How ancient classic Beowulf suits the era of Isis

As a new adaptation comes to ITV, historian Michael Wood explains why the Anglo-Saxon story has stood the test of time

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Beowulf expert and TV historian Michael Wood has a theory about Anglo-Saxons and television. “We live in a world where there’s a lot of terrifying and up-front violence, a world of Islamic State and horror going on around us,” he says. “That’s partly why there’s such interest in The Last Kingdom, Game of Thrones and now Beowulf.

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“When we look back to the Anglo-Saxon period, where Beowulf comes from, we see an age where things come down to life and death decisions. But there was also an honour, a bravery and courage then, which appeals to us. We want a hero with a moral code, and a hero who sticks to that code as Beowulf does. That’s comforting now when it seems there is a moral quicksand everywhere.”

Beowulf is the foundational myth of English literature as well as much of our television. “It’s one of the great stories,” says Wood. “There are not many plots in the whole of literature and the plot of the hero who fights against the odds and finally goes out to meet his destiny runs from the very first work of literature right down to High Noon and everything else.”

The story is so ancient that it predates the time when the Angles and Saxons first settled on these shores in the fifth and sixth centuries (the action takes place in Scandinavia) – and it’s written in Anglo-Saxon Old English (Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum anyone?). It tells how the monster Grendel terrorises a Danish stronghold until Beowulf, a native of Geatland (southern Sweden), arrives. The beer is broken out and Beowulf boasts of his battle prowess. On cue, Grendel bursts into the feasting hall only to be mortally wounded by Beowulf. When Grendel’s mother, an even more fearsome beast, kills a Dane in revenge, Beowulf swims into her underwater lair and slays her.

Beowulf departs to become King of Geatland, where he reigns for 50 years until he challenges a dragon that ravages his kingdom. “He is the old gun-shooter who has to go out to do one last heroic deed,” says Wood. “He knows he’s going to die but he still buckles his gun on and faces it.”

The story is very violent. “When I was a kid I thought it was fabulous,” says Wood. “All that tearing warriors apart and eating them, but now I think it’s the power of the story that’s great.” That power has attracted writers, film-makers and poets. Wood made a 2009 documentary with the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who published his version of the tale in 1999. Wood also recommends Michael Morpurgo’s 2006 children’s version and the 2007 animated film featuring Ray Winstone.

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Kieran Bew as Beowulf in the new TV series

“Neil Gaiman, who co-wrote the movie, came up with the wonderful idea that the dragon was the progeny of Beowulf having sex with Grendel’s mother. Which was kind of true to the spirit of the story.” However, the Mancunian Wood says it was odd to hear Beowulf with a London accent: “For Anglo-Saxon,” he says, “I always feel that a Manchester accent is authentic.

But is there a danger that film and television adaptations take us away from Beowulf the literary text, from the story that started England? “I wouldn’t make a big deal out of that,” says Wood. “I think TV is a wonderful medium for encouraging people, of any age but especially young people, to look elsewhere. What’s so great about Beowulf, in whatever version, is the primordial fears it evokes. The hall, which is the home of security and warmth, and the social network of the heroic society, suddenly being broken into by this terrifying monster who tears people apart. That’s powerful stuff.”

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Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands begins on ITV tonight (Sunday 3rd January) at 7.00pm