NOTE: The following was intended as an Appendix to the original published novel, but given space and budget constraints (and very likely a limited interest among the readership) was relegated to the publisher’s web page. It would eventually find a home at the end of Book II of the two-volume edition, in a heavily revised and edited version. What follows is the original rough draft for those endnotes, containing a greatly extended introduction detailing how the project came about. An additional section on Norse Mythology was later added to the published revision, and consequently is not found here.
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Adapting a classic work of literature into a modern idiom is rarely a simple process, and less so when that work is a fifteen hundred year old poem over which scholars argue to this day and students groan at midterm. My reasons for doing so are as vague today as they likely were ten years ago when first I undertook this project, ostensibly to bring an obscure but captivating tale to a modern audience.
Back then I was an aspiring student of English literature, destined, in all likelihood, to graduate from the prodigious ranks of the groaning pupil to the only slightly more prestigious order of academia, doomed to inflict the terrors of Beowulf upon an endless procession of would-be accountants and auto mechanics (no offense to either profession: I rely equally on both).
And yet, that which had for so long been a curse to so many was for me nothing short of a revelation. I devoured Beowulf. I relished it. I studied the ancient Anglo-Saxon in which is was written that I might read it in its original language. I blew off other courses of less interest in order that I might stay another hour in the library, pouring over the seemingly endless critiques and analyses of its interweaving structure and cryptic themes, all the while compiling my own line-by-line translation that I might better comprehend the subtle shadings of its language.
But all for what, I had to ask – at some point between gaining an A+ in Honors Medieval Literature and a D in the tedious honors colloquium History of The Crusades (my one and only D, achieved, I might add, due to my failure to appear for the final exam). What does one do with an excess of useless facts other than teach it to others that they might do the same? The world did not need yet another verse translation to weigh down the shelves of college libraries and the desks of the uninterested. For me the story lived, it inhabited the very air I breathed, and yet to the average reader it lay as dead on the page as the author who first wrote it: an epic struggle to understand, a saga of Herculean proportions, even in translation (and often because of it) – an unassailable Olympus. Even the Complete Study Edition I had initially planned seemed futile to this end.
At the time I was working as the manager of a video rental outlet, and consequently thought first of the film industry. Why, I wondered, had such a graphically visual tale never reached the silver screen? And, more importantly, why should it not now, in this day and age of wondrous digital imagery? And so I set to work.
I must confess that at this point the thought of writing a novel did, in fact, occur to me. In truth, I had gone to college in the first place with the intention of improving my writing skills and studying the great works of literature to that end, as I had already begun one novel when I realized I had no idea whatever what I was doing with it. Thus my college days began at the belated age of twenty-eight. I have not yet returned to that first novel (although I intend to), but as it turns out I think I was on the right track all along. Still, the education proved useful, as it ever should.
Yet the thought of adapting such a densely compacted work such as is the Beowulf poem into a full-fledged narrative page-turner frankly daunted me (and rightfully so, I can now attest). Writing a hundred page screenplay seemed far the easier task. So with that in mind two years of my life flew by (as they ever will) in completing the final draft of a script which would never sell, not (in my opinion, at any rate) for lack of quality, but because in that time two other script adaptations did sell. Up to that point there had never been a film version of Beowulf, just as there were no full-length novelizations, either (more on this in a minute). Now there were two of them in the works, neither of which was mine. The frustration of such a futile endeavor can only be fully understood by those who have thrown years of their life into something that they loved, hoping one day to see it take wing, only to see it fall and crumble into dust instead. Such must have been the Wright Brothers’ first efforts.
And yet, they did not give up. Nor would I.
I had put far too much effort into this monstrosity (as it had by this time become – the script weighed in at 136 pages at its shortest edit: a detracting factor to a great many of the agents and studios I spoke to) to toss it lightly aside. Two years of research, another two in learning the craft of screenwriting, at least to the degree that a completed fourth draft script was humming happily through the matrix of my inkjet printer, and nothing to show for it but a pile of useless paper filed away upon some shelf in the catacombs of Hollywood’s Writers Guild.
Thus this book was born.
Through the vagaries of Fate (or the ill-devised intentions of its author), I plodded on, thinking now, ironically, that it would be easier to write the novel since I had already done the script. All I had to do was interject some narrative description, flesh out the characters with a bit more dialogue, and a novel would soon appear.
This proved to be far from the truth.
In composing the film script I had inevitably altered much of the original storyline, due to the brevity and visual nature of that medium. Those who complain, when leaving the theater on seeing a film adapted from a novel, that it was “not like the book,” will assuredly have never tried their hand at that arduous task themselves. One may as well turn a painting into a pop song and say it isn’t like the canvas. The two are not the same. However, I must agree with these critiques on at least one point, and say that film adaptations are rarely as good as their original (and I include in this criticism the two recent film versions of this story). Yet that does not invalidate the effort. Often much is gained by the translation, even while something else is lost. One must simply look to the former, while gracefully relinquishing the latter (I will say that the three recent Lord of the Rings films in my opinion added far more than they took away, a rare feat indeed).
My main difficulty in now adapting an adaptation to a new medium was that in creating the one I had inevitably disregarded the needs of the other. The timeline was shortened, superfluous characters deleted (or combined), extraneous matter expunged, internal thought processes eliminated (not that there is much of this in the original poem, though there must be in any good novel). Now I had to reverse that process, reinsert deleted material, alter the timeline once more, resurrect dead characters, create new material to fill in the ominous void that lay like Grendel’s mere between the empty covers that would soon contain it. Where a character died in one scene, now they must live; where a plot point was skipped, it now had to sever two other points originally designed to flow together; nothing now could be left out, if I would achieve my aim of bringing the original story back to life. The process, I discovered, was ten times the work it would have been had I simply written the novel first (I use the term simply here in a very relative sense).
Indeed, I balked at many of the changes I now faced, some so enormous in the scope of their impact that I honestly saw no way to incorporate them. And, in fact, in one major case, did not. That is, until, having completed (after several more years) what I thought was a finished novel, I could not sleep nights for the omission, and literally paced the floor in the wee hours debating the matter with myself, much like Smeagol fighting off the evil urge of Gollum.
In the end, it came down to intent. My goal in adapting the original poem to the novel form had ever been to bring the original tale as completely and accurately as possible to a contemporary audience, out of the tomb in which it has so long lain, a realm into which only museum curators have ready access.
Yet since that was my intent, nothing short of completeness would satisfy.
There have been up to this point in time only a few attempts at novelizing the poem. Aside from a half dozen or so short story versions spanning the entire 20th century (these being on average 50-100 pages in length), there have been only three prose adaptations of considerable length, these being John Gardner’s excellent 1971 novella Grendel (in itself short at 174 pages), Michael Crichton’s muddled 1976 novella Eaters of the Dead (188 pages including appendix), and Parke Godwin’s 1995 novel The Tower of Beowulf (at just over 300 pages the only one of the three to be truly classified as a novel). There is also now out a novelization of the 2007 animated film adaptation (at roughly 350 pages), which I have not bothered to read, not caring much for the movie itself.
Each of these is fascinating in their own way, and each has serious shortcomings with regards to accuracy and completeness with regards to the original work.
Gardner’s work was highly praised, and rightly so, as it told the story from the wonderfully inventive perspective of the ogre Grendel, a deeply philosophical work steeped almost entirely in internal monologue, exploring the very relevant themes of relative morality and social segregation via exclusion. And yet, inevitably, it only covers the one episode of the many episodes which comprise the whole, and more with regard to our contemporary culture that the story’s own.
Likewise, Godwin’s novel covers only one aspect of the original tale: the mythological, of which it adds or invents far more than it retains with regard to the poem, while ignoring all of the many important historical elements interwoven though the tale (a common practice even among literary scholars).
And while Crichton must be praised for his research (as always), his rendition deviates more than the others in placing the tale four hundred years distant from its source and imposing an entirely unrelated Arabic chronicle upon its fabric. Four hundred years may seem insignificant when viewing an epoch so far removed from our own, but placing Beowulf (an early 6th century figure) in the 10th century is equivalent to placing Shakespeare among us today, an unforgivable error. So vague is the connection between Crichton’s Buliwyf and Beowulf that few readers seem even aware of it.
I mean none of this as a criticism of these authors’ work in general, only of these specific works with regard to their accuracy of adaptation, and thus, their representation of the original.
And so, having determined that a full-scale novelization was due and justified, I made a new start, one of many over the course of the six or so years this novel consumed me. I say or so, because, as with so much else in life, it came in fits and starts, and was worked on in between other affairs of daily life, so that much time went by when little work was done, and much work was done in very little time. Yet the overall span of time was vastly more than anticipated.
When I speak of completeness and accuracy, I mean nothing more or less than telling the whole tale, in its entirety, leaving out nothing of significance, altering only as much as necessary due to the dictates of the new medium, while putting in as much of what makes up its character and flavor as possible. Many of these latter derive from the “little things” that make up a story, the small details, the fine nuances that are overshadowed by “what happens next” plot points, and it is these that are invariably left out of the less successful adaptations.
With Beowulf this is particularly difficult, with respect both to language and content. The plot is exceedingly complex in its latter third (more on this later), and requires extensive use of outside sources to flesh out its many details. Any period piece demands much in the way of research on matters such as costume, culture, politics, law, geography, horsemanship, steersmanship, music, sports, games, customs, history. But when that work is a poem, a medium in which the word is paramount in conveying sense and context, where a single line can translate into pages via inference, reference, and implication, the matter becomes most difficult. Complicating matters further is the fact that the Beowulf manuscript has been damaged both by time and by fire (with its resulting influx of water), leaving many words and passages hopelessly corrupt. We are, indeed, immensely fortunate so much survives.
What follows are a series of notes regarding the nature of this particular adaptation and some of the decisions and consequent choices involved in the process of undertaking it. Some will be dealt with at length, some only briefly, but I will attempt to explain my rationale for each, if only to assuage my own conscience. I do not here intend a full analysis of either the Beowulf poem or manuscript (that will left to my forthcoming Complete Study Guide to Beowulf), but only so much as relates directly to the effort of adaptation, with it many requisite dilemmas and dangers.
The foremost difficulty faced in unraveling the full plot of Beowulf is in the convoluted timeline laid out in its latter third. For its first two “episodes” (those of Grendel and the Troll-Hag; comprising “Part One” of the story) the poem retains a fairly straightforward chronology. But with the departure of Beowulf from Daneland that approach is utterly abandoned (from roughly line 1925 forward). This is possibly due (at least in part) to the fact that a second scribe took over the penning of the surviving manuscript at this point. However, it is not possible to determine at all decisively what extent of original composition occurred – if any at all – during the inking of the existing document, or whether it was merely being copied at that time from a prior manuscript, or even from memory or dictation. Such things are the province of the academic to debate, and the student to endure.
What we do know is that at this point the poem begins to wander. Certainly the first scribe made use of episode and digression – the Finnsburg sequence, in particular, is noteworthy, and will be commented on later – but in Scribe 1’s case these remain always linear in thought and construction, simply mirroring and commenting on the action of the main storyline. And while Scribe 2 seemingly retains this purpose for the increasingly erratic interweaving of plots, the timeline no longer maintains a strictly forward momentum, to the extent that the poet gives away the ending nearly a thousand lines before it comes! Back-story is introduced (some nearly at the end); references and allusions are made (some almost in passing) to extraneous matter presumably known to the medieval audience, but neither expressly stated nor developed within the poem; and the poet leaps from one subplot to another (and often to a third or fourth and back again) in a rapid-fire succession that creates nothing short of a montage of events, all building relentlessly to the final crisis: an impending and inescapable Fate that dooms its hero and his clan.
This would all prove virtually inextricable, like some literary version of the intricate interweaving seen on late Viking-era carvings, a verbal Gordian Knot, were it not for the scant handful of external sources we possess that bear upon the events mentioned. These consist of both literary and archaeological evidence, the historian’s fundamental tools in trade, and great respect must be given to the extensive work done in these and other fields which have helped to shine a light (feeble though it might yet be) upon a dark and dusty tome.
Thus, relying upon a great many sources, and an even greater degree of inference and deduction, I first pieced together a detailed outline of events as they stand within the poem, and then compressed them to mimic the sense of impending doom that lays ever over the story of Beowulf’s deeds. The detailed outline I will speak of at length in the course of these notes; the compression of time I must deal with now.
I can say with absolute certainty that the single-most difficult decision I faced, with regards to accuracy of presentation, was altering the timeline. In the poem, shortly after the point at which the second scribe takes over the work, a jump of fifty years is made, and the latter portion of the story takes place in Beowulf’s elder days. Initially, I had fully intended to retain this aspect of the story, going so far as to devise a chapter-by-chapter outline covering each successive span of time. This seemed wholly plausible at first, but when each stage was reached a vast gap suddenly opened up beneath our hero’s feet and the plot fell dead. Try as I might I could not conjure up some means by which to span the years and retain the strong sense of forward momentum the events required.
This was due in the main to other choices I had also made, cumulatively too great to change by this time. Nor did I wish to, as they each were made for reasons I will shortly give.
The inherent problem of maintaining a compelling narrative over a course of (at one point) 800 pages looms enormous and seemingly insurmountable when facing page 300 or so with the vast bulk of your story yet to tell. For the reader to be drawn ever on through a hopefully riveting landscape of events, each step must inevitably and inexorably lead into the next. To jump in gaps of eight or ten years at a time, from one episodic adventure to the next, just shatters the dramatic flow into fractured shards, each of which mirrors only distorted bits of the whole. In order to keep up a relentless pace – the hoped for “page turner” every author strives for – one plot point must set up the next, so that what follows is a natural outcome of what preceded it. Consequently, I found myself continually compressing the timeline. I had neither the desire nor the intention of killing off my hero at such an early age, and yet it seemed unavoidable, as it should.
In fact, the “fifty winters” given in the poem for Beowulf reign (or perhaps only the span of his life, but either way a longer time than I allow), is only a poetic device to designate “a long time.” Hrothgar rules fifty winters as well. Not only that, but evidence suggests ages for the Swedish kings Othere and Eanmund which extend into the 530’s, and for Eadgils as late as 575. These dates are highly conjectural at best, but along with the more accurately verifiable date for Hygelac’s demise of around 521, give a picture spanning something very akin to fifty winters.
Thus was I for a length of time seeming nearly as long as that distraught over this change (and in truth, I am not to this day entirely satisfied). Yet what was gained, I came to feel, far outweighed the loss of “accuracy.” After all, I did not change the essential storyline, only the length of its unfolding. The sense of one event causing the next, I believe, creates far greater dramatic tension than exists even in the original.
One thing more must be said concerning the timeline, and that is its setting in time, or rather, in history. That some events mentioned in the poem are held to be fact rather than fiction is now no longer debated. The breadth of time might be (and likely will be) argued for eons to come, but its essential place in history cannot. The early years of the 6th century of the common era are the provenance of Beowulf’s clan, whoever they might have been, for that, too, is fiercely argued.
But 6th century it is (or was), and must remain. This period was a volatile one in the shaping of Northern Europe, seeing the foundation of the kingdoms of Danes, Swedes, and Franks (or French, as they would come to be known), as well as the final retreat of the Romans. In Scandinavia it was, indeed, as dark age, but one bearing rich fruit. Little is known of the northern lands in those days. Pre-Viking by more than three centuries yet, they were a barbaric lot carving out a meager existence in a frigid untamed wilderness, non-literate, but with a rich oral tradition, and as yet, firmly pagan in beliefs. Christianity was further off than their Viking lineage, although Clovis of the Franks was by this time absorbed into its fold, and so it must not have been unheard of to at least a faction of the Northmen trading with their neighbors in the south.
And yet the monastic scribes who likely penned our tale themselves dwelt some five centuries distant, upon another isle: that of England, land of the Saxon-Angles, in the first years of the 11th century, well after the Christianizing of that land. Even were the poem to derive by oral tradition from a far earlier time, full two centuries or more had passed by then since heathen worship was outlawed.
Thus, although the people whose tale the Beowulf poem tells were themselves a pagan nation, the poem itself imparts to them a Judaic frame (even down to Grendel as Cain’s descendant), putting in their mouths the prayers and praises of an Old Testament congregation which they themselves would not have spoken. But it is the story of those earliest of Scandinavians that it being told, and that I am interested in conveying.
For this reason, even though it is now an integral part of the poem as it stands, there is no Christian coloring to my Norsemen, as there would not have been yet at that time. In this case it was a choice of being accurate to the poem, or to history, and I opted for the latter. However, Christianity is not wholly absent from these pages, as it was not from the Northern stage, and I have therefore sought to present it in its proper light.
Many will say, I am certain, on first reading The Saga of Beowulf, “what is with all these awful names?” I couldn’t agree more. In general, I have kept the names as they are in the poem, with but a few exceptions, which I will discuss here in slightly greater detail than they are in the novel’s Glossary of Proper Names.
As my stated intention was to bring the story – in its proper time and place – to a contemporary audience, I have sought to alter as little as possible, retaining the original spelling of character names (that is, their Anglo-Saxon spelling as in the poem, not their Danish or Swedish equivalents), except where this would prove confusing to the modern reader. Thus, I have changed all instances of Anglo-Saxon cg to Modern English dg as is would have been pronounced, so that, for example, Ecgtheow in the poem becomes Edgtheow in the novel, and Ecglaf becomes Edglaf, as it sounds.
Conversely, I chose to retain the Old English sc for Modern English sh, almost entirely as a personal preference, preferring the spelling Scyld as a more Nordic seeming name than its equivalent Shyld or Shield. Also, a pronunciation as skilled is not wholly unbearable; although skeef or the like for Sceaf (sheaf) is a bit unwieldy.
Likewise, I have opted to retain the “ash” symbol (æ/Æ) of old Anglo-Saxon, while altering the “thorn” (þ/Þ) and “edth” (ð/Ð). This is purely for the reader’s ease of recognition and pronunciation, as I prefer the archaic characters þ and ð myself, but few modern readers will be familiar enough with them to prevent it from being a hindrance, which the æ symbol is readily understood by virtue of its component parts (a and e) enduring in the modern English alphabet. But for those who do not know, it is in general pronounced as it is named: ash.
Thus, our Edgtheow will be found in the poem as Ecgþeow, so that what you might at first have felt cumbersome by contrast seems easy. In the poem, all names containing internal th are spelled with a thorn (þ): thus, Wealþeow, Ongenþeow; but not initial Th, as in Thryth, spelled as such in poem (I speak only of the common practice in Modern English translation, as the entire poem is, of course, written in Old English, where ð and þ are used exclusively).
I have also removed some instances of internal h, as in Wealtheow, spelled Wealhþeow in the poem, and Othere, given as Ohþere. The extra h simply feels redundant in Modern English.
Three further names have been changed that bear special mention, these being Hæreth, Erik and Hrolf.
Hrolf is given in the poem as Wulf, the brother of Eofor. But this I felt was too close to Beowulf’s own name. Therefore, in order to distinguish our hero all the more, I denied Wulf his inheritance and named him anew, albeit with something similar enough in sound so as not to offend his kin unduly.
Erik I altered in like fashion, but for another reason. His given name in the poem being Hereric, I simply found this far too cumbersome. Thus, I merely shortened it to something of the nickname he might likely have been given. Here I err against the tradition of hereditary naming common in the North, whereby the sons are bestowed with monikers alliterating with their father’s name, H being by far the most popular among our cast. This, however, not being observed as iron-clad even by our poet – who neglects, after all, to offer Beowulf a name alliterating with his father’s E – I had far less difficulty with this than other alterations. Even Eanmund and Eadgils, themselves historical, do not alliterate with their likewise historic father Othere. However, I did not feel at liberty to alter names willy-nilly for the sake of it, and so I must apologize for the vast panoply of names beginning with H, hard as they are to keep straight.
Lastly, and most significantly, we come to our Queen Hæreth. Ours, I say, and not the poet’s, for the unknown poet named her Hygd, a crime which I cannot forgive. Now, those who know their Anglo-Saxon well will be aware of how this name was made to fit our Queen, and fit her well it does in meaning, for it is a word for “wise” (and here I will also note that Hygelac’s own name, then, means the opposite, for our Geatish king lacks wisdom: Hyge-lac, that is, unwise). Yet fit her though it may in sense, I cannot put it in her mouth: the sound of it is far too harsh upon my ears! Hygd is just about as harsh and unbecoming of a name as I could ever curse her with. The Geatish Brunhild it seems to me, befit for one of manly stature, not our heroine! And so I took for her her father’s name, and threw hers out: Hæreth he was called, but here it’s she who takes that soft and sensual name. Now I’ve lived with it so many years I cannot think see any other way.
One more name I might mention here is Elan, wife of Ongentheow of the Swedes. In the poem she is unnamed. But at the seemingly corrupt (and oft debated) line 62 the name appears, albeit very likely incorrectly given. As it stands, the line translates literally as “heard I that elan queen,” followed by a reference given roughly as “Battle-Swede’s bed-fellow.” But who is being referred to here is obviously unclear. The standard explanation is that the line is incomplete, a few words or letters having been inadvertently skipped over by the scribe. These are commonly inserted between “that” and “elan,” so that the line would read “heard I that Yrsa was Onela’s queen,” Yrsa being supplied via royal lineages provided in external documents, and the later Saga of Hrolf Kraki (much more on this later). This seems plausible enough, and is now all but agreed upon. Still, I use the opportunity to give a name to the undubbed queen of that other Battle-Swede, Ongentheow, whose wife plays such a pivotal role in the Battle of Ravenswood (more on this later as well).
A great many names have, of course, been invented for the vast number of characters requiring them. Of these, the larger part are invented to people the world and stage upon which our players enact the tragedy of Beowulf’s rise and fall, while a significant number of characters in the poem are unnamed. Among these latter are all but one of Beowulf’s crewmen: only Hondscio is named, and that only in passing late in the tale, long after he has passed unseen across the stage. The names of Hrolf (Wulf in the poem) and Eofor are given, but not in connection with Beowulf’s crew. It is I who have assigned them their on-deck duties, not being given explicit instruction from the poet otherwise. And why, I asked myself, not populate that great ship with the “best of men” from Geatland as the poet said?
In this latter I have extended the invitation beyond the poem’s scope in only one instance: that of Wiglaf, who appears only in the dragon sequence of the poem (and this, remember, some fifty winters after Hygelac’s death), but in such a significant capacity that his character all but demanded greater presence in our tale.
The preceding relate to issues common to the story as a whole. Much more could be said (and likely will at some point to come), but these are the foremost on my mind. Many cruces of theme and structure, composition and culture, are the subject of ongoing academic debates, and I will pass over these here and leave them to their proper sphere of argument.
What follows are more specific textual and story points that may be of interest to students of the poem.
Although Edgtheow, as the father of our hero, occupies a significant position, very little is actually said of him in the poem, and little of it with any clarity or detail. He is not, in fact, seen in the poem, but only spoken of, and what we know of him can be summed up as follows:
1) He is Beowulf’s father, 2) he married the Geat king Hrethel’s only daughter at some point in the distant past, 3) he began a feud the Wylfings when he slew Heatholaf, a warrior of that clan, for which he was exiled from Geatland, 4) Hrothgar of the Danes took him in and paid the wergild for his feud, for which he swore oaths to the Danish king, and 5) he is now dead.
Revenge of his father’s death is given more than once as a prime motive for Beowulf’s fight against Grendel, but nothing more is said of the bond between father and son.
The name of Hrethel’s daughter is not given, nor is the reason why Edgtheow was given her hand in marriage, but one must infer some great deed on his part by which he gained such merit. His fame is praised by more than one character other than his own son, so that at some point his star was ascendant before its ultimate fall. But just what Edgtheow did to merit such a prize cannot be known. However, one might presume a feat of martial prowess in such a time, and nothing short of saving the king’s own life could assure such reward.
As for the feud with Wylfings, I found it poignantly ironic, in light of Edgtheow’s position, both as war-famed warrior and in-law of the king. The Wylfings are nothing to the Geats, so far as the remainder of the poem relates. Certainly they are not the mortal enemy the Swedes became. Yet clearly there was a threat, since it is said that Edgtheow was exiled “for fear of war.” And yet he is the husband of the king’s own sister. What had changed to cause this sudden downfall where before he was among the foremost Geats? For one, Hrethel, the former king, had died and been replaced by Hygelac, his son (after the deaths of Hygelac’s two elder brothers, it might be added). And secondly, the Swedish feud had begun. Thus we can deduce easily enough the reasons for Edgtheow’s sudden change of status. How fast one falls when politics come into play.
It is not said in the poem how Edgtheow died, nor that he ever returned to Geatland, thus it is possible he fell in Daneland. Beowulf himself says that his father was old when he died, but nothing more; and as Beowulf is a young man yet at that point, Edgtheow could not have been very elderly. All this I have pieced together to create Edgtheow’s tale, the story of a once-proud man now dispossessed, and of the son whose legacy he inherits.
Here we come to a major crux in the tale. The ogre’s maternity is given, and the Troll-Hag herself a central figure in the poem; and yet no mention is made of his patrimony. Who the father was is left unsaid. But a careful reader might well hazard a guess.
First one must ask some other questions. Why Heorot? Why are no other halls mentioned as being ravaged over the course of a twelve year reign of terror? This was, indeed, a sparsely populated realm, but at least two other pre-Viking era settlements are known of on Zealand: Ringsted to the south, and Trelleborg in the west (misspelled on the map I am ashamed to say), and many more existed by the time our poet penned his tale (although he is clearly unfamiliar with the geology of Denmark, a low-lying island with no seaside cliffs upon the north). There were certainly many farmsteads spread about the central hall of Heorot as well. But let that be.
A better question is why Hrothgar? Or rather, why not Hrothgar? That is, why is Hrothgar not slain by Grendel? Surely he would have been foremost among the fighting men, at least early on. And yet he is never killed. For twelve years the ogre ravages his hall, slaying nearly every other man until but few remain. But the king himself is never taken.
Then there is the issue of the throne. In a somewhat contested reference, it is stated that Grendel “could not approach the throne.” This is vague and has been given many meanings which I shall not argue here. But taken at face value one might wonder why: what is preventing him? What stands between Grendel and the throne? And why is the throne an issue here? Is it Hrothgar as the embodiment of the throne that we speak of, or the throne itself as a physical seat of power? Either way, Grendel clearly wishes to approach, otherwise he would not try.
Again, we must ask ourselves why the Danish king does nothing to prevent the ogre’s attacks. And more importantly, why he makes no mention of the Troll-Hag, even though it is revealed he knew about this other demon all the while. This seems highly suspect, and comes close to dereliction of duty as the protector of his clan.
I have taken these together to infer that the throne itself is at issue, and that Grendel’s is its rightful heir as the son of Hrothgar. How this came to be is purely speculation, and based almost entirely on the passing mention of the Troll-Hag as a “witch wife” at one point.
It must be stated here that this development came to me many years ago, during the scriptwriting phase, and long before the recent Robert Zemeckis motion capture film adaptation came out. Neil Gaiman, its main screenwriter, talks about this very issue briefly in one of the DVD special feature interviews. As interesting and exciting as it was to see my own idea hit upon (and therefore somewhat validated) by someone else, I have to say that I was plunged into a deep despair at the same time. I was quite proud of my deduction, and thought the idea quite singular and cleverly thought out. That someone else thought of it as well somewhat lessened the uniqueness of its invention, not to mention the thought that others might now think I stole the idea from the film. Yet I did not, and having dated documents far preceding the film release to prove it (as well as many personal witnesses). Therefore, I am concerned only from an artistic standpoint. Still, only those well versed in the original poem will even realize its import.
As mentioned earlier, Wiglaf is such a significant character in the scope of our story that he demanded greater treatment, both in length and breadth. Not only does he become the last king of Geatland, as the only surviving member of Beowulf’s bloodline, but he has complex relationships with many of the other characters due to his mixed lineage.
It is given out during the course of the poem’s many digressions, that Wiglaf’s father Weohstan had at some point married a Swedish princess and taken service with the Swedish king (inferred from the fact that Onela gives him the sword and armor of his nephew Eanmund, whom Weohstan slew). The Wægmunding line, from which Beowulf himself is descended through his father Edgtheow, are in fact said to be Half-Swedes, so that Weohstan was not the first to intermarry, and cannot even be said to have been a true Geat (Beowulf has pure Geat blood by his mother, if not by his father). How Wiglaf came to be in Geatland is not said, and can only be inferred from his close ties and loyalty to Beowulf.
Yet since this makes Wiglaf both a Swede and a Geat, and as his father serves the Swedish king, this provides an inherent conflict of loyalties for all involved, since the Swedes and Geats are by this time blood enemies. How could an author possibly pass up such an opportunity for dramatic tension? I can only hope to have served his story well.
It might also be mentioned here that what ultimately became of the Geats is not known. Only recently have the Geats been seen as historical at all, and their origins, and even the location of their homeland, are hotly contested. I have gone with the common consensus and placed them in and around Gothenburg. If this is so, and Wiglaf anything like an historic figure, it may well be that the clan, like those lands, were absorbed by the expanding Swedes, and Wiglaf returned back to his father’s home. Yet more scholars seem to hold that they fled to England, as not long afterwards a dynasty of “Wuffings” was founded in East Anglia with apparent Danish-Geat connections. Either way, the Geats as they once must have been no longer were.
During the writing of the screenplay I had combined the characters of the Danish harbor guard with that of Wulfgar, the Danish door guard. The poem uses a repeating episodic structure for the arrival of Beowulf in Daneland, where he is greeted and questioned three times in rapid succession. Such redundancy is unacceptable in the narrow confines of the film medium, but in truth, this was one case where the compression served to create a far stronger character. Our harbor guard is heard of only twice, on Beowulf’s arrival and departure, and Wulfgar himself is given little more to do but act the part of herald to the king. Therefore, I let this alteration stand, even though it technically leaves the harbor unguarded by its chief protector. Given the nature of their visitor, I am sure he is forgiven.
Unferth is another character whose role I have greatly expanded (as with most of the existing characters in the poem). However, he merits special mention here for another reason.
In the poem there is a minor story involving the two elder brothers of Hygelac: Herebeald and Hæthcyn, the younger of whom slew the elder accidentally with an arrow during an archery contest. Initially I had, of course, intended to portray this subplot as it stands, as it offers a very moving narrative, one of the more emotional moments, in fact, in the poem.
This proved more difficult than I had hoped, since there is very little else told of these two characters, aside from the fact that Hæthcyn is the Geat king hewed down by Ongentheow during the Ravenswood episode, and not Hygelac at all. Anything else involving these two elder sons of Hrethel would have required pure invention. In the end it was just too much to add to a story rapidly growing out of all bounds of reason. They were not significant enough to merit such lengthy treatment, and only served to stand in the way of the more important character: their youngest sibling, Hygelac, now the rightful king of Geats (for more on this, see The Swede-Geats Feud below).
This is one of those instances where adaptation proves most trying. On the one hand there is loyalty to the original, and on the other the dictates of the new medium and its audience. To tell the story as accurately as possible in the best way possible are not always the same, and are often at odds.
However, as I did not want to lose this strong story point entirely, I continued to search for a means of conveying it in passing, at first as a digression, and then as a passing mention during another related episode. But none of these proved particularly successful, until another unresolved issue laid claim to it almost by chance. I had been struggling to solve this dilemma when it suddenly occurred to me that another dilemma required a similar solution: that of Unferth’s kin-slaying.
Beowulf, during his rebuttal of Unferth’s challenge, states that he knows about Unferth’s past history, accusing him of having slain his own brothers (plural in the poem). As the accusation is not refuted, either by Unferth or anyone else, it is presumed to be true. Clearly, this is a strong story point, deserving far more attention that a mere passing mention. What is the nature of Unferth’s actual crime? What brought it about and what came of it? And how is it that Beowulf knows about it?
These questions all came together in a flash, and all was answered at once. Thus, I appropriated the Herebeald-Hæthcyn storyline and reassigned it to a better use, one where it could be properly developed in the context of the main plotline. This, of course, left the other brothers with little left to do, and I have employed them to other uses more suitable. Yet since kin-slaying was their proper sphere, it has been retained as their due.
As a further note on the character of Unferth, I should mention here his prolonged appearance in the story. In the poem, of course, he is not heard of again after Beowulf’s departure from Daneland – and, in fact, not after Beowulf’s return from Grendel’s mere when he is thanked for the use of his sword, even though it proved useless. Unferth is, in the poem, only initially an antagonist to Beowulf. Seemingly, he comes around after Beowulf’s success against Grendel; but little is said of him other than that he offers up his sword to Beowulf in his fight against the Troll-Hag, presumably as an acknowledgement of his lesser status.
However, not wanting to dispense with such a prominent character, who, as a chief member of Hrothgar’s council, would not simply disappear from the action soon to follow, I have opted to involve him further in our tale. And the perfect opportunity awaited in the distant future, in the unnamed character of the dragon-hoard thief.
Unferth, I came to feel, was as much a victim of his circumstances as an active participant in them. The thief, too, seems very much a victim of his circumstances, a man whose needs far surpass his means – that is, until an opportunity presents itself. Also, I have striven to avoid having characters show up just to fulfill a necessary function in terms of propelling the plot forward (even though that is what happens in the poem). I much prefer each event having some connection and relevance to those surrounding it. That it would be Unferth who brings about Beowulf’s demise by disturbing the dragon from its sleep seemed to me the ultimate twist of fate, given especially that by that point he seems to have come around at last, and would, like the unnamed thief, offer up a token of submission to his master.
In evaluating the various characters in light of Norse cultural mores and status, and knowing how truly in all times and places men differ from one another on every level, I came to wonder how one might feel in such a time who did not in constitution conform to the social norm. Not all men have the fighting spirit, and there are cowards and brave men in every walk of life. The change of Unferth’s character in the poem gave me an example of how I might pursue that observation to a dramatic conclusion.
Here I was presented with an opportunity to bring the Swedes and Geats together which proved far more fruitful than I ever could have hoped for. From the single obscure mention of Halga at line 62, with its proposed oversight of Yrsa as the given spouse to the Swede Onela, a complex web was spun.
The name Yrsa is provided by external sources, among which is the fourteenth century Icelandic Saga of Hrolf Kraki. From this came the seeds for the tale of Yrsa’s incestuous lineage, in the saga only a single layer deep, but grown to rank fruition here on multiple levels. This was such a complicated garden to weed that I almost gave it up. But so intense was the tale as I listened to it being told time and again by Freawaru and her heartsick compatriot Wulfgar that I could not but pursue it further.
The initial motivation came not from Kraki, but from wondering what became of Halga. Why, I had to ask, was he not in Daneland? Had he fled a coward from the wrath of Grendel? That did not seem likely, since in his one mention he is given the epithet of Halga “the Good” – a far cry from Halga the Wuss, or some such. Then I began to wonder about Yrsa. Where was she? With the Swedes, presumably, if Onela was her mate. And then it occurred to me that this would provide the perfect opportunity for Onela to pursue the Geats to Daneland. If the ogre was slain and people coming from near and far to witness Grendel’s arm, why would Yrsa not want to seek out her kin?
Then there was the problem of Hrothulf. Scattered hints throughout the poem insinuate the nephew of the Danish king in a plot of some dark intent. The exact nature of this is never clearly divulged, but involves some form of treachery and betrayal. Again, external sources come into play, and I will not dive into them here – they are dealt with at great length elsewhere – but suffice it to say that the general consensus is that Hrothulf at some point usurps the Danish throne. Now, this is hardly an unheard of occurrence among the aristocracy of any nation, but in any case requires a character of scheming wit and great ambition, untainted by a sense of moral compunction, and better by one who feels himself unfairly treated.
Here is where Hrolf Kraki’s Saga came to prominence. Hrolf Kraki is, for those unfamiliar with that less prominent work, Hrothulf in his Iceland guise. The intervening years and leagues had made of Hrothulf a far more sympathetic figure, to the extent that he was seen the hero of his escapades. Some of these concern us here, but none so much as those of his parentage. Yrsa, having wed her brother Helgi (our Halga), gives birth to Hrolf (Hrothulf).
That Hrothulf was the offspring of an incestuous union seemed to answer many questions, both of himself and of his parents. Yet still that didn’t seem quite dramatic enough to create such a dramatic berserker as our Hrothulf is. Therefore, I pressed the issue one step further, and made Yrsa herself the daughter of Halga by his own mother, after which she then bears Hrothulf to her father-brother, who flees on learning of his deed.
Little need be said concerning this, save that although I did manage to devise a clever means by which Beowulf was able to remain under water for an extended period of time (by filling several wine bladders with air before weighing himself down with rocks and heavy armor for his downward plunge), the whole affair remained to me just short of absurd. For one thing, there is just really no good way to visualize an underwater world where little, if any, natural light might penetrate, in a time when fire is your only means. Air was by far the least of my worries.
In addition, I had a visual conception for a lair entrance that was just not compatible with an underwater cavern. Fog and fire and skulls and moss are what I wanted for my demon’s dwelling place.
But more importantly, Beowulf was not the only character I wanted there. In the poem only he ever enters the Troll-Hag’s lair, and no one witnesses his deeds. This, to me, was unacceptable. Of all the sequences, this was the one I was least happy with as it stands. And given the additions I had already made concerning the nature of the Witch-Queen and her offspring, it became imperative that Hrothgar himself, at the very least, make a visit to her murky home. Yet Yrmenlaf and Æschere, as well as Unferth, in the end all made a foray there, so I was glad to have the doorway readily available to those who dared to cross the swampy bog.
For bog it was, and bog it would remain. Not a lake, or crystal pool, but a place of muck and mire, a festering stink-hole filled with nasty vermin any man with half a lick of sense would shun, just as our noble stag has done.
This is an exceedingly complex convergence of a great many elements which I will here try to extricate as effectively as possible.
Firstly, we have the Hrothulf subplot mentioned above. It is given in hints and insinuations throughout the poem that Hrothulf will betray his kin, and from other sources we discover that he was successful in this venture, slaying the elder of the sons of Hrothgar and ruling for some twenty years before the younger son achieved his vengeance. Again, the validity of these matters I will not here debate, as for those that follow.
It is hinted in the poem that Heorot will burn, the image of fire being prevalent throughout (and I have faithfully followed that lead in my adaptation), and more than once with reference to Hrothgar’s hall. Yet it is not Hrothulf who is mentioned in connection with the tragedy, but Ingeld. In fact, in the poem, for those who are unaware, the Danes all live and the hall remains unscathed: Beowulf only prophecies on his return to Geatland that the union of Freawaru and Ingeld will come to no good end.
That seemed to me a cheap way out, and a sadly missed opportunity, one which I have rectified. I had first thought to have Beowulf return again to Daneland, making good on his promise to return if ever the Danes had need of him. But that was just too long and convoluted a route to get us right back to where we were already. Here, again, was an example of where compressing the timeline proved vastly more dramatic than adhering to a strict chronology. Hrothgar would have died unseen in some happy lasting sleep, and we would find ourselves with Hrothulf already king and Hrethric dead, the murder having occurred offstage. It would then be left for Beowulf only to defeat the usurper king and restore the rightful heir. Tedious beyond belief. How much better Hrothgar’s sermon coming from the mouth of a dying man!
Thus we come to Finnsburg.
The Finnsburg sequence in Beowulf is one of those many long digressions that at first seem wholly intrusive to the story, a winding sidetrack from the main plot which, though interesting in its own right, merely serves to obstruct our forward progress. But as with every other seeming digression, our poet’s hand is sure, and we are told far more than it might at first appear. For the tale of Finnsburg is simply that of a king besieged in his own hall, betrayed by one who seeks his vengeance for a former deed no truce or pact might pacify. And this, we are later told by Beowulf, is just what he believes will come of Ingeld.
Ingeld, also, appears in other sources than just Beowulf, and in connection with the burning of Heorot, being mentioned both in Widsith and Saxo’s Historia Danica, where the tale of treachery is found. Saxo says that it was Ingeld who set fire to Heorot to avenge his father’s death, but was himself trapped inside and burned to death. It is, in fact, Beowulf’s own prophecy of doom – The Old Fighter’s Tale as it is called – that I put in Onela’s mouth, using it to goad the younger warrior to his deadly deeds.
Ironically, the bard Widsith begins his recital of The Fight at Finnsburg on the night the Troll-Hag appears in Heorot, setting into motion the events that will lead to Hrothgar’s death and the burning of the hall.
On his return to Geatland, Beowulf gives the neck-ring he had received from Wealtheow to the Geat queen, who is said then to have worn it afterwards upon her breast. But we are also told that Hygelac had it when he fell in Frisia, that it was then taken from him by Dægrefn, and from him by Beowulf.
The neck-ring itself is given little more history, and is only equated in the poem with the famous Brosing necklace of the dwarves. Still, given the apparent conflict of ownership, and the convoluted travels of the seemingly cursed heirloom, I could not help but draw that story to its logical conclusion.
A slight discrepancy exists in the Beowulf poem with regard to the Geat royal line. King Hygelac is said to have two offspring: a young son, Heardred, who becomes king at an early age under the regency of Beowulf, and an unnamed daughter who is old enough to be given in marriage to Eofor after the Battle of Ravenswood. Yet Queen Hygd (our Hæreth) is said to be “very young,” having spent but “few winters” in the Geat stronghold (i.e. among the royal family).
How, then, can she be old enough to have a daughter of marriageable age, even in those days of early bonding? She must be, at a minimum, nearly thirty if she gave birth herself at fifteen or sixteen, and the daughter is now fourteen or so. And yet she could hardly then be said to have dwelt “few winters” with the king. Fifteen winters was half a lifetime in those hard times.
Consequently, one might postulate an earlier wife that had preceded our current queen, she being the mother of the Geat king’s children. Granted, spans of time given in the poem are vague at best (as the “fifty winters” mentioned earlier): “very young” might easily refer to her bearing and looks rather than her chronological age. Still, the timeline is difficult at best as presented. Possibly she was the mother of Heardred but not the older daughter. Even so, one must ask why she would then pass over her own son in offering the crown to Beowulf, a nephew rather than a son of the fallen king.
In addition, it is commonly believed that it is she who is the Geatish woman that laments the death of Beowulf at his funeral: a woman with her hair bound up in the traditional sign of marriage. This is mere guesswork, but provides a strong bond between the two, and is the scant basis upon which I have build the entire edifice of their tempestuous relationship.
This, again, I employed as an opportunity to develop a distinction between cowardice and bravery, a theme running strongly through the poem, portrayed most prominently through loyalty and desertion. Eofor is a character who falls squarely in the camp of the deserters; but unlike some others chastises himself endlessly for his weakness. I wanted to show his character arc as running from a full out coward to a man who overcomes his fear when he finds something he would fight for. Meanwhile his brother’s arc runs counter, from a fearless fighter – “ever at the front of every battle” – to a man with second-thoughts and something now to live for. Neither man is wholly right or wrong, but only in the scope of their own lives.
In the poem it is only said that Eofor slays the Swedish king Ongentheow, and receives the hand of Hygelac’s only daughter as his prize. The daughter is unnamed and Eofor never spoken of again.
Not so for Eofor here! The irony of a stray stroke turning a coward into a hero was a conscious attempt to show in clearly visual terms how deeds and actions do not always portray a man in his true light – much like Unferth’s ill luck in slaying Yrmenlaf (and very likely his own brother, though I leave that for you to judge). How a coward lives up to the role of hero thrust upon him intrigued me, just as did the hero who had fled his past for fear of it.
Eofor’s reward for his “brave” deed was marriage to the Geat king’s only daughter. In the poem she is left unnamed (as are many others there), but I have one more used the opportunity to draw upon another small digression on the poet’s part: the tale of Thryth the vicious. Fittingly, the reward for one who does not deserve it is something which is not what it might seem.
Thryth is spoken of in passing in the poem (and in other sources) as a queen whose wrath had grown so great that she would put to death a man who even looked at her against her wishes, being offered by the poet as a contrast to the kind and moderate Queen Hygd. But here, as in the folklore story clearly known among the poet’s audience, Thryth was wed to Offa, an historic king among the British Angles, who is said to have tamed her wickedness much as Petruchio would later do of Kate. In similar fashion, Thryth soon comes around to Eofor’s way of thinking.
This section caused me no end of grief. Not least due to its length and complexity, but as much because of the sheer number of new characters I had to develop and invent. In truth, I actually left this whole sequence out of the early drafts (and the film as well, for obvious reasons). It seemed just too long a digression from the main plot, and required the introduction of a whole new clan and country (more than one, in fact), and at first I just could not fathom how to bring in a whole troop of new characters who would then just disappear from the story, and make them at all interesting.
Consequently, I was forced to kill off king Hygelac in an entirely different place. You can imagine the havoc this wreaked with the storyline. And although I did manage it, I was never fully satisfied with my solution. For one, it required all but eliminating Heardred’s reign (short enough as it now is), and drastically hastening the Swedish succession. In addition, the moment in which Hygelac witnesses Beowulf and Hæreth’s kiss on the Trollhight lost much of its inherent power by the fact that Hygelac was all but dead by then, for that is where he died.
For quite some time this was how the story stood. Yet I could not shake the sense of betrayal I felt toward the story. Certainly I had altered many aspects of tale from its original intent. Yet of all the changes I had made, only this one could not be justified in any way, save length, and brevity is never the best of methods when it comes to spinning an epic saga of adventure. Besides which, of all the historical elements interwoven through the poem, this one is the most verifiable, and point from which any attempt at chronology must begin.
The death of Hygelac in on the Frankish expedition is given not just in Beowulf, but is mentioned in three external sources as well, foremost of which is the near-contemporary account of Gregory of Tours in his Historia Francorum. Not only that, but the bones of Hygelac have been discovered, it is said, on an island in the Rhine river estuary, just where they were said to be in the anonymous 10th century Liber Monstrorum, or On Monsters and Strange Beasts. Large bones. Huge bones. Monstrous bones. Then, of course, there are the Merovingians, whose history is far better documented than any of the Norse.
So I began research anew. And another year went by. Another hundred pages. But in the end I was pleased with the result, and rewarded for my efforts: the passage contains some of my favorite characters, as well as, I believe, some of my best descriptive narrative. And I can sleep at night again.
If any other section of Beowulf seems difficult to fathom out, all pale by comparison to the convoluted references to the Swede-Geats wars. In at least a half dozen passages, scattered through the latter third of the poem, the various elements of the story are given in non-chronological sequence. And yet, there is an internal logic to its unfolding, and such a consistent chronology that it is certain the events revealed were known to our poet. Just as we today might leap in speaking of events from World War I to Vietnam and back to Gettysburg without losing our frame of reference, so might our poet (well versed in oral lore as he likely might have been) make reference to wars his people knew more of than we.
I need not lay out the events here. Suffice it to say that every effort has been made to chronicle the events in a reason facsimile of their proper sequence. Very little, of course, can be truly known as to the details of what happened: what causes were at play to motivate the parties, why and where their factions clashed, or how those terrible events played out. We only know the names of a handful of participants, the most general of occurrences, and roughly what they resulted in. That is, a war was fought between these groups, this won, that lost, and these men fell, and little more.
Yet even that is more than we can know for sure in any case, since it must ever be remembered that our main source is a poem, telling of events grown hazy in the mist of time, and like such tales grown legendary in their telling. Nothing at all is known with any certainty of the individuals involved, save their names alone, and to what nation they belonged (and often not so much as this). I have only sought to portray the story in a manner that might have come to pass, and which fits in roughly with the sequence of events so far as they are known.
Unfortunately, with regard to the specifics, I have had to deviate here from the poem on several points, none of which significantly alter what occurs, but only a few of the given details. This is due, as mentioned earlier, to the fact that I have all but eliminated the characters of Herebeald and Hæthcyn from the story. So minor was their role that they almost had no part in it at all, but here is one point where Hæthcyn, at least, did. For it was at Ravenswood, as I have said, that Hæthcyn fell at Ongentheow’s hands, making Hygelac the king of Geats. Yet it is said in the poem that Hygelac came late to that battle, fighting off the Swedes successfully (with Eofor’s aid in slaying Ongentheow), and so the essence of the story still holds true.
The only other aspect of this passage that I’ve changed again involved the compression of events. As given in the poem and our other sources, the Battle of Ravenswood occurs some seven years after Sorrow Hill, Beowulf’s battle with Grendel five years more, the Frisian raid some six years after that, Onela succeeds to the Swedish throne eleven years later (Othere having ruled for 22 years), Eanmund is slain in battle shortly after during an invasion of Geatland by Onela, but the battle on Lake Vænír does not occur until some two or three years later, where Onela dies, c.535 A.D., a duration spanning a quarter of a century.
Obviously, for Onela to wait twenty-two years to overthrow his brother simply cannot be justified in any way in terms of plot. What would he possibly be doing in all that time, and what would occur to finally set his hand in motion? The bitter quarrel simply would have cooled – in the mind of any conscientious reader, at any rate. Even a passage from the death of Eanmund to his younger brother Eadgils revenging of it three years later leaves a gaping hole quite difficult to fill.
Better, to my thinking, was simply the piling up of one event upon the other, one outcome leading inexorably into another. Thus, it will be seen that, although the sequence of events and their outcome remain essentially the same, I have combined the two successive battles in which Onela fights against his nephews, culminating here in the Battle of Fire & Ice. Yet another battle just seemed far too much to bear. Some might think there are too many as it stands.
Indeed, the whole of the narrative seems to me at times made up of little more than one long battle flung upon another, and it grew quite difficult to find new ways of telling how a sword was used. I can only hope the characters are interesting enough to let their martial skills alone. It is, as Shakespeare says, a tale of sound and fury, and I can only hope the players on the stage have entertained.
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