We never get tired of hearing about Beowulf.
No, I’m not talking about the actual Geatish hero or the eponymous poem in Anglo-Saxon, or even the attempts at movie versions in recent years (I haven’t seen the one with Angelina Jolie, though if that’s the only one you know, check out Sturla Gunnarsson‘s original take on the story in Beowulf & Grendel with Gerard Butler and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). I’m mainly interested in the basic trope of Specialist Warriors From Away Swoop in to Deal With Monster.
It’s the basis for most of the hunting-the-psycho cop shows out there, in particular Criminal Minds. CSI and NCIS incarnations have it too, particularly when they’re about a killer; and Silence of the Lambs may as well have just been called Grendel, since the inhuman monster, Hannibal Lecter, is the overpowering star.
The basic plot is this: horrible, usually fatal things are happening somewhere pleasant to innocent people, and local law enforcement is helpless to stop it. In swoops Hotch and his specialist team, usually with a deep line from literature or philosophy in the voiceover. It’s not quite an epic in verse, but you can’t be too pretentious on TV.
It’s usually the same — some gruesome string of crimes, right up there with Grendel’s habitual visits to King Hrothgar’s sleeping court, cannibalizing his people. And the only relief in sight is when the special agents arrive. Unlike the regular police (read: Hrothgar’s men-at-arms) they pick up the monster’s trail (like Beowulf finding the monster in the darkened hall) and eventually catch and overpower him (though not, it must be said, in an epic wrestling match in which the “unsub” has his arm ripped off).
The term “unsub” — for “unknown subject” is actually a telling dehumanization of the person the team is trying to catch. They might as well call him the creep, the psycho, the pervert, the killer — or what is really meant in terms of the narrative: the monster.
Of course, in the space of an hour-long show, there is only time for the adventure of catching the monster, not the aftermath. There’s no Grendel’s mother to deal with — perhaps in modern terms that would be the legal fallout, which, given the number of people the Criminal Minds team puts away, would involve many, many hours in court, I would think. It would at least put the whole struggle against the monsters in context.
Similarly, I doubt we will ever see the end-of-career final battle against a beast that undoes the team, or at least shows Hotch can’t hack it anymore — our modern sensibilities for narrative, at least on network TV, don’t really allow for hopeless-battle endings. It’s too bad.
But then, I suspect the underlying assumption of shows like Criminal Minds are that the system works, the monsters are always dealt with, and well, that’s just the way it’s going to keep working. Not that, say, glory is fleeting and even the greatest among us will eventually die. But maybe the Anglo-Saxon audiences thrilling to recitals of Beowulf didn’t have the short attention span required to avoid thinking about basic truths like that.
P.S. If you want to see a surprisingly entertaining and non-stupid iteration of the Beowulf story, watch Outlander.