Transmediating Beowulf


A informal (by scholarly publication standards) paper that I wrote on transmedia theory and beowulf.

Beowulf and Transmediation Theory

 In his text Virtually Anglo-Saxon, Martin K. Foys explores possible links between early medieval literatures, which he calls pre-print texts, and contemporary digital media theory revolving around those digital and interactive texts that he considers as part of a post-print age. In his book, Foys explains how early medieval texts originally were open to a participatory narrative that invited the audience to become immersed in the shaping of the text, and how the critical theory of the nineteenth and twentieth century, being primarily aimed at the discovery of deep meaning in printed texts, is severely limited when applied to early medieval texts. As these early medieval texts are being studied in their printed form, through lenses meant for analysis of print texts, much of the text’s meaning, Foys argues, is lost in a vacuum. He argues that print and written texts have placed some limitations on the analysis of pre-print texts, and that the theories of post-print digital media lift the critical boundaries imposed by print forms. Based on this, Foys makes the argument that Anglo-Saxonists, medievalists, and scholars who engage in academic inquiry of such texts should embrace new media theory in order to expand their conceptions of the texts they study.

It might be worthwhile to explain that medievalists have been at the forefront when it comes to integrating digital technologies into literature scholarship. Even while Janet Murray, a leading figure in digital media scholarship, was attempting to persuade a conference room full of Shakespearians to consider the possible benefits of a scholarly edition of Shakespeare’s works – she explained in her text Hamlet on the Holodeck how one of the conference attendees told her that if she was there to talk against the format of the book she would throw Murray out of a window – medievalists were working on creating electronic versions of Old English texts.

There is no doubt that medievalists have taken advantage of digital technologies – such as databases – to engage in research and criticism and to create digital scholarly versions of print texts. They were, and still are, among the first to realize the practical potentials of digital technologies in scholarly inquiry. The fact that the first academic journal to take an interdisciplinary[1] approach to the integration of digital technologies in literature was The Digital Medievalist speaks volumes for the innovative drive in the field. However, all of the articles tackle problems with creating electronic versions of currently existing texts rather than explore digital theory and its applications to medieval texts. Foys reminds us that “medievalists have welcomed with open arms the notions that with digital technologies come software and databases – new tools that aid the traditional forms of study” (2); and it is of note that despite his statements that “printed editions of medieval material now serve as the basis for the majority of scholarship produced” (13), he also reminds the reader of how Edward J. Christie, a professor of medieval literature at Georgia State University, argues that the quality of electronic versions of texts are double that of traditional, print texts (36). However, despite the pioneering spirits of medievalists in adapting digital technologies, Foys reminds the reader that “the frontier of how new media theories and methodologies present alternative ways of interpreting early medieval expressions […] remains a terra incognita” (2). This means that although scholars of medieval literature have actively applied digital technologies in a practical way to allow for ease of access to electronic versions of traditional texts, they have yet to engage medieval texts with the lens of digital media theory, which, as Foys argues, might help yield new insights into old texts – a framework which he demonstrates by providing a highly innovative and coherent closed reading of Anselm’s religious texts as hypertext and a slightly less coherent comparison of the Anglo-Saxon Mappamundi as a virtual reality world.

Although “medieval discourse is not digital in any way”, Foys states early in his text, “the medieval and the digital (or pre-print and post-print) have much in common that the print medium does not share” (xiii). Certainly, it would be difficult to argue that the oral traditions from which early medieval texts are inspired hold more similarities to the print medium rather than to the digital medium – after all, elements of authorship, text remixing, and audience participation are elements common to both the oral and the digital traditions; however, the fact that all currently available medieval texts exist in written form, rather than oral, might render Foys’ attempt at bridging medieval texts and digital texts null. The question, then, becomes one that is asked by leading new media theorist Marshal McLuhan: “what will be the new configurations of literacy as the older forms of perception and judgment are interpreted by the new electric age?”; or, perhaps, because of the lack of scholarship bridging the fields of Old English and Digital Media Theory, it might be more prudent to inquire as to whether the interpretations of old texts provided in new media truly conform to the original configurations, or if there is any meaning lost in the translation. In order to answer this question, I will apply Henry Jenkins’ notions of transmedia and transmediation to the original and interactive digital adaptations of Beowulf to demonstrate that, despite any interpretational liberties taken by the author of the digital adaptation, when one takes into account the type of media in which each text is published and how they each have unique ways of representation, the core essence of Beowulf succeeds at transmediating from traditional form of print media to digital interactive medium of the videogame.

In its simplest form, transmediation can be defined as the phenomenon of delivering a narrative across different media. Hendersonoffers a more formal and practical definition which states that “transmedia is the process of taking a story, for any form of media, and expanding and developing for all media” (Henderson). By this definition, any narrative that is delivered through different media – including adaptations – can be considered as having gone through transmediation. However, Hendersonfurther explains that for transmediation to occur, an “expansion of the universe or world created [by] telling the story of many inhabitants of a world” must be considered as an integral part of the process (Henderson). Henry Jenkins, a leading digital media theorist, defined transmediation – a term which he coined – as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience” (Jenkins) – yet it is worth noting that since the birth of transmediation theory Jenkins, and other media scholars, have expanded on the original definition to include various layers of transmediation. In its current state, transmediation theory can apply not only to texts whose narrative is dispersed through different forms of media, but also to identical texts distributed through different channels[2], texts that compliment the reading experience of the main text and variations of the same text designed to take advantage of the strenghts of each medium[3], and narratives that openly invite the reader to cross different media[4]. It is the second level of transmediation that applies to the text in question. Now, equipped with working definitions of the different levels of transmediation, we are prepared to inquire as to whether Beowulf, at its most basic level, succeeds at transmediating across platforms.

Beowulf, an epic poem where the main character is a hero of some renowkn who travels great distances to prove his strength, begins in medias res – a characteristic of the epics of antiquity. Jane Chance, a Professor of English at Rice University, argued that there are two standard interpretations of the poem: one view which suggests a two-part structure – Beowulf’s battles with Grendel and with the dragon – and the other a three-part structure that argues for Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother being structurally separate from his battle with Grendel. Chance stated that “the view of the structure as two-part has generally prevailed since its inception in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (248). However, when one considers the three-act structure of the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution, as explained by Daniel Floyd in his virtual lecture on videogames and narrative, where he explains that the first act of a narrative is the setup – the events leading up to the first confrontations – it becomes an arguable claim that Beowulf does follow a three act structure where the (brief) first act involves the poet’s voice narrating Beowulf’s lineage and the events depicting the line of kings leading up to the events that take place in the main sections of the poem. It is worth noting, however, that laregly due to media considerations, the interactive digital version of Beowulf does adhere to a two act structure. This two act structure, however, is not composed of acts I and II – the set up and confrontation – as much as it is comprised of acts II and III – the confrontation and the resolution. In Beowulf, act I is discarded. Although it could certainly be argued that Beowulf’s battle at sea against Brecca can be considered a first act, this event takes place well after Beowulf has become a hero. Following the videogame narrative structure explained by Floyd, this section cannot be considered a first act as it does not portray a pre-heroic Beowulf or the line of kings that led to the events portrayed in Beowulf. Furthermore, by the time of Beowulf’s arrival, Grendel’s attacks have already driven Hrothgar to close down Herot. By completely disregarding what would be considered as the first act in a three act narrative structure – the act that would depict the pre-heroic life of the main character – the poet manages to jump straight into the second act of the narrative, which focuses on the actions and interactions of the hero. By doing this, Beowulf, manages to apply a style that maintains the sense of adventure within the story.

The interactive digital text of Beowulf follows the same narrative structure of thrusting the reader straight into the second act. Although it is worth noting that in the digital interactive text the narrative sets the starting point in the open sea in a swimming competition against Brecca – an event that is introduced in section VIII of the written text – this shift happens as part of the transmediation process. While in the written version of the text the event serves as a flashback to shed light on Beowulf’s boastful nature, in the interactive digital text it is used to allow the reader to become acquainted with the new reading mechanics. With the exception of this displacement of memory, the structure of both texts is fairly similar – a two act structure consisting of Beowulf’s battles with Grendel and, later, his battle against and eventual death because of the dragon. If the structure is similar in both texts, thus making it a transmediated text according to our basic definition, it is to the details, then, that we should turn for further scrutiny.

Some digital media critics have argued that “the fact remains that successful and credible transmedia novels must focus primarily on story” (Norrington). Certainly, if a text were to completely forego the process of storytelling it would cease to be a narrative and become a series of sequential tasks. Rather than engaging in a complex literary text, the readers – or shall we call them taskers? – would mindlessly engage in the purposeless completion of unrelated tasks. However, Jenkins has stated that “most often, transmedia stories are based not on individual characters or specific plots but rather complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories”. These two conflicting ideas then raise the question of whether a transmediated text should focus on story or on virtual world design.

In his influential text Convergence Culture, Jenkins argues that despite a transmediated text’s focus on the virtual world design, there can exist a symbiotic relationship between virtual world design and story, as a well designed virtual world would include a number of characters who take part in a story. Because the virtual world is open in nature, however, these texts allow for a deeper level of involvement from the reader than a traditional print text. Indeed, as Foys would suggest, the virtual world of Beowulf’s digital interactive narrative has the potential of taking the reader back to the oral traditions. However, Beowulf’s transmediation takes into account more than just the digital world. When writing about transmediation, Jenkins suggests that ideally, each individual episode must be accessible on its own terms even as it makes a unique contribution to the narrative system as a whole. Beowulf succeeds in doing this. Furthermore, when one considers that transmediation “is about immersion, participation & experiences in an authored environment which will not only attract existing readers, but bring new audiences and modes of fragmentation”, there can be no question that Beowulf is, indeed, a successful transmediation, as readers exposed to the interactive digital version will want to engage with the source text (Norrington).

            We have so far demonstrated how when one applies transmediation theory to two distinct Beowulf texts, one the traditional, written version and the other the interactive digital version, it becomes obvious that the text succeeds at transmediating the structural considerations that one should consider when dealing with digital adaptations of print media. By giving the readers a narrative structure that focuses on events and character in the written text and a virtual world for exploration in the digital interactive text, Beowulf manages to bridge the gap between written and virtual text and offer the reader an extended experience. However, the question of fidelity is still left unanswered – although the text transmediates form, does it transmediate core content? While the application of the theory succeeds, it does not take into consideration the subtleties of each medium and, more importantly, the intent of the transmediated text. These issues would, then, help to define the text as a true transmediation or as the “lesser” form of cross mediation, which some critics have labeled as cheap marketing attempts. The best way to approach the question of whether Beowulf is a true transmediated text would be to engage in a comparative reading of both versions of the text.

Beowulf: A Comparative Approach

 As previously explained, the narrative structure of both texts is altered from a three act structure in the original written text to a two act narrative structure that discards any information regarding the historical events, including the line of kings, leading up to the main narrative situations described in the poem. Although it can be argued that this is due to media considerations, the fact that the way this specific translation method was implemented turns Beowulf  from a noble, brave hero who seeks glory to a generic, bloodthirsty barbarian. Consider the following passage regarding Beowulf and how he first heard of Grendel:

This heard in his home Hygelac’s thane[4] ,
great among Geats, of Grendel’s doings.
He was the mightiest man of valor
in that same day of this our life,
stalwart and stately. A stout wave-walker
he bade make ready. Yon battle-king, said he,
far o’er the swan-road he fain would seek,
the noble monarch who needed men!
The prince’s journey by prudent folk
was little blamed, though they loved him dear;
they whetted the hero, and hailed good omens.
And now the bold one from bands of Geats
comrades chose, the keenest of warriors
e’er he could find; with fourteen men
the sea-wood he sought, and, sailor proved,
led them on to the land’s confines.

In this passage the reader becomes acquainted with the overall character of the hero Beowulf – a great and mighty man of valor, “stalwart and stately”, who is “well-loved” and surrounded by good omens. In the print text the reader is exposed to certain character traits that, despite its interactive nature, is difficult to express in videogame form. Despite the reader having the ability of taking on the role of Beowulf in the digital interactive text, which, according to Gee, creates an intimate relationship between the reader and the character, the lack of exposition on the character of the protagonist creates a void in the reader’s perception which sets up Beowulf to be interpreted as more than (or perhaps less than) a heroic, brave hero. This opens the possibility of Beowulf being read as another of the many contemporary characters with a bloodlust, rather than the well-loved hero he is.

            Another aspect of Beowulf’s background that is alluded to in the written text and not in the interactive digital text is the relationship between Hrothgar and Beowulf’s father:

Thy father’s combat a feud enkindled
when Heatholaf with hand he slew
among the Wylfings; his Weder kin
for horror of fighting feared to hold him.

To a reader familiar with the Anglo Saxon tradition, it would come as no surprise that Beowulf would come to Hrothgar’s aid, at least from Hrothgar’s perspective, as this would be the repayment of a debt. In the interactive text, however, this is nowhere hinted at. Instead of offering any kind of background for character development, the interactive digital text opens with a scene where two boats sailing over sea monster-infested waters arrive on an island. The narrator then speaks:

            I, Hrothgar, master of battles, king of the Danes,

            I have a story for you!

The bards once sang of how I

slew the Great Dragon of the North single handedly.

Of how I, King Hrothgar,

built the great hall of Herot to feast and fornicate!

[…]

But then, this is not my story…

            Here we see shift in narrative perspective. While in the written text the narrative voice is that of The Beowulf Poet, and Hrothgar is another character in a tale being told to the audience, in the digital interactive text Hrothgar is the narrative voice and the reader becomes a Beowulf [5]. If Foys had engaged in a comparative analysis of these two texts he would no doubt argue that in allowing the reader to take an active part of the narrative by taking control of Beowulf the text is mimicking the experience and level of engagement of the oral traditions. It could also be argued that this drastic shift in narrative perspective does not create a different way of experiencing the same text as much as it creates an entirely new version of the text based on the original. This notion is further reinforced when one considers other differences between the texts.

            In the written text, Grendel’s past is explained. Following the traditions of the Anglo Saxon people, the text makes biblical references and positions Grendel – an evil character – as the offspring of Cain:

On kin of Cain was the killing avenged
by Sovran [6] God for slaughtered Abel.
Ill fared his feud, and far was he driven,
for the slaughter’s sake, from sight of men.

            By dedicating well over half the text to Grendel, Anonymous positions him as an obviously pivotal character in the narrative – one whose bloodlust is unrivaled and who takes joy in terrorizing men. In the interactive version, however, Grendel is nothing more than the catalyst for a larger narrative arc that involves a hero with a more severe thirst for bloodshed and violence than the Grendel of the written text.

            Still, despite these differences in character development, the most glaring contradiction between the texts is the way in which Beowulf travels from one location to another. Both texts have a certain disjointedness to their transitions – in the written text Beowulf can be in one place in one line and in another place the next, and in the interactive text this sense of displacement is translated faithfully. However, in the digital interactive version, in order to maintain the pace of the narrative, Beowulf and his army of Thanes have to fight through waves of barbarians. This serves the purpose of making the narrative longer, but also manages to make it repetitive and unremarkable.

            Despite all these differences, the overall narrative is the same in both texts: Beowulf arrives at Heorot, fights Grendel, fights Grendel’s mother, becomes a king (although admittedly in the poem Beowulf returns home and becomes a king while the game has him step into Hrothgar’s throne), and dies fighting a dragon. Furthermore, the instances in the text when characters are quoted as speaking translate somewhat faithfully into the digital interactive text, with Unchferth’s comments on Beowulf and Brecca being a direct translation:

“Art thou that Beowulf, Breca’s rival,

who emulous swam on the open sea,
when for pride the pair of you proved the floods,
and wantonly dared in waters deep
to risk your lives?

[…]

 In swimming he topped thee,
had more of main!”

            In the end, one must agree that Beowulf should be considered as a transmediated text. Although the digital interactive text limits elements of character development almost to the point of nonexistence, it does open up the world of Beowulf to experience, which is that interactive mediums should attempt. Despite some jarring differences, by offering the same general narrative in a similar narrative structure the reader will be able to draw a limited number of parallels between both texts. This does not mean, however, that the interactive digital text of Beowulf should be considered as significant a contribution to digital literatures as the written text is to the literary canon – in fact, many digital media critics have warned that “if you’re looking for an experience that does justice to the revered epic poem, a work that more or less served as the inspiration for Tolkien and all the spin-off fantasy media saturating Western society, get ready to be sorely disappointed” (Onyett). Despite the fact that one version of Beowulf is one of the earliest pieces of writing in English and one of the cornerstones of western literature and the other version can be considered as yet another title in a long line of interactive digital narratives that transmediate from previously existing texts, when one considers that transmediation theory, which Jenkins called “the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence”, can be applied successfully to the text and that both texts advocate similar principles and ideas, it becomes hard to disagree with the fact that Beowulf is Beowulf.

 

END NOTES:

[1] I use the term “interdisciplinary” here quite loosely since, as I explain, digital medievalists are not really engaging in an interaction of their discipline with another as much as they are finding how to use new tools to help them engage with their discipline.

[2] The term for this level of transmediation is “pushed media”

[3] The term for this level of transmediation is “extended media”

[4] The term for this level of transmediation is “bridged media”

 [5] Referring to “a version of Beowulf” as in what the reader interprets Beowulf as being, rather than The Beowulf as in what the author (or authors) of the “original” text intended him to be.

[6] Direct transcript of the version used. See Works Cited.

Works Cited

 

 “Beowulf”.Charlottesville,VA:University of Virginia Press,N.D.Web. <http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/AnoBeow.html&gt;

Burghart, Marjorie. Digital Medievalist. University of Lethbridge, 2003. Web. 15 March 2011. <http://www.digitalmedievalist.org&gt;

Chance, Jane. Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. ed. The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel’s Mother, (1990).Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Floyd, Daniel. “Amnesia and the Story Structure”. Extra Credits.The Escapist, 27 January 2011. Web. 15 March 2011.<http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/2681-Amnesia-and-Story-Structure&gt;

Gee, James P. What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave McMilan, 2003. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture. New York, NY: NYU Press, 2006. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling”. Technology Review,15 January 2003. Web. 15 March 2011.<http://www.technologyreview.com/biomedicine/13052/page1/?a=f&gt;

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101”. Confessions of an ACA Fan,22 March 2007. Web. 15 March 2011.<http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html&gt;

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck. New York, NY: MIT Press, 1997. Print.

Norrington, Allyson. “Transmedia Storytelling – What its all about”. Digital Publishing Solutions, 17 May 2010. Web. 15 March 2011. <http://www.futurebook.net/content/transmedia-storytelling-–-what’s-it-all-about&gt;

Paul Henderson, John. “Transmedia: Interactive Becoming Immersive”. Critical Commons, 2010. Web. 15 March 2011. <http://criticalcommons.org/Members/CTCS505/lectures/transmedia-interactive-becoming-immersive&gt;

UBISoft. (2007). Beowulf. [Playstation 3].Paris,France: UBISoft Corporation.

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About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on May 5, 2011, in Literature Commentary, Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Well I truly enjoyed reading it. This tip procured by you is very effective for proper planning.

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