15 August 2011

Quotations on Heroes

Since movie versions of Beowulf miss the mark, I wonder if the rather good fantasy film Reign of Fire comes closer to showing some of Beowulf's themes and more of Beowulf's character, which I put somewhere between those of the two main characters in the movie: the determined monster-slayer Denton van Zan and the people's protector, Quinn Abercromby. I mention this because van Zan's best lines in the movie turn out to have an unexpected precedent.
Denton van Zan: Envy the country that has heroes, huh? I say pity the country that needs them. 
This stays in the brain. Today I read an article on Claus von Stauffenberg, a German military officer who did something heroic when he tried to assassinate Hitler. It contained a quotation from scene 12 of Bertolt Brecht's play Galileo, or so says the Wikiquote page on Brecht. (There is no Wikiquote page on Reign of Fire--go here instead, though some of the quotations there do not match my memory). Here is the Brecht quotation:
Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.
Galileo: No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.
It gives these variant translations:
 Pity the country that needs heroes.
Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes
Now, this blog is about Beowulf, not Brecht, but there is a relation here. Read Seamus Heaney's introduction to his Beowulf translation. It points out that Hrothgar heroically defended his people for fifty years, but his kingdom did not last long after his death. The same is true of the Geat kingdom after Beowulf died. The Geats who speak at the poem's end, Wiglaf and an unnamed woman, say as much.
Envy the country that has a Beowulf, huh? I say pity the country that needs him.
That may be a major theme of Beowulf.

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