Tuesday, 4 December 2012

From Beowulf to Colonial Marines

Monsters have always been with us, our earliest ancestors looked around at the world beyond their villages and tribes and just knew that every forest and field was filled with horrible things looking to do them harm.

Hey look! Something Awful!

Even today we still tell stories of monsters, both human and supernatural and many of the genre-staples like Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies and Demons have been with us for centuries. Yet while the stories remain the same the way we tell them, and how we face the monsters, has changed dramatically.

If you look at some of our earliest stories, such as the Fairy myths of Celtic Europe. Then humanity is very much a bit player in a wider 'Otherworld' that we can't comprehend or really impact. The naughty child wanders into the woods and is snatched by the wee folk. The End. The traveller ignores the warnings and disturbs the banshees mound, her scream kills him. Sleep tight kids!

There's a reason for this of course, the stories are meant to stop children from going off on their own in a world with some very real mortal perils in the form of animals, diseases and other human beings.

If you go into the woods to-OH GOD!Source

Flash forward to today and most, though not all, of our monsters  have weaknesses. They can be killed. While this is true in films (see Dusk til Dawn, Dawn of the Dead) and television (Buffy, Angel, Supernatural) nowhere is this more apparent then in gaming. As gamers, we regularly face down the terrors of our childhood with enough weaponry to fight WW3, collectively screaming: Screw the unknown I have a BFG!

For the perfect example we can look at the upcoming Aliens: Colonial Marines a game which I, at least, am hugely excited about. For anyone who's not familiar, here's the trailer.

In case you couldn't sit through it I'll summarise. There's about two minutes of mood setting as the suspense slowly builds and then, when the eponymous Aliens make their appearance they are greeted with the sounds of heavy machine gun fire. Don't get me wrong, it's awesome, but it's also worlds away from the sudden violent end of the early fairy tales.

So what changed? Well, the argument can certainly be made that as we became more civilised and education improved the unknown began to lose its hold over us. We no longer saw a blackness we couldn't pierce and started to see challenges to overcome.

However I think this change happened much earlier then the dawn of reason and that, in fact, it was the Vikings who changed the narrative for us.

I'll explain, as I've said before many early fairy tales in the west were mostly warnings designed to keep children out of danger but Europe was hardly the only area on Earth telling stories. As the Greek and then Roman influence expanded new tales came to the forefront and the heroic narrative began to appear. Men like Perseus, Theseus and Hercules rise up to beat back the monsters and save humanity.

Pound it.Source

The trouble is, the heroes in these stories are more often then not Demigods, if not full-blown Gods in their own right. They still exist on a level separate to that of the people telling and hearing the stories. Medusa may be dead, but if you'd gone after her with a sword you'd just be another piece of tasteless lawn decoration. You can still see this form of storytelling in some of our modern mythos, Superheroes are the most obvious candidates: extraordinary creatures battling other bizarre things far beyond our ken.

Yet in gaming, the number of truly 'Demi-God' characters is fairly low. Sure you have your superhero games and some where you literally are a god but nine times out of ten game protagonists are normal people prevailing in extraordinary circumstances. They are undertaking the classic 'Heroes Journey' and this has its roots firmly in the Sagas of Dark Age Scandinavia.

To my mind nothing illustrates the birth of this phenomena better then Beowulf, the epic poem of one man and his monsters. I'll discuss the key points below but anyone who's interested can find a full translation here and I highly recommend the translation by Seamus Heaney.

For those who don't know, Beowulf is one of the best known examples of old english writing we have. Its a rousing adventure in which the hero, a Viking warrior from southern Sweden (a Geat) comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of the Danes, who is being plagued by the horrible troll, Grendel.

There are two things that stand out to me about Beowulf, marking it as a turning point in how we tell stories as well as how we deal with monsters. The first is why Grendel is tormenting the Danes in the first place.

It starts because Hrothgar is quite a handy king. He expands his kingdom and wins wars (as Viking Kings are expected to do) he treats his people well and is considered a good king by all. To celebrate his accomplishments he builds Heorot, a golden mead hall thrust into the Danish countryside and intended as a grand statement of his rule. This is my land, he is saying, and I am King upon it.

Unfortunately for Hrothgar and his dinner guests, the grand celebration to open the hall disturbs Grendel, a monster who lives in the marshes close to Heorot. Grendel sneaks into the hall and murders everyone inside (except Hrothgar who retires early).

The implication here is pretty clear. Hrothgar set out to dominate the unknown lands and they literally spit out a monster to put him in place. It is no longer the wilderness that is the aggressor, instead it is us who are pushing out beyond our small circles. It's a theme 2006's Beowulf and Grendel took even further by having Hrothgar kill Grendels father (spoiler alert).

The other stand out for me is the character of Beowulf himself. While he may be said to be stronger then most men he isn't a demigod or even supernatural. In fact we know that he is kin to Hygelac and his father was a well known warrior named Edgetheow (line 260). He is just a warrior, a good one no doubt but no more likely to live then any of the others who have come and died at Grendels hands. In fact, his friends try and dissuade him from the course for fear he will lose his life.

Beowulf, and the other Saga heroes who come after, are not just heroes fighting monsters, they are ideals that the people listening to the stories could aspire to. It is stories like these that make the Saxons and Vikings the formidable warriors they were. Each one consumed by a desire for fame and glory best summed up by the Havamal or words of Odins wisdom.

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
fair fame of one who has earned.
Source (Verse 75)

Put another way, it's an early example of the audience being able to put themselves in the shoes of the hero. Something we, as gamers, do every time we pick up a controller. It marks a turning point, in my opinion, because the vikings were among the first people to see the unknown as something to be conquered with strength and courage rather then an frightening entity to tame.

After the Sagas, storytelling is forever changed and they can even be argued as Europes Most Important Book. The stories told by the Vikings are still told today and have given us a heroic narrative that still informs our modern tales.

Gerard Butler not includedSource

Don't believe me? Let's take another look at Aliens:Colonial Marines. The storyline largely follows the aftermath of events in the movie Aliens. So we have a colony flung on the edge of the known universe (check) which encounters something horrific on its edges (check) that proceeds to cause untold havok (check) until a hero (the player) can resolve...or at least survive...it's aftermath (check.)

I think it's something to think on.

For now let us say Skål and drink together!

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