Beowulf may seem to some to be an odd place to start an analysis of politically correct Newspeak, but since it is at the root of our English culture I believe it is quite appropriate, as it is those values that Political Correctness and Newspeak wish to undermine and destroy.
I am something of a newcomer to Beowulf, having been rather daunted by the stature of the epic, in the same way as I was with the Baghavad Gita, but both are actually quite short and can be read in half a day or so.
I saw the Ray Winston/ Anthony Hopkins voiced animation some years ago and quite enjoyed it I have to confess. However, this was before I had read the actual text.
Last year, 2014, saw the Tolkien translation from the 1930s finally published by his son Christopher, with some reserve. Tolkien is infamous for his uncompleted manuscripts and it is said that he abandoned his Beowulf in an unpolished form. The annotation does indeed lie unfinished, but on reading the actual translation itself I found it gripping and atmospheric. He captured the mood of how the epic may have been presented in a mead hall of the seventh century in superb style.
I was somewhat surprised that on the webcast launch of the newly published edition Tolkien experts were saying that, while it may be wonderful to have a new/old text from the Professor, it wouldn’t really stand as a major translation and was mostly of academic interest. I cannot claim to be an expert on the Anglo-Saxon, although I have done some research on Tolkien with respect to his local sojourn here in Leeds during the early nineteen twenties and believe I have gained some feel for his character and interests.
It is well recognised that there are a number of scenes and situations in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings which are based on vignettes from Beowulf, but not least is the fact that it was the heroic ethic, as much as any formal details of the story, which inspired Tolkien. His translation almost immediately preceded his writing of The Hobbit.
The noble warrior Beowulf is keen to aid his kinsman Hrothgar and his clan against the predations of the ogre Grendel, and when it turns out that Grendel’s mother continues his evil work once he has been slain, he goes into her lair and despatches her as well. Having achieved this he is praised and rewarded by Hrothgar before he returns over the sea to his people in the land of the Geats.
The kingship of his own people comes to him in due course, and eventually, after fifty years, he has to face a dragon which has been woken from a barrow by a thrall who had crept inside and stolen a golden goblet. (The inspiration for Bilbo’s escapade under the Mountain in The Hobbit.) Aided only by his loyal warrior comrade Wiglaf, he confronts the dragon and deals it a fatal blow, but not before he has been mortally injured himself. A burial mound is then raised over his funeral pyre (thought to be Skalunda in southern Sweden) and the poem ends with his people fearing an uncertain future at the hands of Frisians and Franks now that their hero is no more.
Since I had seen the animated film version sufficiently long ago to forget the details of the plot, when I actually read the translation it slipped past me that there were significant differences. Recently I rewatched the video and was left wondering if I had missed niceties in the poem when I had read it. Having been at the time somewhat preoccupied by other matters I had only read it through once and not studied it in close detail. I therefore had recourse to reread it, having greater leisure at my disposal with some downtime over Christmas. I also availed myself of the Seamus Heaney translation (1999), a much easier version than Tolkien’s, recounted as it is in a modern idiom, so that I didn’t miss anything which might have been hidden in the Professor’s archaic style.
I was shocked to realise that the animated version had diverged from the original in many aspects. I understand that stories often need adaptation to make them workable on the screen, but too often these adaptations change and even pervert the intended meanings of the original works. Peter Jackson’s rewriting of some parts of the Lord of the Rings come to mind as examples of this, particularly the changing of Faramir’s behaviour towards Frodo when he finds that he carries the Ring, or Frodo’s behaviour towards Sam on the stair above Minas Morgul. In both instances the honourable behaviour displayed in the book is changed so that the characters become less and their ethical choices (the essence of the story) debased.
And this is what has been done to Beowulf.
I did a little research on the background to the movie and found that the script had been written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary.
Gaiman is a highly respected scifi/fantasy writer, and I have enjoyed some of his work, such as on Doctor Who, but was very disappointed with his ‘Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader’, which seemed to me to lack substance.
In his rewrite of Beowulf he tampered with what has always been the substance of the story, the honour and worthiness of the hero. In fact, nearly all the characters have been debased and made less worthy. Hrothgar, for instance, is shown estranged from his wife, and eventually commits suicide when his dark secret is sensed by Beowulf, rather than praising his champion and sending him home with a reward of treasure.
But the core of the rewrite clusters around the proposition that Beowulf is not ‘a reliable witness’ when it comes to his report that he slew Grendel’s mother with the giant’s blade in her underwater lair. The fact that there were no other eyewitnesses than the hero himself is used by Gaiman and his co-writer to suggest, or rather conclude, that Beowulf lied and had actually come to a secret agreement with the evil spirit.
While it is true that we are obliged to rely on the hero’s own account, we must ask of Gaiman and Avery what other evidence they put forward for their own version? If they had simply admitted that they wished to create a ‘dark’ version, or that they didn’t like the ethic that prevailed in those times and wished to make a ‘modern’ version, then we would have an honest admission that they have changed to story and its motivations for their own reasons, and things would be clear.
But their claim to have reworked the story due to the ‘unreliable’ nature of the reports raises many problems. There is no mention of the golden ‘dragon horn’ in the text, Hrothgar is an honourable king who leaves a son and heir, there is no suggestion that Beowulf takes the king’s wife to himself after his demise, nor that the dragon at the end of the tale had any relation to Grendel’s mother. It is made clear that the dragon’s reason for attacking the Geats is his affront at the theft of the golden goblet and it is never suggested that he has anything against Beowulf personally, let alone that he is his offspring by Grendel’s mother.
I could go on detailing the aberrant features of the storyline used in the animation, but I hope it will by now be clear that there is a lot more going on than a mere reinterpretation due to a piece of unsupported reporting by Beowulf. In fact, in the text, there are several points observed by the bystanders which tend to support Beowulf’s own report. Firstly, the boiling and bubbling of the water with blood at the entrance to her submarine den suggests that he had indeed slain some monster. Grendel had already died, so although when his head is cut off from his corpse in the cave and brought back to show Hrothgar it is reported by the poet to ‘drip’ with blood, surely drips are all that there would have been having lost an arm a day before and died in his mother’s lair, not the boiling surge which is observed by Geats when the mother is slain. In addition, the giant’s blade melts from the toxicity of the blood. No mention is made of Grendel’s blood having these qualities, which surely would have been observed and recorded when his arm was wrenched from his torso in the meadhall Heorot, had it been so.
Gaiman and his accomplice also manage to overlook the fact that having rid the Spear Danes of their demons, Beowulf then returns home over the sea to his own land where he recounts his tale to his King and kinsman, Hygelac. In due course the kingship of the Geats comes to Beowulf, not the kingship of the Danes who he had saved from the monsters. This is absolutely clear in the words of the poet, and the tradition remains to this day that Skalunda in the Geatish lands is the burial mound of the hero.
One might be forgiven for seeing the animated version as a hatchet job designed to discredit the reputation of the greatest hero of the Norse people. He is shown to make one last heroic sacrifice with the slaying of the dragon, but when one understands that this is portrayed as being necessitated by the consequences of his own cupidity long ago when he supposedly succumbed to the temptations of the demon mother, rather than kill her as he had claimed, then it is rather less noble. In fact it amounts to a denial of his responsibility for what had happened, and the suggestion is made at the end of the film that Wiglaf may well respond to the mother and start the whole thing over again.
Hrothgar, Beowulf, and now perhaps Wiglaf are shown as cheats who gained their prowess and kingdoms through magical bargains with the demon mother, rather than as selfless heroes who defend their peoples against chaos and evil.
So why should this all matter, and what has it to do with Newspeak and Political Correctness?
The poem Beowulf is recognised as probably the finest example of Anglo-Saxon poetry surviving (one manuscript only, which miraculously survived a fire some hundreds of years ago which lead to it being examined and copied). Like all great works of literature it contains many levels and depths. Tolkien’s work on it some eighty years ago, and his famous ‘Beowulf: the Critics and the Monsters’ significantly developed understanding of the work beyond the mere historical frame which had limited it hitherto.
It is so much more than an adventurous tale of killing demons. It could be said that its entire raison d’être was to express and enshrine the moral values of the culture in which it was embedded. To extol the virtues of selfless heroism and generosity demonstrated by Beowulf in his life and actions. Even had he engaged in the faithless lies and self advancement suggested by Gaiman and Avery, (which I very much doubt) the purpose of the story is not primarily to provide an accurate historical record, (although it is drawn on what seems to be quite an accurate canvas of actual history and identifiable people) but to teach the people listening to the performance of this piece (for surely that is how it must have been known to the Anglo-Saxons) the example of what high morality was considered to be in that culture. We might as well ask whether the hare really did lie down and rest so that the tortoise could win the race when reading Aesop’s fables. If we want to get into historical analysis and find out what ‘really’ happened in the moors beyond Heorot or on the Geatish headlands we would have to accept that probably neither Grendel, his mother, nor the dragon, actually existed and the entire business would fall. But it is not about this. The tale was woven out of a mixture of historical fact (Hrothgar and Hygelac really existed, as did probably Beowulf) and mythical imagination about whatever it was that he really faced on the moors, to create a legend of the ideal hero. Did Odysseus really confront the Cyclops, the Sirens, Circe and the rest? I doubt it. That is not the point. The tales of heroes tell us what we should admire, what we should aspire to be.
The Gaiman-Avery script for the animation does none of this.
Rather it follows ‘Critical Theory’ as proposed by the Frankfurt School and attempts to entirely deconstruct the story so that its meaning is lost. As Gandalf said ‘One who breaks a thing to find out what it is made of has left the path of wisdom’.
Willi Munzenberg is reputed to have said that the goal of this school of thought was to make Western culture ‘stink’, and fellow of the school George Lukács aspired to create a ‘culture of pessimism’ which would be achieved by destroying the idea of the sanctity of the soul
We can see that the deliberate deconstruction and intentional imputation of dishonourable motives in leading characters from the epic has led to a reading in which the hero is neither honourable, nor the best of men. Had he truly been ‘most eager for praise’ as the tale ends, then he would could never have engaged in the lies which are imputed to him in the modern reworking.
The part of the cynic is played in the poem by Unferth, but even he admits that he was wrong and that Beowulf is worthy of honour.
However the modern reading of all things is to take the part of Unferth and doubt truth, without the reformation of the character which follows the demonstration of the great deed. In so doing the modern writers demonstrate their lack of understanding of the tradition and poetic techniques from which the epic derives, or else are purposely poisoning it.
The Newspeak version of Beowulf is like the news reports in 1984 which are perpetually being rewritten so that it comes to the point where no-one knows what really happened, and no-one cares. All that matters is that the narrative supports the currently prevailing attitudes and policies of the Party.
Subtexts abound. Anything good must be brought into disrepute. Indeed, the very concept of ‘goodness’ must be brought down. Everyone only seeks their own ends and personal glorification. The idea that Beowulf might have actually wanted to do the right things because he felt a duty to do so has to be undermined, and his motivations are deceptive, all he wanted was the fame and any rewards that might accrue from that.
In our modern world, heroic, selfless behaviour has to be discredited, because post modern cynicism insists that such a thing is impossible. Human nature is evil and selfish. What the original poet would have seen instantly is that such ways of thought are no more than a reflection of the motives of the ‘analyst’, the projection of his own cowardice and failure to act honourably. Gaiman and Avary have entered the mindset of Unferth before he repented, and have imprisoned themselves there. In the mythic world, this is a mere fragment of reality, and one that must be integrated and if possible rectified.
I recently heard Owen Jones, the rising young firebrand of the new Left speak and was dismayed to hear him say that ‘The individual alone can achieve nothing, only collective action can bring about change’. Well, I am all in favour of working together for common goals if such a thing can be arranged. But there are times when one alone, or the few who are willing to join him, must act because the collective has neither the will nor the courage to do so. To stand alone against great evil is heroic. To stand alone whether one knows that one can prevail or not, but simply to do so because it is right, is the mark of courage.
This is the action of Beowulf, and why this poem will have been held as an example of honour, courage and nobility for hundreds of years by those who performed and heard it.
But the Politically Correct Newspeak version of our reality cannot allow for individual heroism, or what in our modern world amounts to responsibility. All things must submit to collective approval, and all those who wish to step out of the rank and file must be slapped down, their motivations must be undermined and discredited because it is required politically. There is no right because it is ethical, there is only personal advantage or the collective will.
From here we are only a few short steps to the demonisation of the hero, who dares to act on his own without first seeking approval from the collective. Stan Lee masterfully drew the character of Peter Parker/ Spiderman as the hero/ outcast, but maintained the integrity of the character since we know that his intentions are honest, despite the ranting of J. Jonah Jameson and the sheeple who believe him. And so the hero becomes the demon because of the faithless projections of those who are the real enemy.
In the cultural Marxist utopias envisioned by the likes of Huxley and Orwell all vestiges of independent thought are eradicated through conditioning and fear. Even Bertrand Russell bought into an ideology that was adapted to the mainstream by the Fabians (emblem a wolf in sheep’s clothing) and the Tavistock institute.
Modern successors of Critical Theory and Deconstructionism have persuaded their followers that all original thought is an illusion anyway since we are all dependent on the cultures in which we are embedded, and that we are thereby only expressions of the ongoing collective. And the Cultural Marxists wish here to close the game, boxing in the individual as no more than ‘subject’, the passive observer of the deterministic universe with no more than the illusion of free will.
This is why it is so important to rewrite Beowulf and corrupt the values it champions. Gaiman and Avary probably don’t even think about how they are implementing the Cultural Marxist agenda. It is so pervasive a contextual underpinning that it is those who cling to the idea of value and purpose who are seen as the ones out of step, while Gaiman and friend are the champions of the new order, tearing down and corrupting anything which stands in the way of its bleak pessimism and emptiness. The ‘Hero’ is an illusion, really just a corrupt self seeking exploiter who lies for his own ends and reputation. Of course, we were stupid to imagine that real heroism, real honesty could exist, even in our dreams and imagination. Just a false hope and illusion. And the propagandists have won over those foolish enough to believe this lie.