, “minor” and “marginal” films and offers some brief background information on all of them. The following chapter treats them in chronological order and critically discusses the existing academic work. This information is comprehensive and well researched. The beginning chapters can therefore also serve as a quick reference guide for anyone who is looking for material on one specific film version. Chapter 4 gives a general overview of the Old English poem and gathers academic views on relevant points, such as structure, dating, and the depiction of religion. This part does not offer anything new, but it is sound and shows the author’s excellent familiarity with the current state of Beowulf scholarship. Moreover, it is very helpful to those readers not familiar with the extant text or who need some refreshing.

With 215 out of 300 pages, Chapter 5 on the seven major films occupies more than two thirds of the book and can be seen as the centrepiece of the study. It comprises Beowulf (1972), Beowulf (1999), The 13th Warrior (1999), Beowulf & Grendel (2005), Beowulf (2007), Grendel (2007), and Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008). There are no less then fifteen sections dedicated to specific topics. These concern fundamental points (Contents & structure; Differences to the poem; Place & time of action), key characters (Beowulf; Grendel; Grendel’s mother; Hrothgar; Unferth; Queens & other women), linguistic features (Language; Onomastics), and other important aspects (Religion; Anachronisms; Motifs; Further aspects). Section 5.2 on “Differences to the poem” is subdivided into films which omit the dragon fight (four) and those who include it (three) as it is one of the key elements of the original plot and therefore merits separate discussion. If a film is irrelevant to a specific aspect, it is not contained in the section in question. In most cases this concerns Beowulf (1972), which does not appear in Sections 5.8 (Unferth), 5.11 (Onomastics), 5.13 (Anachronisms), 5.14 (Motifs) and 5.15 (Further aspects). Generally, the entire chapter is remarkable as it covers the major films in great detail and also gives precise references to the timing of film passages, line numbers of the original poem as well as secondary literature. The argumentation can therefore be compared very easily. Moreover, each section concludes with a table that briefly summarises the most important points in each film and therefore provides a quick and helpful reference tool.

The following two chapters are devoted to the seven minor and four marginal films respectively. Besides the summaries they consist of only two sections each of which mirrors the first two in Chapter 5. However, while Section 5.2 points out differences to the poem, Section 6.2 deals with both parallels and differences, and Section 7.2 focuses on parallels only. This alteration of focus makes sense as, in contrast to the major films, the marginal Clash of the Titans (1981), Predator (1987), Beware: Children at Play (1989) and No Such Thing (2001) are not directly based on the poem and it is the determination of parallels rather than differences which merit their inclusion in this study. In fact, Traidl sees hardly any similarities to Beowulf in the marginal films and includes them only as they are associated with the poem in the secondary literature (p. 296). Given this approach she could have referred to even more films in Chapter 7, e.g. Alien (1979), which she mentions on other occasions (p. 118, n. 153; p. 146). The minor films, on the other hand, show greater affinities to the poem, but have different purposes. Some issues are incorporated into ongoing TV series, namely Star Trek: Voyager (1995) and three episodes from Xena: The Warrior Princess (2000), as well as the science fiction film Outlander (2008). The two remaining minor films are either based on a modern literary version, namely Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981), or retell the story in rather concise way, namely Animated Epics: Beowulf (1998).

The book is written by a native speaker of German (p. 202, n. 246) who shows an excellent command of the English language. The few linguistic problems could have been fixed by more diligent proof-reading. They include additional words, as in “but it Grendel” (p. 118) or “Grendel’s as mother” (p. 141, pic. 22), inconsistencies, as in “cross bow” (p. 73), “cross-bow” (p. 96) and “crossbow” (p. 110), random usage of “blond” and “blonde”, with “blonde” also being used for the male form (p. 161) and “blond” for the female form (p. 188), or the American verbal spelling “practice” rather than “practise” (p. 203) in the otherwise British English text. The layout is very tidy, and occasional issues, such as larger empty spaces near illustrations (pp. 87, 88, 90) or the incorrect division of Old English words, as in “Ecgth-eow’s” (p. 61), and “Heal-fdene” (p. 221), were probably caused by the word processing software. German rather than English punctuation is consistently used for decimals, such as “1,96” and “1,74” (p. 103, nn. 124, 125). Slightly more problematic is the author’s occasional difficulty in transcribing film passages correctly, as she even admits herself (p. 209, n. 253). Examples for Old English include her suggestion of an unattested “clattrym” rather than clatrung (“noise”), and singular “ēare” rather than plural ēaran (“ears”) (p. 209). Moreover, she does not identify Modern English long-legged in a passage from Beware: Children at Play (1989), but provides an empty space instead (p. 294, n. 332), failing to recognise the reference to a well-known Cornish litany.[3]

Traidl has delivered a remarkably detailed survey of all film versions of Beowulf produced until 2015. She is also aware of later projects, such as the TV Series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016), which premiered on ITV after she submitted her study (p. 300). The task of gathering the material cannot have been easy as the DVDs of some films, in particular Beowulf (1972) and Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008), are no longer commercially available. In fact, it was the director of Beowulf (1972) himself, Don Fairservice, who provided her with a copy (p. 11, n. 21). Traidl was also in touch with others when researching her study, for example Scott Wegener, the director of Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008) (e.g. p. 264, n. 315), and Karl Hagen, language consultant for Beowulf (2007) (e.g. p. 209, n. 253), which proves that a great deal of the argumentation is based on first-hand information. Several colour screenshots from Beowulf (1972), Beowulf & Grendel (2005), and Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008) are found throughout, whereas no free rights could be obtained for the other major films. Quotations from Beowulf are from Klaeber’s latest edition,[4] while translated passages are from Heaney,[5] which are of course seminal primary works and therefore well chosen. The book is diligently researched, has hardly any shortcomings, and will doubtless remain the reference work on Beowulf films for the time being. Any supplements whenever a new version comes out would also be very welcome. It can only be hoped that one day there will also be a film that is actually good.

Oliver M. Traxe
University of Stavanger

[1] Nickolas Haydock and E. L. Risden, Beowulf on Film: Adaptations and Variations. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, 2013.
[2] Jodie-Anne George, Beowulf: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, 2010, pp. 115-149.
[3] Don E. Post, Ghosties and Ghoulies and Long-Legged Beasties and Things That Go Bump in the Night: Christian Basics for the Twenty-First Century. New York, Lincoln, NE, and Shanghai: iUniverse, 2004.
[4] Frederick Klaeber, ed., Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 4th ed. Robert D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
[5] Seamus Heaney, ed., Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney. Bilingual Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.