Major literary themes in Beowulf and the movie 13th Warrior

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Beowulf is the oldest epic written in English and the single existing cope of the writing dated from the tenth century.  The movie “13th Warrior” is based on this epic poem, however, the representation of major themes, such as friendship, fame, courage, religion and evilness are quiet different.  Some similarities are still present, however, the real events described in Beowulf seem to look better in the movie.  Nevertheless, there are still many similarities and it proves that the great works of literature can by enjoyed and understood by general public with the help of the movies.

The central theme of Beowulf is religion and it could not be avoided in the movie as well.  The poem depicts two religions:  Christian and Pagan.  “It came into his mind (Beowulf’s) that he would command the construction of a huge mead-hall, a house greater than men on earth ever had heard of, and share the gifts God had bestowed on him”(Beowulf, 164).  The word God is mentioned and it is capitalized, the same is done in Bible.  Moreover, the elements of creation story are also present “he told how, long ago, the Lord formed earth” (Heaney, 164).

There are also references to the Cain killing Abel “this unhappy being had long lived in the land of monsters since the Creator cast them out as kindred of Cain.  For that killing of Abel the eternal Lord took vengeance.”( Heaney, 165).  Beowulf has taken 12 men to his last fight, just like Jesus had twelve disciples at the table during the Last Supper.  Probably, the author was trying to put Beowulf on the line with Jesus.  Beowulf went to kill the dragon in order to stop killings on innocent, just like Jesus has sacrificed himself to give salvation to the whole human kind.

The same elements of Christianity can be traced in the movie “13th Warrior”, however, with some differences.  For example, the movie starts with Arab meeting with his people to go on a quest.  This Arab is the narrator of the story, and, therefore, he is Muslim, not Christian.  However, all of those Christianity elements mentioned above (twelve people, reference to one God not many) still remain.  Such difference in representing religion is a bit confusing, because it is believed that Muslim religion belongs to the Pagan.  The Vikings (members of the Arab’s bang) showed in the movie were the part of the culture according to which there are numerous Gods and they reside on Mount Olympus.  The similarity between Arab and Beowulf is that both of them believe in one God.

From the other side, mentioning of the trolls, giants fighting ogres and elves which are plenty in the poem, are not part of the Christianity.  Moreover, the mentioning to the idols is also part of the Paganism.  These Pagan symbols and creatures are also present in the movie.  Therefore, the depiction of Pagan religion in the poem and in the movie is the same.

Another theme covered in the poem is the traditional funeral of that time.  Both the movie and poem start with the funeral of the king which is described very vividly.  As it is written in Beowulf, the warrior and king are set a float with all the possessions and then the raft is set on fire.  “13th Warrior” presents this scene exactly the same.  Afterwards the great feast comes to celebrate the death of the old ruler and the life of the new ruler.  It is a very interesting historical tradition to make the celebration of the king’s death and life of new king at one day.  It seems that joy and sorrow stand at one line.

Further, the personality of Beowulf is depicted differently in the poem compared to the movie.  For example, Beowulf has led his warriors in the search for glory (not because of his desire to be good) and decided to help the town only because this act will add up fame in his life. In the movie, it is presented differently:  the warriors traveled to the village in order to relieve distress and for this reason they have offered their assistance.  However, the courage of these warriors is equally appraised in the movie and in the poem:  not a single person went to sleep at night while waiting for the monster to come.  When the monsters come, all of them depict the excellent bravery and try to fight them off, but the only success is cutting of the arm of one monster.

In the movie Buliwyf is represented to be more positive hero than in the poem.  According to the poem, Beowulf was looking for fame and recognition while in the movie Buliwyf is more courageous and his primary intention is to help, not become famous.  Thus, Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands, unarmed, while Buliwyf is supported with his warriors.

However, the courage of these strong men is nothing in comparison with the fighting abilities of Beowulf.  When he meets with the monster, he shows immediate success.  These scenes are exactly the same in the movie.  Beowulf is undoubtedly depicted as the hero (Grigsby, 167) in the poem as well as in the movie.  Further in the movie, the warriors start to prepare for the return of other monsters.  Surprisingly for the bang, more monsters with greater destructive power come.  The poem is different at this point:  Grendel’s mother comes and destroys everything in the village.  She is depicted even fiercer than her son.

Honor and courage are two of the major themes in both the movie and the poem.  These themes are repeated over and over in “13th Warrior” and Beowulf.  The honor and courage are demonstrated in the movie when warriors are battling Vendel and then when they go to fight the Queen and in the poem when Beowulf is fighting with Grendel and then with his mother.  The concept of royalty and loyalty is of equal importance to both stories:  when all of the warriors pay tribute to their king and send their leader to Valhalla.  For example, one of the possible reasons why Beowulf travels to Dane with the intention to help is due to his bonds in ancestry.  The same situation is in the movie when Buliwyj with his men goes to the village to help.

One of the most important differences found in the movie and poem comparison is the representation of the team work and importance of being the part of the group.  Unlike the poem Beowulf, where Beowulf is the star and all of the warriors are depicted as nameless creatures, not even humans, the movie “The 13th Warrior” is focused on the whole group with everybody being important for the final success.  Fighting with the monster Wendol is not only about the courage of Buliwyf, it is about the group effort.

The theme of revenge is presented both in the movie and in the poem.  Grendel’s mother seeks revenge and kills Hrotgar who was the most trusted adviser of Beowulf.  More important, she kills him not because Beowulf has killed her son, but because he was very important to her.  The person she valued the most was killed and for this reason she killed the person who was most valued by Beowulf.  The theme of revenge is not some much evident in the movie, while in the poem it plays an important role.

Interestingly, but neither in the poem nor in the movie nobody dies with his own death:  everybody is killed either in fighting or because of poison.  The reason for such representation of the theme is death is probably the notion that at the time when the poem was written chivalry was of high value in the society.  It was very honourable for the man to die in the battle rather than because of the old age.  Even though, as it was already mentioned in the above paragraphs, courage is one of the important themes, but in the battle with dragon all of the men but one run away.  Is it courage?  No, it is weakness and cowardice.

The final theme to cover is the representation of evilness in both the movie and the poem.  The nature of evil is brought up in the poem many times, and, surprisingly, the evil character in the poem is not Gendel, but Beowulf (Baldwin, 54).  He is so arrogant that it makes him evil.  It is clear that he has killed all monsters in cold blood just to become famous.  As he has noted the death is his errand and the fate they have earned.  Therefore, he believes that his destiny is to kill while the fate of the monsters is to die.  If to recall the scene when Grendel was killed and his hand was hung on the rafters and “then the old and young rejoiced…” (Heaney, 67).   Rejoicing the death is not very positive, even though Grendel had brought many deaths to people.  In the movie, Buliwyf is depicted to be more positive, he does not claim that his destiny is to become the great slayer.  He does help people to get rid of the monster, not because he is almighty.

The author of Beowulf has managed to combine opposite themes in one poem without the obvious contradiction between them.  There are many elements of Christianity while at the same time there are monsters which belong to the Pagan religious believes.  The courage and honour are much appraised, Beowulf in the poem and his people in the movie, while after realizing that they are unable to defeat the monster, all but one run away which is cowardice.  Such themes as revenge, death, code of chivalry and traditions are covered in the poem as well as in the movie.  There are differences in presenting the team work and cooperation in the movie and heroism of one person in the poem.  In conclusion, Beowulf seems to be more evil in the poem because of presenting himself as almighty slayer.

Did you like this sample?
  1. Baldwin, Stanley, and Elaine Strong Skill.  Beowulf.  Cliff Notes Publishing, 2000.
  2. Grigsby, John.  Beowulf and Grendel: The Truth Behind England’s Oldest Legend.  Duncan Baird Publishers, 2005.
  3. Heaney, S., trans. Beowulf. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1999.
  4. “The 13th Warrior” (movie). . Hollywood: Touchstone Pictures, 1999.
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