Beowulf @ Ellis

Mary C.

Beowulf Project Analysis

            In my artistic interpretation of the epic poem Beowulf, I chose to represent the five main characters using graffiti which, as a more modern and urban art style (yes— in this essay graffiti will be referred to as art) can help modern and urban readers relate to the poem.  Beowulf, the Dragon, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and Hrothgar are either represented with their own “tag” (name written in graffiti) or another form like a message or picture.  The reason that I think this makes an interesting project is because the epic Beowulf is irrelevant for many and is usually seen as something strictly in the past.  When converted into an art form that surrounds us in the 21st century, the barrier that setting creates is eliminated.
            The first piece I will address from my project is the Dragon’s.  The dragon presented a few challenges in the project, especially since he (or maybe she) has no specific name.  So, in order to represent it, I chose to work off of another artist that represented dinosaurs on the top of a bridge.  My version of it represents the character in several ways, both in form, location, and even with a certain sense of irony that goes with the terminology of the type of graffiti.  The dragon in Beowulf is shown as obsessed with money and power, defending the gold and spending his (or her) life counting and protecting their hoard.  The epic quotes “The beast had slept in a huge stone tower, with a hidden path beneath; a man stumbled on the entrance… pagan jewels and gold the dragon had been guarding…” (lns. 2211- 2216).  The actual image is shown as rather clumsy and working off another artist who had already sprayed the spot and because it is distinctive and more about gaining reputation.    The form of the piece is not too defined or detailed, but is more about just getting the message across, and the same trend is seen with the color.  A small lesson in graffiti is called for in this situation.  There are several reasons why people who make graffiti do so including aesthetics, reputation, or communication.  The dragon’s is the second group, since spraying a remote place such as the top beam of a bridge is called a “heaven.”  A heaven is usually not very well done because it means a hard to reach place and probably difficult to remain at for a long time, not to mention dangerous.  So the significance of the dragon’s piece is not so much in the piece itself but the cultural similarities between a tagger who would spray a heaven and the dragon from Beowulf.
            The second character’s piece to discuss is Grendel’s.  The piece that I created for Grendel, unlike the dragon’s, is made for aesthetics over function.  Much like Grendel himself, the piece is shows aggressive attributes, showing bared teeth with red constructed from the letter “G.”  The epic quotes “A powerful monster, living down in the darkness, growling in pain, impatient as day after day the music rang,” (lns 86-88), showing Grendel’s image as a monster.  The category of Grendel’s piece is called a “tag” or name written in graffiti.  Its significant is that he doesn’t care about fame or acceptance, but rather just focusing on himself and not being concerned with others.  Much like the antagonist Grendel himself, who is shown as having no morals, the tag is also showing disregard, partially going overtop of a few other tags.  Doing this in graffiti is shown as disrespect to whoever made the other tag, demonstrating Grendel’s recklessness and overconfidence.  Another element is the colors, these ones often seen as bad or evil (red, black) and is associated with darkness, blood, death, etc.  Throughout the epic, Grendel is also associated with these qualities, as he is, the monster.
            The third piece that is part of the sequence of graffiti is Grendel’s Mother.  Like the Dragon, Grendel’s Mother presents the problem of having no specific name, making a real tag for her impossible.  So in order to replace that, her purpose for her graffiti was instead a message—putting the word “Danes” inside crosshairs.  Her piece relates to not so much herself, but her love for her son, Grendel, and desperation for revenge against Beowulf, Danes, and Geats.  The word “Danes” is written in bluish green, and is big and bold.  Her message is made clearly and strongly, because of its striking color and location (overtop of other artists’ work).  Like Grendel, her message is over the work of other artists as well; seen as her aggression towards the Danes, blaming them for the death of her son (the other names below hers are assumed enemies).  “But a monster still lived, and meant revenge.  She’d brooded on her loss, misery had brewed in her heart, that female horror, Grendel’s Mother,” (lns 1257-1260) is a quote from the epic that demonstrates her desire to avenge her son, which was the drive both behind her violence in the poem and in her graffiti.
            Another character whose tag contributes to my project is Hrothgar.  Hrothgar’s piece is a combination of two of the purposes—aesthetics and respect.  This piece is placed above the other names on the wall it’s on and therefore inspires some command.  The difference between how the Dragon did so and how Hrothgar did, was Hrothgar’s pride was also for his people and the Dragon’s was just his own selfishness.  The poem acknowledges Hrothgar’s greatness not only as a king but a “ring-giver” on many occasions.  However, it was made for visual value as well.  It has bright, bold colors (purple, goldenrod), which have colors that represent royalty and leadership Hrothgar demonstrates in the epic.  The letters are uniform and conform to an image, representing his faith as well because they are well-formed and more tailored.  Hrothgar’s piece overall shows his power and generosity as a king.
            Finally, the most important part of my project was the many different tags of Beowulf.  His is certainly not an aesthetic value, as the character himself also seems more concerned with function over form.  They don’t quite convey a literal message, but what they most represent is Beowulf’s fame.  His name is everywhere and he is well renowned.  The locations I selected for his tag was all over Southside (where all the pictures were taken), in the flats, slopes, behind buildings, on playgrounds, etc.  The writing in itself was simple and abbreviated, making his tags short and not individual.  Each tag worked as part of a bigger picture—spreading the name of Beowulf, as did the epic when it showed multiple victories and accomplishments of Beowulf.  For instance, defeating Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, becoming king of the Geats, and taking on the dragon, showed his bravery and dedication whether he was victorious or not.
            In conclusion, the project relates to Beowulf in several different ways, both in the actual representation of the names or meanings of each character.  Through changing each of the five main characters from the epic Beowulf’s names’ or messages and converting them into the style of street art, it can help viewers of the project and readers of the poem understand a little more about each.

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The Ellis School - 6425 Fifth Avenue - Pittsburgh, PA 15206