This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
Beowulf is a comparatively short Old English poem in which the hero of the Scyldingas (Shieldlings), Beowulf, fights three monsters; the mysterious demon Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. The poem also features Hrothgar, king of Heorot, and various other warriors.
In order to be expanded into a 12-part first series and in the hope of making several more after that, the plot has naturally been pulled out quite substantially and the world of Beowulf, the newly-simply-spelled Herot and the Shieldings has, of course, been substantially expanded. Perhaps the most surprising development is the death in this first episode of the king Hrothgar, creating a much more complex political situation than that presented in the poem with a number of characters vying for power.
This first episode suggests that the series will be an interesting mix of the innovative and the traditional. I was briefly hopeful that Beowulf’s friend Breca might be his love interest, but within minutes of arrival at the village he was making eyes at a pretty (female) doctor, so I guess we’ll have to wait for someone to adapt The Epic Of Gilgamesh for a chance at an LGBTQ heroic lead.
On the other hand, the revelation that in the wake of Hrothgar’s death his wife Rheda has become Thane suggests a genuinely interesting slant on the often male-dominated swords ‘n’ monsters genre. Rheda is far from the only female character with a significant role here, as the Shieldlands appear to be impressively well-supplied with female doctors and blacksmiths, but her role as queen and the explicit tension that creates in a society still depicted as primarily patriarchal is intriguing and, hopefully that tension will come into play in future episodes.
The use of the trolls, so far, also combines the familiar with the unfamiliar. On the one hand, the opening shots include one more or less lifted from The Lord Of The Rings, as we see trolls put to work pushing giant gates around as Beowulf rides into town. On the other hand, the treatment of the trolls as the episode goes on seems to suggest that these creatures have rather more personality than they are often allowed in various fantasy settings. In the source material, the relationships and motives of the monsters, particularly Grendel’s mother, are important, so hopefully this is a sign that the series is going to incorporate that sense that these ‘monsters’ are thinking and feeling creatures into its narrative. Non-humanoid monsters with personalities and motives of their own could be what makes this series stand out, for while not unique, such a depiction of these sorts of creatures is unusual in this sort of fantasy setting.
The characters are, out of necessity, presented in fairly broad strokes in this first episode. Beowulf is troubled but heroic; Breca is the cheeky sidekick; Rheda is firm and no-nonsense; Elvina and Lila are wary and defensive; Slean is sulky and aggressive, and anyone older than 35 and in the position of a servant or guard is unfailingly loyal. There are signs of humour and life in these characters though, and the performances are solid. Hopefully, as we get to know them better over the coming weeks, they will be fleshed out a bit from these foundations.
The series is beautifully shot with impressive set design, production values and, to my eye, special effects. (I am, I should confess, not that fussy when it comes to special effects on fantasy creatures – as long as they are not distractingly terrible I’m quite happy to suspend disbelief and go with it. These looked fine to me). If the next episodes are able to maintain this quality while working on expanding the depth of their characters, this should be a fun ride.