Review by: Lisa Smalley
This evocative documentary presented by a very enthusiastic Michael Wood, offers an insight into the context of the poem ‘Beowulf’, the history of its original audience and connections with the landscape of Britain.
Considering the Germanic tribes and their strong effect on modern English, students interested in variation and change in English may find this an interesting introduction to medieval literature, with its palpable influence on writers and poets through the ages from Shakespeare and his contemporaries, right up to Seamus Heaney in his 1999 translation of ‘Beowulf’.
Throughout the documentary, there are wonderful spoken examples of Old English as well as some direct translation. Julian Glover’s ‘one man show’ performance of ‘Beowulf’ in a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon hall is particularly interesting, and footage of this is used throughout the feature to provide not only a synopsis of the poem, but an example of the original oral performances of the piece. The performance is given to an Anglo-Saxon re-enactment society, who receive the story with gusto and seemingly relish the violence described.
Wood travels the country to discover where ‘Beowulf’ may have first been performed and originally written down, and finds connections of an Anglo-Saxon burial ship excavated in 1939 in Sutton Hoo and details in the poem, literally bringing it to life. Dr. Sam Newton gives insight into the discoveries and their place in Beowulf history.
The biblical reference of ‘the seed of Cain’ in the poem invites a discussion of the cultural tension between Pagan and Christian. With ‘The Dream of the Rood’ seeing Pagan themes enriching Christian traditions and blurring the theological lines.
More than a thousand years old, ‘the voice of England’s past’, Beowulf has been an inspiring piece of literature with, as this documentary shows, deep religious and literary connections with English culture.