Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Beowulf and Breasts: Ye Olde Storme Breweth Anewe

The Menasha School District is considering a review of its policy on the classroom use of commercial films next week after a parent’s complaint prompted extra scrutiny of a syllabus for a mythology class.

The elective course on world mythology would have included the 2007 PG-13 feature film of "Beowulf" among its eight films that would be shown as a part of the 10th – 12th graders’ class. While the school district has a really clear policy about giving students and parents a chance to opt-out of objectionable school assignments, the school board might go back to the books and change their minds.

What is objectionable about "Beowulf" these days? Incomprehensible Old English? Violence? Neil Gaiman’s writing? Nope. It’s Angelina’s CGI animated, nipple-less breasts (of course the clip is on the Internet).

A flash of lady parts makes me nostalgic.

I remember when we struggled through Shakespeare’s writings in high school. I knew that if I worked hard enough, I would find classic themes of political power struggles in "Julius Caesar." "Hamlet" would teach me more about power and loyalty and life and death. But it was "Romeo and Juliet" that seemed most relevant to a 16 year old’s hormonal brain. We all thought our crushes transcended our parent’s disapproval. We all thought if we didn’t get a chance to make out we would DIE.

But watching Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of "Romeo and Juliet" did more for our English class than give us a quick flash of naked boobs and butts. We giggled, sure. But the appropriateness and power of the film in our classroom was that we were able to hear the words that were not meant to be read on paper but rather spoken out loud. Shakespeare was a playwright and his words were meant to soak into our souls through our ears.

"Beowulf," too, is said to be a poem from an oral tradition. Old English is an ancient language and the mythological stories of that time were written down only after being retold for generations. The written language is incomprehensible to modern English speakers, but when you hear it, the language is almost as recognizable as the themes of love, power and heroism. And hey, who doesn’t love a good dragon fight?

The school’s policy of offering opt-outs for age-appropriate material is fine as it stands. Students benefit from learning about the line where classic literature and pop culture meet. And if Angelina’s animated breasts are the worst thing that students see in our public schools today, I would think we should all count ourselves lucky. Very lucky indeed.