Analysis of the Beowulf Project
“They walked quickly, happily, across/Roads all of them remembered, left/The lake and the cliffs alongside it, brave men/Staggering under the weight of Grendel’s skill,/Too heavy for fewer than four of them to handle-/ Two on each side of the spear jammed through it-/Yet proud of their ugly load and determined/That the Danes, seated in Herot, should see it.”
The epic poem Beowulf, written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon writer, contains a plethora of suspenseful battle scenes. The hero, Beowulf, fought sea monsters and human monsters, dragons and enemy soldiers, yet I deliberately chose a scene of peace and tranquility. This scene, inspired by lines 1632-1639, which are written above, directly follows Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel’s mother, and is, in my opinion, a more meaningful moment than any of the heart-wrenching battle scenes. This drawing, through its images, materials, and written text, gives the viewer a more insightful look into the possible interpretations and analyses of Beowulf.
The first artistic choice I would like to address is the placement and execution of the drawing itself. One of my favorite aspects of this drawing is the view the audience has of the scene. Viewers are standing in the middle of the pack of Geats, behind the four men carrying Grendel’s decapitated head, and in front of the other ten men. This leaves the audience two choices: to be in front of Beowulf, or to be in the place of Beowulf himself. Furthermore, the audience can only see forward. This reminds us that the past does not matter and that one must always look into the future.
After glancing at the drawing, it is easy to determine what materials were used to create it. I simply used colored chalk on a black construction paper background. These materials are an important part of the interpretation of both Beowulf and my drawing. The chalk smears without difficulty, and the whole drawing could be destroyed in light rain. Even with the proper care, it is doubtful the chalk will hold up for more than a few years, if that. This sense of impermanence is my most strident effort to remind the audience of time. Time, which brings about all human beings’ births and the final “defeat” of their deaths, is a significant part of Beowulf. In several instances, such as Beowulf sinking to the bottom of the lake and Beowulf fighting the dragon, the time frame is given as only “hours”, a vague, impossible unit, which adds to the poem’s focus on values and personal strength. The chalk’s impermanence is designed to be a gentle reminder that nothing on earth lasts long; while good is victorious now, this moment of victory is only a heartbeat long.
In addition to chalk’s vulnerability to time, it also helps to communicate a feeling innocence in the art. On reading Grendel, one learns that, while being fascinated with the Shaper and his art, Grendel is torn apart by the “cunning trickery” the Shaper uses to “twist” the truth. My intention was to stay clear of this accusation by depicting the scene exactly according to the verses. On top of this, the chalk brings a child-like quality to the drawing. I wanted to keep children, a symbol of purity and good-heartedness, in mind while drawing. Though never childish, Beowulf is strangely childlike in his completely uncorrupted belief and commitment to good, and this is an important aspect of him that the viewer should keep in mind.
The next element of interest in this drawing is my intentionally vague depiction of Herot. While there is not much description concerning this enormous mead hall, there is enough knowledge today about Anglo-Saxon life that a fairly detailed mead-hall could be drawn. Instead, I chose to picture Herot as an all-white, rectangular form against the black background. This color and unpretentious design reminds the audience of the good feelings, leadership, and refuge Hrothgar has provided against the bleak, uncertain darkness of the realist Anglo-Saxon world.
Although I specifically mentioned that the drawing was constructed to be true to the description in the poem, the path is slightly interpretive. Though the poem mentioned that the roads were familiar to the men, there is not much more description than that. Instead of inventing my own idea of the forest and path, I wanted to use symbolism to tie it all together. The path leads directly to Herot, which was a creation of victory and glory. I wanted to suggest that his path is a moral path, leading to glory and victory. The Geats showed great loyalty and courage by waiting for Beowulf even after the Danes had left. This is the type of moral strength and endurance that I wanted to praise, and the clear path leading to Herot is a subtle symbol that moral strength leads to victory if you stay on the right path.
Though not as important or central in the drawing, the forests on either side of the path both have significance. They are, in my opinion, neither scary nor intimidating, but rather foggy and bright. I used this as a way to show the happiness and joy at Grendel’s ultimate defeat. Because the background of the picture is dark and the viewer cannot see the facial expression of the men, this was the only efficient way to convey jubilation and the conversion from fear and depression to joy.
A final unique attribute of this drawing are the lines of text in place of grass or dirt. The text is the phrasal representation of the scene; the words are the ones that the poet of Beowulf chose to communicate this scene to the readers. In my effort to keep the scene as true as possible to the poetic telling, I inserted these words so anyone who sees the drawing can know which it passage it derived from. At the bottom, beneath the feet of the Geats carrying Grendel’s head, I also included a single sentence: “They left the lake together.” I chose this sentence because I love its significance and simplicity. In five words, it sums up the importance of family, home, journey, and a loyal and united comitatus. If there is one thing I hope the viewer takes from this drawing, it is the success of the individual benefitting the group, not just himself. That was Beowulf’s first priority, and it is only right that it is communicated in a scene of such victory.
In conclusion, this chalk drawing is both a literal and symbolic interpretation of Beowulf. Every aspect has an artistic purpose: the materials, placement, design, and execution. I used the medium, chalk, to remind the audience of time, impermanence, and innocence, all important themes in this epic poem. Both the path and Herot are light against the dark background; they show how good moral values lead a person to glory and victory. The placement of the drawing showing only what lies ahead reminds one to look to the future, and the indistinct depiction of Herot keeps its presence more symbolic than physical. The path and forests, while crucial parts of the background, also symbolize the road to righteousness and the optimism of this moment in time. Finally, the text gives the viewers an exact description of the scene, with the final line at the bottom giving the audience a final reminder of what Beowulf fought and eventually died for. While any illustration is helpful in picturing and interpreting a story, a drawing such as this, with added symbolism and subtle clues, provides the viewer with the opportunity to learn even more and contribute his or her own thoughts to this old and classic tale.