Discover the classic tale of Beowulf from different multi-media platforms, including poems, novels, opera, art, television and the recent film featuring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich and Anthony Hopkins.
Robert Bjork is the man behind the monster for this fascinating and entertaining March PEP event. As Foundation Professor of English, director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and co-author of several books on the Norse hero, Bjork can bring “Beowulf” up through the centuries, from an old poem we dimly remember from English class to the 2007 animated blockbuster with Angelina Jolie. “‘Beowulf’ remains relevant,” Bjork says, “because it embodies the human spirit, and the will to survive and surmount obstacles. It’s a story about courage and tenacity and initial victory but ultimate defeat in the face of overwhelming odds.”
You might expect a professor of medieval and renaissance studies to sneer at a computer-generated Hollywood spectacle based on a centuries-old, Anglo Saxon classic. Not so Robert Bjork. “I love the Angelina Jolie/John Malkovich version of ‘Beowulf.’ It has scenes that render the absolute horror one would have felt when listening to this chilling, violent story in a cold, poorly lit mead hall surrounded by enveloping darkness.” Here he shares his passion for this classic work and offers a preview of his March 6 PEP presentation.
You say “Beowulf” has remained relevant from the ninth century to today. Why? What gives it staying power?
The poem has remained relevant because it embodies the human spirit, first of all, and the will to survive and surmount obstacles. It’s a story about courage and tenacity and initial victory but ultimate defeat in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s also a story that rings psychologically true, second of all, as we witness the hero, Beowulf, move from a young, audacious, powerful warrior capable of almost any heroic feat at the beginning of the poem, to a wise old king, somewhat doubtful and introspective and burdened by past deeds at the end of the poem 50 years later. All in all, the poem is an existential document that teaches us more and more about ourselves every time we read it.
What themes in Beowulf are familiar to people today?
The major themes are good versus evil — Tolkien benefitted much from [“Beowulf”] in designing the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, light versus dark, civilization versus anti-civilization, and maintaining dignity and fighting against the dying of the light as we move towards life’s end.
And what symbols should readers and your audience look for?
There are two major symbols. The monsters of the night, the Grendel kin in the first half of the poem, can threaten our homes and homeland and are capable of devouring us and our way of life. These monsters are actually reflections of ourselves. Tolkien argued they unite the Nordic troll and biblical Cain to signify the evil in the individual human being. And the second symbol is the dragon, which represents the evil in the universe; a cosmic, unyielding evil beyond our control and comprehension.
What did you think of the film adaptation with Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins?
My taste in films is notoriously un-descriminating (I tend to like them all), but I love the Jolie/Hopkins/Malkovich version. It is testimony to the poem’s power in attracting Hollywood and such superstars to spend their considerable talent on it. The film also has some excellent scenes that admirably render the absolute horror one would have felt when listening to this chilling, violent story in a cold, poorly lit meadhall surrounded by enveloping darkness. I’ll show a clip or two from this film and match those clips to passages in the poem during my talk to illustrate what I mean.
Robert E. Bjork is Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University, where he has taught since 1983 and where he has been director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies since 1994. Bjork earned his bachelor’s degree from Pomona College in 1971, his master’s from UCLA in 1974 and his doctorate in 1979, also from UCLA. He was named Foundation Professor of English in 2009. His primary research areas are Old English poetry, modern Swedish literature and biomedical writing. The general editor of The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages (2010) and a Corresponding Fellow of the English Association (United Kingdom), Bjork has published 25 peer-reviewed articles and 17 books — one of which is the most recent edition of Beowulf.
Robert E. Bjork, Ph.D.
Director, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies
Foundation Professor of English
College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Wednesday, March 6
Appaloosa Branch Library
7377 E. Silverstone Drive
Scottsdale, AZ 85255