Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beowulf back when

Aha, so it's pronounced “BAY-wulf.” All these years my high school classmates and I have pronounced it “BEE-wulf,” like how were taught in English literature. The release of the movie should prompt us to consider holding one of our usual reunions just so we could officially adopt the proper pronunciation of the name.

You see, “Beowulf” isn't just a story to us. Mention the word, and it brings back a lot of happy memories. We're silly sentimental SOBs like that.

We learned about Beowulf and Grendel and Grendel's monster mother not from Neil Gaiman, but in traditional high school English literature. I'm not sure if students today are still taught this old English epic poem. Our teacher was Mrs. Resurreccion, a white-haired, motherly, tiny bird of a lady, all 4'11" of her (perhaps even shorter).

How old was she? We had no idea. My father and mother, for one, both learned their English grammar and literature from her. She was also the one who cast them in an English play at the local college, where they played a Mr. and Mrs. Coates. That's how they ended up together. What can I say: my destiny prefigured right there. But that story should wait for another post...

Mrs. Resurreccion had been teaching part-time in our seminary for years. Imagine the formidable patience she'd developed from dealing with generations of willful little rascals and ruffians. Seminarians as refined, well-mannered young boys? Phooey. Ask her that and she'd probably cackle. And recall what we did to her.

We took up the Beowulf tale for maybe a week or more. But it felt like an entire grading period. So engrossed was she in telling us the story that the epic's title character became our shorthand for her. As in, “Huy, maabot na si Beowulf!” (Beowulf's coming!) Later on, she'd exhibit a similar obssession with Gray's “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” forcing us to memorize some stanzas and recite them as prayers before class. (“Full many a gem of purest ray serene, the dark unfathomed caves of oceans bear. Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness in the desert air.”)

There was another nickname for her, less popular but with a funny incident attached to it. Once, long after Beowulf, we began reading this Spanish folk tale about a maltreated cow named La Cordera. Because our class was in the early afternoon, we were prone to either dozing off or yapping away while our good teacher tried to talk about the subject.

Beowulf, I mean Mrs. Resurreccion, finally lost her patience one afternoon. She rapped on the blackboard, raised her voice (a first), and berated us for our inattention. Then she gathered her stuff from the table and walked out.

Jong called out after her, “Adios, La Cordera!”

So it was a choice between Beowulf or La Cordera. Beowulf won.

She's still alive, by the way. We dote on Mrs. Resurreccion now whenever we see her. She continues to play a big part in our epic, endlessly rehashed high school stories.

Beowulf the warrior is alive, too, in a ridiculous new movie by Robert Zemeckis that purports to be another giant stride in filmmaking. It doesn't use real actors, but computer-generated facsimiles whose looks and gestures were “captured” electronically from real performers.

Ashushu. The figures look cross-eyed, glassy-eyed, soulless--“too 'Children of the Corn,'” said the critic Stephanie Zacharek. Admire the waste of this film: Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Ray Winstone. Why would you want to use zombified copies of these towering talents and not the real thing? Simply to show off a new toy. And the killer: a naked Angelina Jolie as Grendel's sea-witch of a mother--in stilettos.

Harrumph. I'll take our Beowulf anytime.

First posted in www.gibbscadiz.com