Sunday, 25 August 2013

What do Praying Mantises and Angelina Jolie have in common?

I think it's about time we sit down and talk about the elephant in the room - the elephant in question being Angelina Jolie. Anyone who has read Beowulf (or those who sat in lectures pretending to have read it - I'll admit, I was one of them. And now look at me!), and who was expecting the sea-hag-witch-of-the-sea-demon (I was also once one of these people), was probably thinking "Really? Did these assholes even read the godamn poem?"...It would have been a lot more fitting if Angelina Jolie and Brendan Gleeson's roles were switched, right?

Well, as it turned out, I was wrong. Well...sort of anyway. Angelina Jolie is actually a lot more suited to play Grendel's Mother than any CGI monsters! However, it must be stated that this Grendel's Mother also raises other issues, which we will get to.

Before we continue with Angelina Jolie, I think it's good to look at one of the most cringy adaptations of Beowulf ever made. You may know it from the techno soundtrack, Beowulf's peroxide locks (it was the 90's, and Beowulf wasn't getting left behind with the fashion!), the extremely high rate of back flips, and its impressively low 3.8 IMDb rating.

I'm bringing up this embarrassment of a film because of its very own Grendel's Mother...Layla Roberts. Who knows what Graham Baker was thinking when he decided "Yes, a playboy bunny, that is exactly who I need to play Grendel's Mother! And you know, hey, seen as she is involved in that whole industry, we may as well add in some soft porn scenes!". They even crimped her hair, to make sure that in years to come we could look at this film and shout "the nineties!". And yet, this film seemed to be a huge influence on Zemickis's 2007 version - with regards to nudity and storyline. Danél Griffin thought that many scenes in the film seemed "so absurd and outlandish that we wonder if the writers, Mark Leahy and David Chappe, have even read the poem." I'm with you there, man.

Hrothgar, you dog!

Despite all the negativity directed at this film, this, along with Zemickis's version, gives Grendel's Mother a much larger role - she gets a god amount of screen time and she can speak! She doesn't appear to us as an irrational beast, like in Grendel, Grendel, Grendel or Outlander, or in Beowulf and Grendel (to a slightly lesser extent) - she appears as intellectually powerful, even if it is in a manipulative manner. A big thing for me was that she appeared to us in a human form (me being with the "Grendel's Mother is a Human too" campaign), but alas, this is too good to be true, and she is revealed to be a giant praying mantis (in Baker's) and that Alien-esque style creature in Zemickis's.

I don't think it's any mistake that Layla Roberts turns into a praying mantis - the praying mantis, along with the black widow spider and the Venus fly-trap plant, and poison ivy etc etc etc, are often associated with the 'seductress' woman, and sometimes with women more generally. Anita Sarkeesian argues that these insects and plants have become "the inspiration for a whole trope of sexy female characters", seemingly stemming from a misconception about female praying mantises biting their male counterparts heads off - as it turned out, this was indeed a misconception, yet unfortunately the myth lived on in the belief that sexually powerful women are dangerous. Sarkeesian calls this trope the:
evil demon seductress... a supernatural creature usually a demon, robot, alien, vampire most often disguised as a sexy human female. She uses her sexuality and sexual wiles to manipulate, seduce, and kill, and often eat, poor hapless men, by luring them into her evil web ("Tropes vs. Women #4)

Layla Roberts really pulling off a praying mantis

In both films, Grendel's Mother fits this description. She seduced Hrothgar, most likely for producing a son who will later attack Heorot and be the rightful king. In the 2007 version, this is taken a step further, and Angelina and Ray Winstone give birth to a beautiful baby dragon. So, despite the good news that Grendel's Mother gets more airtime, the films have the extra issue of demonising women. These films portray women as manipulative and controlling, using sex to fulfill ulterior motives. The use of Layla Roberts or Angelina Jolie only adds to the sexism - as Sarkeesian states, "when an evil demon seductress is on screen, men get ot objectify her while having these sexist preconceived notions that women are in fact manipulative and deceitful", and as Bill Schipper tells it, "nothing terrifies a male audience more than a physically and sexually powerful woman"

David Marshall states that Beowulf (2007) attempts to criticise the masculine power system and its inability to control desire. Both Hrothgar and Beowulf cannot resist Angelina Jolie's golden breasts. Furthermore, Heorot appears to us as some sort of Anglo-Saxon frat-boy party house, where Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) encourages "fornication" and praises Unferth (John Malkovich) as "violator of virgins". All the men appear to act on physical whims, whereas the women of the film, like Grendel's Mother and Wealhtheow act on reason. Unfortunately, the film kind of fails in this criticism when they decided to turn Grendel's Mother into a digitally enhanced, naked, golden Angelina Jolie, whose body "caters to the same hyper-sexualised function of masculine desire that drives Beowulf in Zemickis's film" (Marshall). In the end, the only character who gains our respect is Wealhtheow, who also preserves her chastity, whilst Grendel's Mother's powerful sexuality is made unnatural and monstrous. 

In the writing of this post I also found out that someone on Youtube has a pet praying mantis named Angelina Jolie. I wonder if they realise the depth of that choice.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Freaky Freydís

It is generally assumed that all Viking raiders and warriors were men (lazy archaeology?), but that's not actually the case - quite a large percentage (up to half in some cases) were actually women, Freydís Eiríksdóttir being one of the more notable (and absolutely mental) ones, as the following picture accurately conveys:

Here is a lovely wax figure of the woman herself in Reykjavik. Smashing stuff.

Daughter of Erik the Red, who was a (most likely) Norwegian fella who founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland (who the hell would want to live there is what I ask), Freydís is generally known to have been involved in the Norse exploration of North America around 1,000AD or so (quite a bit before 1492 I may add) along with her brother Leifr. 

Freydís appears in two sagas; the Saga of Erik the Red, and the Grœnlendinga Saga, both believed to be composed in the 13th century. Events from an expedition to Vinland (in North America) are described in the first of these sagas - during this visit to America, the Vikings traded with what they called the Skrælingjar, the peoples from around North America and Greenland. 

Vinland on the left. This map is reputedly pre-Colombian, although possibly a forge

    As the story goes, trading all went well until the Vikings ran out of everything except cow's milk. The Skrælingjar turned out to be lactose intolerant, of course, and thought they were being poisoned. This, along with a rather uneasy encounter with a bull ("what in god's name is that devil-beast?"), made, as one can imagine, things a bit tense, and the shit hit the fan.
    Freydís, who was heavily pregnant at this time, and therefore less agile than a hippo on stilts, found herself abandoned by her spineless crew, who were starting to set sail. Seeing them flee she shouted after them: "Why run you away from such worthless creatures, stout men that ye are [...] Let me but have a weapon, I think I could fight better than any of you." And so, she proceeded to find the sword of one of her dead companions, and when the Skrælingjar came upon her, she bared her breasts and beat the sword against them, letting out a battle-cry. Needless to say, they fled in terror, and so would you, had you encountered that wax figure above or this orangutan below:

So, she sounds cool, right?! I'm sorry, but your dreams of a new idol are about to be smashed into tiny pieces. Read on.

Obviously thrilled by this exhilarating experience (who doesn't like to act out King Kong?), Freydís decided to make a deal with some poor Icelandic feckers, Helgi and Finnbogi, and returned to Vinland, after agreeing to split the goods half and half with the brothers. Being the snake in the grass that she was, Freydís snuck a few extra men onto her ship (she also convinced the two brothers to let her take the bigger of the ships). Due to differences of opinion, by the time they arrived in Vinland, two camps were set up. Later on, Freydís told her husband that the two lads had assaulted her, and ordered them and their crew killed. The orders were followed, but her men refused to kill the unarmed women - Freydís saw to them herself, chopping off the five of their heads, no bother at all to her. 

Not wanting to be seen as batshit crazy back home, she ordered silence on the matter for their return to Greenland. Her brother Leifr, obviously being a bit suspicious that the crew has magically shrunk by bloody half, resorted to torturing the truth out of some of the men. Being the just man that he was, he did....absolutely nothing, and Freydís got away with it all. I suffer more repercussions if I forget to hang the godanm washing out!

Leif Erikson, an all too forgiving brother

So, unfortunately, Freydis turned out to be a pretty horrible, greedy, merciless, thundering bitch, but either way, she is an interesting figure - a strong willed, courageous woman, but certainly not one to look up to or follow after - unless you fancy being secured in a psychiatric ward of a prison.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Grendel, Grendel, Grendel's Mother

This has to be one of the coolest book covers around

Another Grendel's Mother post, yaaaay! Today I'm going to write about John Gardner's novel Grendel, and the animated film adaptation, Grendel, Grendel, Grendel. That's a lot of 'Grendel's in one sentence.

Grendel was one of the first (and most popular) adaptations of Beowulf, being written in 1971, and is known for its sympathetic treatment of Grendel. The story is told from Grendel's point of view, with very little focus on Beowulf (he isn't ever named, and we only meet him at the very end). As Alexander Stitt's film narrates, "it is told "through twentieth century eyes, where one is more likely to see the humanity in a monster" - yeah, well, not for Grendel's Mother.

This retelling of the Beowulf story, features one of the most monstrous and animal-like Grendel's Mother around, and although the story is seen through Grendel's eyes, even less of his mother is seen than in the original poem. And although it is a different view of her, it's not necessarily anyway less monstrous than any translations of the poem. She is described as a "life-bloated, baffled, long-suffering hag", a "horrible, humpbacked, carp-toothed creature", with "strange eyes" and "bristly fur". Can you feel the love that he feels for his mum? She is obviously not human-like at all...well, I guess you could find some people who fit those descriptions, but anyway...

Even more notable than appearance, is Grendel and his Mother's intelligence - where Grendel is portrayed as intelligent, rational, and quite philosophical (along with the dragon), ad even has an upper class British accent in the film, while his mother has no voice at all - "she'd forgotten language long ago, or maybe had never known it" - she cannot even comprehend what Grendel says.

Despite all this, there is a small amount of sympathy for Grendel's Mother - perhaps she is not all that monstrous - "I was, in her eyes some meaning I could never know and might not care to know", "she would have given her life to end my suffering". And although we know how it pans out in the original poem, we can only presume that she avenges her son after the novel ends. This love for her son of course, isn't necessarily a human trait, but could rather be an animal's maternal instinct - I mean, shit, the Moorwen in Outlander was almost more human-like than this Grendel's Mother!

Brian Froud's depiction of Grendel

So, despite being a book that was great for Grendel, it's not exactly great for his mother. It is a good book however, and worth a read if you're into Beowulf. Sure fuckit, aren't we all. And this is where I realise I'm turning into one of those people...those people who write blogs on academic stuff. Goodbye childhood.

Grendel, Grendel, Grendel can be found here! It's worth watching especially for the part at the start.

And now I'm off to London. Goodbye, suckers!