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CritiqueQuotesTextTranslations • At the movies

1999, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2007, 2016

Beowulf manuscript from the Nowell CodexEarliest known manuscript
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
c. 700

Literature form

Literary, epic

Writing language
Old English

Author's country

Approx. 30,000 words

Grendel scene 2007
Beowulf (Kieran Bew, right) returns to Herot—sort of—with his new sidekick Breca (Gísli Örn Garðarsson).

Different Beowulf, different monsters

Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016): Television series; featuring Kieran Bew, Joanne Whalley, Edward Speleers, Gísli Örn Garðarsson, Elliot Cowan, Laura Donnelly, William Hurt

The Beowulf saga that first came to small screens for one season in 2016 seems to exist in some science fiction parallel universe—you know, like a Star Trek episode showing a world that has some of the same people and places as the one we're used to, but different. Shuffled in another order.

As in the epic poem of , in this production our titular hero arrives in Herot to see its leader Hrothgar. But in this world he hasn't come as a foreign warrior to help fight a monster that's killing Hrothgar's men. Rather, he's returning to where he was raised as Hrothgar's adopted son. Beowulf finds Hrothgar is dead, however, and his fight becomes a battle against whoever or whatever killed him, as well as against Hrothgar's jeaolous biological son, Slean—and later against other groups of people and monsters we've never heard of before.

Oh, and he's got a sidekick now, a charmingly unscrupulous fellow named Breca. This is a good addition to the story, because on his own English actor Kieran Bew, as Beowulf, is solid but stolid in the heroic mould. Gísli Örn Garðarsson is an Icelandic actor who actually had a small role in 2005's Beowulf & Grendel, as well as a major role in the Norwegian mythology-based series Ragnarok. He has an easygoing manner and lithe physicality that brings some fun to the duo's adventures.

When it's eventually discovered Breca has some seriously nasty history, the upright Beowulf casts his friend out, but we're eager to forgive him and hope to get him back.

The show was created for Britain's ITV network, meant to be a kind of more family-friendly Game of Thrones in the popular sword and fantasy category. But it was cancelled after the first season of thirteen episodes.

Trailer for Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, created for Britain's ITV network.

Cancellation must have been unexpected, since the show left a lot of loose ends and seemed to heading for a big confrontation of forces in the second season.

On its own though, the single season is pretty good for those who have enjoyed Vikings or other such dark-age, blood-and-family dramas. The writing and plotting are comparable to those other more successful series.

The acting is good too. The biggest name in the cast though, William Hurt, plays the recently dead Hrothgar, so we really get to appreciate his star quality only in flashbacks to Beowulf's childhood. But Joanne Whalley playing Hrothgar's widow Rheda who takes over Herot after his death does well with it, as do all the other women playing strong roles in this show that aims to make a few feminist points.

There's a lot to enjoy here from an escapist perspective, though for the literary crowd it's not really Beowulf. And we do miss Grendel.

It's puzzling why they even bothered to pretend this show is related to the old story that's been related so many times before.

By the end of the season, I thought I detected the threads of the Grendel story—the monstrous mother seeking revenge on the killing of her son—that could come together in the projected second season. But too little, too late.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotesTextTranslations • At the movies

1999, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2007, 2016