Tag Archives: beowulf

Working with myths

One of the things that makes a truly archetypal story so powerful is that you can change a lot of the superficial details and it still holds up. There’s something in the essence of the story that can bear being stripped of its original details, and will still make sense. It enables retellings, and the translating of myths into more familiar settings where we can be readily reminded of their relevance. It can also be fun and playful. For these reasons there’s a lot of borrowing from established greats.

Artistically speaking this creates a number of challenges. Firstly you have to figure out what you think the essential parts of the story are. If they don’t automatically make sense in the context of your re-telling, you have to work out what parallel thing they can become. Secondly, retelling needs to be more than transforming the surface details to fit a new setting. It has to speak to us, showing us why this story is interesting, or relevant. As a creative person you can’t just rehash the familiar, you’ve got to try and bring something of your own to it, as well.

Back last winter I was asked to write a series of short stories for a podcast. Curious to see what potential listeners would like, I floated out a request for themes and suggestions on facebook. One of the things that floated back to me was the idea that I could do a modern re-telling of Beowulf.

How do you make Beowulf make sense as a story in a modern context? First and foremost it is a tale of a lone hero overcoming the monster that has decimated a community. We have the hero, the mead hall, the killer, the fight leading to the torn off arm, the premature celebration of victory, return of the deadly return of the monster, perilous journey, the pool, the monstrous mother and finally, success. In a Viking narrative world, all of those features make sense because they are how reality works for the people inhabiting it. I could see the space to go a bit Clive Barker on the monster side, but everything hangs on the set up that will get you to suspend your disbelief just far enough…

And if you’re curious as to what I did, you can listen here…

Mr Grendell Requests


The return journey

If the adventure doesn’t kill you, then when it ends, you may go home. Sam goes back to the shire, but Beowulf stays put. Some are done with adventures, others take to the road at once in search of new ones. Most of us, these days, go home. At least for a while.

If the adventure has been a good one, then recognising it is over and going home, can be a bit melancholy. But if your adventure was a happy departure from normal life, a convention, camp, re-enactment or the like, then it will be finite, and leaving is pretty much required.

It’s easy to see the journey home as what happens after the adventure is over. But of course it isn’t. The way home can turn out to be challenging (I think of hobbits again), or take a lot longer than expected, (Odysseus) or otherwise become a thing in its own right. Even when the adventure was a small one, more alcoholic than heroic, the journey home allows time to reflect and digest what happened. There’s a space to shift gears, putting the adventure into perspective, weaving it into the story of who you are and what you do. We can’t remember everything, and it tends to be the memories we dwell on that stay with us and most influence us. Deliberate reflection reinforces memory, is part of our inner story-making process.

Then, the return. Before we went adventuring, home may have felt like a small and unimportant place. An irritation. A trap. But now, coming back after the adventure, home is full of sweetly familiar things, reassuring, affirming and comforting. Think of Dorothy and how Oz changed her feelings towards Kansas. In going away, we can find perspectives on what we had all along. Exhausted and footsore from epic travels, hung over, battle bruised or however it’s taken us, home brings relief and a space in which to recover.

And plan for the next one. (In my case Asylum in Lincoln, 2 weeks hence).

I love to travel, to adventure, meeting new people, seeing new places. If I’m too long in the same place, I become restless and melancholy. I’ve come to realise a home is something I treasure most when it’s a place to come back to. The return journey is always one of discovery, the familiar seen with new eyes. Wandering is in my soul, but it’s good to have a place to belong as well.