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Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands review

This article contains spoilers

The more than 3000 lines of Old English poetry that form the poem Beowulf have been adapted many times. In January, ITV started broadcasting their adaptation of the famous story, called Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. In these Shieldlands, Beowulf will face many dangers, and he meets the monster Grendel.

In the first episode, we meet Beowulf as a young boy, and see his father being killed by two monsters. King Hrothgar took Beowulf with him and raised him as if he was his own son. Hrothgar’s own son, Slean, did not like this, especially since Beowulf was better at fighting than him. As a man of around 25, he returns to Hrothgar’s wine hall, only to find out that Hrothgar was killed. The killer was Grendel. Hrothgar’s wife, Rheda, becomes the new thane of Heorot.

The Shieldlands consist of tribes, and the thane of Heorot is the leader of them all. On the one hand, the show focusses on the politics and complots in the Shieldlands as the tribes have to vote at a gathering whether they allow Rheda, in her role as thane of Heorot, to remain the leader of the Shieldlands. The show also focusses on Beowulf and his friend Breca as they fight monsters. In the Shieldlands, everyone who is not human is called a mud-born. These mud-borns can range from shapeshifters to trolls to monsters like Grendel, and are feared and hated by the people in the Shieldlands.

The Beowulf in the show is not as heroic as the Beowulf in the Old English poem. Instead of only valiantly fighting monsters and keeping people safe, he also banters with his best friend Breca and has an ongoing verbal battle with Slean. Slean wanted to become thane after his father’s death, but Hrothgar appointed his wife Rheda to be his successor. Beowulf, however, is back in Heorot for a short while and is appointed as reeve. Slean is not happy with the power this gives Beowulf. Overall, this Beowulf is a stereotypical ‘hero character’: he is very good at fighting and fits the ruggedly handsome type.

Obviously, no Beowulf adaptation can be produced without the antagonist, Grendel. In the original manuscript, some of Grendel’s descriptions are: “from his eyes gleamed / an ugly light, most like a flame” (ll.726b-727), “the terrible monster” (l. 731), “the giant” (l.761). These descriptions are not very detailed, just parts of the body are described in detail. This allows the reader or listener (as Anglo-Saxon poetry was often transmitted orally) to form their own image of Grendel. Grendel becomes every audience member’s worst nightmare. In this series, Grendel is a monster that looks a bit like The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, only bigger and stronger. With pointy teeth and bloodshot eyes, Grendel looks very dangerous. Grendel is the one who killed Hrothgar, and at one point in the show he abducts Elvina, Heorot’s healer. However, he does not harm her, and they seem to have some kind of bond. When Beowulf and his friend Breca come to rescue her, Grendel protects her. It is hinted that Elvina has some sort of connection with mud-borns, and maybe that she is one. Remarkable is that Beowulf and Grendel have not had a confrontation yet. They met each other when Elvina was abducted and there was a small fight, but nothing more than that. It could be that the writers save this undoubtedly epic fight for the last episode.

I would recommend this series to everyone who is an Old English enthusiast (and is not bothered too much by adaptations not following their source text very strictly), and to fans of shows like Vikings and Game of Thrones. Beowulf may not always have the best writing – a character saying something along the lines of ‘what can go wrong’ usually indicates something going wrong – but the set design and world-building is quite good.

By Elise Klom