Beowulf: A monster for all times

Robert Bjork

Robert Bjork answers questions about ‘The Many Faces of Beowulf’

Robert Bjork is the man behind the monster for the March 6 presentation in the ASU Foundation’s Presidential Engagement Programs (PEP) series, “The Many Faces of Beowulf.” As Foundation Professor of English, director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and co-author of several books on the Norse hero, Bjork conjures “Beowulf” up through the centuries, from an old poem dimly remembered from English class to the 2007 animated blockbuster with Angelina Jolie.

Surprisingly, this professor of medieval and renaissance studies doesn’t sneer at the computer-generated Hollywood spectacle based on a centuries-old, Anglo Saxon classic. “I love the Angelina Jolie/John Malkovich version of ‘Beowulf,’” he enthuses. “It has scenes that render the absolute horror one would have felt when listening to this chilling, violent story in a cold, poorly lit mead hall surrounded by enveloping darkness.”

Bjork will share that story through the voices of all its tellers from 10 a.m. to noon, March 6, in the Appaloosa Branch of the Scottsdale Public Library, 7377 East Silverstone Drive in Scottsdale, 85255. Admission is $25 with advance registration. Visit for information and registration, or contact Sally Moore, PEP director, at 480-965-4814 or

In advance of his PEP presentation, Bjork explains his passion for this classic ninth-century work and previews what his audience can look forward to.

If “Beowulf” is still meaningful today, what gives it staying power?

The poem has remained relevant because it embodies the human spirit, first of all, and the will to survive and surmount obstacles. It’s a story about courage and tenacity and initial victory but ultimate defeat in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s also a story that rings psychologically true, secondly, as we witness the hero, Beowulf, move from a young, audacious, powerful warrior capable of almost any heroic feat at the beginning of the poem, to a wise old king, somewhat doubtful and introspective and burdened by past deeds at the end of the poem 50 years later. All in all, the poem is an existential document that teaches us more and more about ourselves every time we read it.

What themes in Beowulf are familiar to people today?

The major themes are good versus evil – Tolkien benefitted much from [“Beowulf”] in designing the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, light versus dark, civilization versus anti-civilization, and maintaining dignity and fighting against the dying of the light as we move toward life’s end.

And what symbols should readers and your audience look for?

There are two major symbols. The monsters of the night, the Grendel kin in the first half of the poem, can threaten our homes and homeland and are capable of devouring us and our way of life. These monsters are actually reflections of ourselves. Tolkien argued they unite the Nordic troll and biblical Cain to signify the evil in the individual human being. And the second symbol is the dragon, which represents the evil in the universe; a cosmic, unyielding evil beyond our control and comprehension.

Do “Beowulf’s” themes and symbols translate well to the wide screen, such as in the 2007 version?

It is testimony to the poem’s power in attracting Hollywood and such superstars to spend their considerable talent on it. I’ll show a clip or two from this film and match those clips to passages in the poem during my talk to illustrate what I mean.

Erik Ketcherside,
Communications Manager | Editorial Services
ASU Foundation for A New American University