Viewers in the United Kingdom will be the first to see Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, as the new series premieres on ITV tonight at 7:00 pm. American viewers will need to wait until January 23rd, when the Esquire Network begins airing episodes.
Described as a western set in Britain’s mythic past, the 12 episodes of the first season follow Beowulf as he returns to Herot after many years wandering as a mercenary warrior. It stars Kieran Bew stars as Beowulf, with William Hurt playing Hrothgar, the Thane of Herot. The large cast includes Joanne Whalley, Ed Speleers, Laura Donnelly, and David Ajala.
The series has been written by James Dormer (Strike Back, Wallander, Outcast) who explains how it relates to the epic Old English poem:
“It seemed to me that to tell a story, a popular version of Beowulf again, relevant to the people of Britain today, we needed to hang on to all the elements of it but move away from the specific locations of Scandinavia. Moving it into a more fantastical world enabled us to open up the world and have a multi-ethnic cast, making it more relevant to today.
“It was always a sense that you can have a bit of fun with the fact you’re telling a story. So in the opening voiceover it says, ‘Some people say that heroes are born and some that they’re made.’ You’re looking at something from a slightly different perspective. A sense of stories within stories. We have a very clear idea as to the larger story arc and how that can play out. But we want to stay as true to the poem as we can.
“You can’t compete with something like that and as a storyteller I always have to tell it my way. There were probably endless bards who told versions of the story and it developed as they went off in their own way. So I’m just like the one who is at the end of the line at the moment. I’m simply in that queue of storytellers.
“We stay true to the poem in that it’s the story of a hero, warriors and people who believe the way they die is more important than the way they live. But hopefully, because of the world we live in now, we’re able to look at it from a different angle. So you can see that’s what they believed but also what the consequences of that can be.”
Executive producer Katie Newman adds that many themes from the medieval poem remain relevant today: “One of them is the fear of the other – in the poem it was ‘man’s fear of nature’. Beowulf represented modernity and progress, Grendl was the manifestation of hostile natural forces trying to preserve the past. In our show, Herot is an iron-mining town living an uneasy existence with the ‘Mudborn’ beasts. Beasts who inhabited the land before humans came and colonised it. Obviously this is very much part of the ‘Western’ motif but also our own heritage and an unease that exists in many parts of the world today.”