An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 23, 2016

Traidl: Telling Tales About Beowulf

Veronika Traidl, Telling Tales about Beowulf: The Poem and the Films. Munich: Herbert Utz, 2016.

Reviewed by Oliver M. Traxel ( 

Film makers intending to bring the Old English epic Beowulf to the screen have one big advantage. In contrast to other well-known legendary figures, such as King Arthur or Robin Hood, there is only one surviving manuscript version which can be drawn upon. It is therefore surprising that none of the films based on this poem has adapted the material successfully for a modern audience, as has been shown by Nickolas Haydock and E.L. Risden.[1] However, they do not treat each film individually, but take them as a group to be examined with regard to various topics. Moreover, they omit Beowulf (1972), which Jodi-Anne George has considered the most faithful version so far.[2] Veronika Traidl’s Munich dissertation remedies this situation by gathering all films associated with Beowulf and subdividing them into three categories according to their closeness to the poem. She calls seven of them “major”, another seven “minor”, and four “marginal”. This attribution makes sense, though four of the “minor” ones are TV episodes from Star Trek: Voyager (1995) and Xena: The Warrior Princess (2000); the Xena episodes even make up a trilogy and could therefore have been treated as one. Another “minor” film, Animated Epics: Beowulf (1998), is actually a condensed retelling of the story and therefore very close, but rated as “minor” due to its brief length of merely 27 minutes.

The introduction contains a chronological list of the eighteen films and explains the aim and structure of the study: to provide a comprehensive analysis of each film in several sections focussing on one particular aspect. Chapter 2 outlines the principles of categorisation as “major”, “minor” and “marginal” films and offers some brief background information on all of them. The following chapter treats them in chronological order and critically discusses the existing academic work. This information is comprehensive and well researched. The beginning chapters can therefore also serve as a quick reference guide for anyone who is looking for material on one specific film version. Chapter 4 gives a general overview of the Old English poem and gathers academic views on relevant points, such as structure, dating, and the depiction of religion. This part does not offer anything new, but it is sound and shows the author’s excellent familiarity with the current state of Beowulf scholarship. Moreover, it is very helpful to those readers not familiar with the extant text or who need some refreshing.

With 215 out of 300 pages, Chapter 5 on the seven major films occupies more than two thirds of the book and can be seen as the centrepiece of the study. It comprises Beowulf (1972), Beowulf (1999), The 13th Warrior (1999), Beowulf & Grendel (2005), Beowulf (2007), Grendel (2007), and Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008). There are no less then fifteen sections dedicated to specific topics. These concern fundamental points (Contents & structure; Differences to the poem; Place & time of action), key characters (Beowulf; Grendel; Grendel’s mother; Hrothgar; Unferth; Queens & other women), linguistic features (Language; Onomastics), and other important aspects (Religion; Anachronisms; Motifs; Further aspects). Section 5.2 on “Differences to the poem” is subdivided into films which omit the dragon fight (four) and those who include it (three) as it is one of the key elements of the original plot and therefore merits separate discussion. If a film is irrelevant to a specific aspect, it is not contained in the section in question. In most cases this concerns Beowulf (1972), which does not appear in Sections 5.8 (Unferth), 5.11 (Onomastics), 5.13 (Anachronisms), 5.14 (Motifs) and 5.15 (Further aspects). Generally, the entire chapter is remarkable as it covers the major films in great detail and also gives precise references to the timing of film passages, line numbers of the original poem as well as secondary literature. The argumentation can therefore be compared very easily. Moreover, each section concludes with a table that briefly summarises the most important points in each film and therefore provides a quick and helpful reference tool.

The following two chapters are devoted to the seven minor and four marginal films respectively. Besides the summaries they consist of only two sections each of which mirrors the first two in Chapter 5. However, while Section 5.2 points out differences to the poem, Section 6.2 deals with both parallels and differences, and Section 7.2 focuses on parallels only. This alteration of focus makes sense as, in contrast to the major films, the marginal Clash of the Titans (1981), Predator (1987), Beware: Children at Play (1989) and No Such Thing (2001) are not directly based on the poem and it is the determination of parallels rather than differences which merit their inclusion in this study. In fact, Traidl sees hardly any similarities to Beowulf in the marginal films and includes them only as they are associated with the poem in the secondary literature (p. 296). Given this approach she could have referred to even more films in Chapter 7, e.g. Alien (1979), which she mentions on other occasions (p. 118, n. 153; p. 146). The minor films, on the other hand, show greater affinities to the poem, but have different purposes. Some issues are incorporated into ongoing TV series, namely Star Trek: Voyager (1995) and three episodes from Xena: The Warrior Princess (2000), as well as the science fiction film Outlander (2008). The two remaining minor films are either based on a modern literary version, namely Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (1981), or retell the story in rather concise way, namely Animated Epics: Beowulf (1998).

The book is written by a native speaker of German (p. 202, n. 246) who shows an excellent command of the English language. The few linguistic problems could have been fixed by more diligent proof-reading. They include additional words, as in “but it Grendel” (p. 118) or “Grendel’s as mother” (p. 141, pic. 22), inconsistencies, as in “cross bow” (p. 73), “cross-bow” (p. 96) and “crossbow” (p. 110), random usage of “blond” and “blonde”, with “blonde” also being used for the male form (p. 161) and “blond” for the female form (p. 188), or the American verbal spelling “practice” rather than “practise” (p. 203) in the otherwise British English text. The layout is very tidy, and occasional issues, such as larger empty spaces near illustrations (pp. 87, 88, 90) or the incorrect division of Old English words, as in “Ecgth-eow’s” (p. 61), and “Heal-fdene” (p. 221), were probably caused by the word processing software. German rather than English punctuation is consistently used for decimals, such as “1,96” and “1,74” (p. 103, nn. 124, 125). Slightly more problematic is the author’s occasional difficulty in transcribing film passages correctly, as she even admits herself (p. 209, n. 253). Examples for Old English include her suggestion of an unattested “clattrym” rather than clatrung (“noise”), and singular “ēare” rather than plural ēaran (“ears”) (p. 209). Moreover, she does not identify Modern English long-legged in a passage from Beware: Children at Play (1989), but provides an empty space instead (p. 294, n. 332), failing to recognise the reference to a well-known Cornish litany.[3]

Traidl has delivered a remarkably detailed survey of all film versions of Beowulf produced until 2015. She is also aware of later projects, such as the TV Series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016), which premiered on ITV after she submitted her study (p. 300). The task of gathering the material cannot have been easy as the DVDs of some films, in particular Beowulf (1972) and Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008), are no longer commercially available. In fact, it was the director of Beowulf (1972) himself, Don Fairservice, who provided her with a copy (p. 11, n. 21). Traidl was also in touch with others when researching her study, for example Scott Wegener, the director of Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008) (e.g. p. 264, n. 315), and Karl Hagen, language consultant for Beowulf (2007) (e.g. p. 209, n. 253), which proves that a great deal of the argumentation is based on first-hand information. Several colour screenshots from Beowulf (1972), Beowulf & Grendel (2005), and Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008) are found throughout, whereas no free rights could be obtained for the other major films. Quotations from Beowulf are from Klaeber’s latest edition,[4] while translated passages are from Heaney,[5] which are of course seminal primary works and therefore well chosen. The book is diligently researched, has hardly any shortcomings, and will doubtless remain the reference work on Beowulf films for the time being. Any supplements whenever a new version comes out would also be very welcome. It can only be hoped that one day there will also be a film that is actually good.

Oliver M. Traxe
University of Stavanger

[1] Nickolas Haydock and E. L. Risden, Beowulf on Film: Adaptations and Variations. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, 2013.
[2] Jodie-Anne George, Beowulf: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, 2010, pp. 115-149.
[3] Don E. Post, Ghosties and Ghoulies and Long-Legged Beasties and Things That Go Bump in the Night: Christian Basics for the Twenty-First Century. New York, Lincoln, NE, and Shanghai: iUniverse, 2004.
[4] Frederick Klaeber, ed., Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 4th ed. Robert D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
[5] Seamus Heaney, ed., Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney. Bilingual Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

August 15, 2016

Leveen: Juliet's Nurse

Lois Leveen, Juliet’s Nurse. New York. Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2015.                              
Reviewed by Mikee Delony (

The most common complaint of readers approaching an adaptation of a well-known and beloved story, such as that of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, is a lament or an explosion of frustration because “it’s not like the real story.” Certainly this is the case with some readers of Lois Leveen’s novel, Juliet’s Nurse.  However, disgruntled readers should remember that (a) Shakespeare made quite a few changes to his source material, so his version is not the real story either, and (b) Leveen’s novel is not about Juliet, but as the title clearly states, about Angelica, Juliet’s Nurse. 

Lois Leveen’s novel, Juliet’s Nurse, creates a compelling prequel to Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers.  Noting that Juliet’s nurse is an important character in the play, speaking “the next largest number of lines, following those of Romeo and Juliet” (Author’s Note, 366), Leveen sets out to tell this woman’s story and creates a different kind of love story centered on an ordinary, lower-class woman, manipulated by her priest, beloved by her husband, and at the mercy of the Capelletto family, a woman who loved deeply and suffered greatly, and first person narrative makes the story Angelica’s, from the first word to the last. 

Surprisingly, all I knew when I picked up the novel was that the setting was fourteenth-century Italy. I was immediately captivated by Angelica’s narrative from the beginning, her 30-year love affair with her husband, Pedro, and the arrival of a surprise daughter some years after the tragic deaths of all of her children – six sons – of the plague in one horrific week. I mourned along with Angelica at the loss of her unexpected newborn daughter, and smiled when I read of her opportunity to nurse another newborn, this one named Juliet and born to Lord and Lady Capelletti on the same day as her dead daughter.  Still clueless, even when I learned of Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, I did not recognize the connection to Shakespeare’s tale until Mercutio entered the narrative.  

Aware that adaptations are just that, adaptations, I did not expect this novel to follow the course of Shakespeare’s play.  Instead I walked beside Angelica as she loved Juliet as fiercely as she mourned her lost children, for what mother ever forgets those she had borne and raised and lost? Likewise, I admired her passion for her husband and the fervor with which she both missed and desired him, and I celebrated and felt her joy mixed with fear during their stolen moments together in Juliet’s nursery when he snuck in to see her after caring for the property’s bees. 

Love, death, mourning, bees, and families, both rich and poor, dominate Angelica’s story.  As we read of life in the Capelletto household, and particularly see the lived grief, misery, and early aging that marked the very young Lady Capelletto’s life, as well as the striving, scheming, and social climbing practiced by the heirless, aging Lord Capelletto, we learn that wealth and luxury are really meaningless when compared to the rich life of love, laughter, grief, and hard work that Angelica recalls when she thinks of her small, noisy, home in Verona’s poor neighborhood.  Perhaps the novel speaks to readers who have also lived long, watched children grow, and experienced loss.  The nurse’s narrative makes the reader privy to her thoughts, which often center on her sons, their active and noisy lives and their untimely deaths, and always she treasures her second chance with Juliet, whom she nurtures, cossets, and spoils, as she does Juliet’s motherless cousin, Tybalt.  This novel truly explores, as Leveen writes, “the relationship between loss and endurance” (369).

As a metaphor for life, bees and beekeeping provide a constant thread through Leveen’s novel, with their honey, their constant need for care, and their stings. Pedro supports his poor family by situating hives throughout Verona; he cares daily for the bees, harvests the combs to sell for beeswax candles, and makes a variety of mouth-watering treats with the honey.  Likewise, in a vain attempt to counter the social-climbing, the hate, and the self-centered revenge spewed by his uncle, Lord Capaletto, Pedro treats Tybalt as his own son, teaching him both the hard work and joy that comes from doing his job well. 

In this novel the expected “good guys” are not always so good, Juliet’s choices and sometimes those of her doting nurse are foolish and ultimately, tragic, and the Friar is self-serving and often dishonest, so readers expecting to find an expanded version of Shakespeare’s story will be disappointed.  However, those who enjoy a rich, thoughtful, beautifully written narrative in which the narrator and those she loves are fully developed, interesting characters, this book is a delight. 

Mikee Delony
Abilene Christian University

August 10, 2016

Walters Art Museum: Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling

A Review of “Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling,” at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

Reviewed by: Karl Fugelso (

Had it addressed ecotheory more completely and directly, this exhibition might have accomplished much more in its discussion of medieval recycling, but while it may fall short in that regard, it raises important questions about the definition of the Middle Ages and medievalism.

Though the curators did not produce a catalog for the twenty-three artifacts in this one-room show, their numerous, well-written placards construct an extensive definition of recycling.  The longest and most explicit of these statements, which appears just inside the entrance to the show, classifies recycling with upcycling and adaptive reuse as common medieval practices that were not only “acceptable” but “at times even desirable,” especially given the skill with which medieval craftsmen could “artfully repurpos[e] earlier medieval culture.”  And many of the labels explain how a particular example of recycling might have been motivated by convenience, economics, aesthetics, and/or historical appreciation.  But especially after the curators claim that modern recycling, upcycling, and adaptive reuse are “necessary responses to the growing awareness of our planet’s limited resources and to the environmental damage caused by our everyday activities,” the show could use an explanation of the differences among these categories and a detailed discussion of the ways in which their medieval incarnations may reflect and/or have influenced contemporaneous perceptions of surrounding ecosystems.  For example, beyond noting that recycled parchment indicates a scarcity of sheepskin, the curators might have examined how a particular reuse relates to the local availability of sheep, how that availability might have related to broader shifts in agribusiness, how those shifts might have related to ecological changes, and how, if at all, the recyclers and/or their contemporaries recorded their perceptions of those changes, other than through the reuse of parchment.

Yet, though the curators may not have fully explored the implications of medieval recycling, they foreground important issues through their definition of the Middle Ages.  While the placards adhere to tradition in dating the start of that period to the fourth century, the exhibits include a copy of Aesop’s Fables printed in 1495 and subsequently covered in a twelfth-century folio, a thirteenth-century Bible wrapped in a fifteenth-century folio sometime during the sixteenth century, and the insertion of mid-fifteenth-century miniatures in the Lace Book of Marie de’ Medici after the first quarter of the seventeenth century.  These and similar examples are a far cry from standard definitions of the Middle Ages, such as the one implicit in the mission statement for Studies in Medievalism as “an interdisciplinary medium of exchange for scholars in all fields […] concerned with any aspect of the post-medieval idea and study of the Middle Ages and the influence […] of this study on Western society after 1500.”  And a traditionalist may indeed doubt that anything made for Marie de’ Medici, who was a long-term guest of, and occasional subject for, Peter Paul Rubens, could be medieval.  But in ascribing these recyclings to the Middle Ages, the curators underscore the subjective nature of determining precisely when and where the period ends.  Even as late as the seventeenth century, a fondness for mid-fifteenth-century miniatures may mark more a sense of continuity with the past than nostalgia for it; in many parts of Europe, the sixteenth century was not much different from the fifteenth, fourteenth, or even earlier centuries; and, though printing is often seen as signaling the end of the Middle Ages, that perception is far from universal, particularly for books as old as the aforementioned copy of Aesop’s Fables.  Unless someone referring to the Middle Ages explicitly treats that period as prior to and distinct from his or her milieu—and perhaps not even then, given postmodernity’s doubts as to the reliability of such evidence—that reference may not qualify as post-medieval.

That ambiguity has obvious implications for medievalism, but our field may be even more challenged by some of the show’s earlier works.  While the fourth-century belt with medallions of Constantius II and Faustina merely echoes the most recent exhibits in questioning the chronological parameters of the Middle Ages, the ninth- or tenth-century Byzantine ring built around a Greco-Roman cameo, the twelfth-century German altar incorporating eleventh-century plaques, and several of the other exhibits that fit well within traditional definitions of the Middle Ages embody the many problems inherent in the possibility of medieval medievalism.

Relative to traditional perceptions of the Middle Ages as a monolithic period stretching from Antiquity to the Renaissance, the ring cannot represent medievalism, for the cameo would not qualify as medieval.  Nor, in such circumstances, can the altar embody medievalism, as it would not be post-medieval.  But if the Middle Ages were seen as a collection of middle ages, the altar and all other works that date from these periods and incorporate material from an earlier, post-Ancient period could qualify as medievalism.  And if the term “middle ages” were extended to any milieu that departs from the recycler’s and has a distinct predecessor, the ring and almost all other references to the past, including the aforementioned belt, could represent medievalism.
The difficulty with those approaches, particularly the latter, lies with deciding who would make such determinations and what we would accept as support for them.  If the choice were to rest solely with scholars of medievalism, then virtually any material from the past would indeed be fair game, our field would risk collapsing with all other studies of the past, and the term “medievalism” would lose much of its purpose.  If, however, we insist that the medievalist recognize the middle age(s) as such, then even if we brush aside postmodern doubts about knowing someone else’s thoughts, we might run into a paucity of evidence, especially for responses from the traditional Middle Ages.  Though the Walters show suggests that at least some medieval artists perceived their recycled material as originating from a milieu other than their own, as when a Talmud folio was treated with so little respect as to be used for covering the aforementioned copy of Aesop’s Fables, there is no proof in this exhibition—or, to my knowledge, anywhere else—that medieval artists saw their recycled material as coming from a chronologically bracketed period.  In fact, even when the recyclers imply they are aware of contextual differences, as with the Talmud folio, they do not necessarily treat these departures as diachronic.  And some artists demonstrate complete ignorance of their material’s original meaning and/or purpose, as when the twelfth-century German altar (mis)pairs a panel of John the Baptist with one portraying the Holy Women at the Tomb.  Thus, even if we expand our definition of the Middle Ages well beyond its traditional parameters, we do not seem to have a convincing case for medieval medievalism.

However, in merely raising that possibility, this small but stimulating show performs a great service, for it reminds us to ground our work in a clear definition of the middle ages and to explain as fully as possible how our material relates to yet departs from them.  Moreover, as this show highlights the difficulties in doing so, as it calls into question the boundaries and beliefs of our field, it paradoxically advances what we do, for only by constantly asking what medievalism comprises can we answer how and why it matters.

“Waste Not:  The Art of Medieval Recycling,” June 25—September 18, 2016, at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21201, free museum and exhibition admission, open 10-5 Wed., Fri.-Sun., 10-9 Thu., handicapped accessible with some free parking on nearby streets, <>.

Karl Fugelso
Towson University