(Photos courtesy Farrar, Straus, Giroux; Candlewick Press; HarperCollins)
Robert Zemeckisâ spectacular film version of Beowulf (reviewed here) takes enormous liberties with the original Anglo-Saxon epic poem, which dates back to around 800 A.D., with the authorâs name lost. Knowing the original arc of the poem can help you appreciate the changes made by screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman. Given the film will inspire interest in the work, here are some tips for further reading.
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Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus, Giroux)
. The poem has a reputation as difficult reading: âJust donât take any course where they make you read Beowulf
,â Woody Allen remarks in Annie Hall
. Fortunately, Nobel-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney translates the Anglo-Saxon verse into an accessible, spare vernacular. Heaney sets the tone with the very first syllable, eschewing a high-flown "Hark!" or "Lo!" for a no-nonsense "So." As I wrote in my Creative Loafing review
in 2000, Heaney can employ rustic, colloquial words like "gumption" and instill a nearly biblical weight to lines like, "The shepherd of people was sheared of life." But he also takes pleasure in archaic, alliterative terms, as in the sentence, "He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain, limping and looped in it." Heaney's most memorable and evocative passages come in the book's final section, when the aged Beowulf gives his life to stop the elemental menace of a fire-breathing dragon. Plus, it features the original Anglo-Saxon alongside Heaney's new version.
Grendel by John Gardner (Vintage). Gardnerâs 1971 novel presents the events of Beowulf, and leading up to it, from the point of view of the monstrous Grendel. A surprisingly articulate narrator, the indestructible ogre proves so lonely and misunderstood, he could almost be a Dark Ages Holden Caulfield, except for, you know, the fact that he eats people. Gardner balances humor and pathos with some extraordinarily eloquent descriptive passages. Grendelâs account of how King Hrothgar consolidates power and builds the great mead hall makes a persuasive argument for the dawn of civilization. Grendel is definitely a postmodern novel, however, and as it goes along, more and more characters arrive and speak in philosophical abstractions. I confess I became impatient for Beowulf to show up and start kicking ass.
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Beowulf, written and illustrated by Gareth Hinds (Candlewick Press)
. Hinds initially published this graphic-novel version in 2000 as three parts, structured around the poemâs three major action scenes. Some of the elements donât quite come together: The text resembles more of a âClassics Illustratedâ version of the poem, and Beowulf vaguely resembles a sleepy-eyed roadie for a heavy-metal band, robbing him of his archetypal mystique. The book attains a sinewy, visceral force during the long, wordless battles, with the Grendel fight lasting for 23 pages. The vibrant hues of the first sections give way to more pale, washed-out colors for the final one that effectively suggest Beowulfâs advanced age and the twilight of a heroic age.
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Beowulf, story by Stefan Petrucha, artwork by Kody Chamberlain (HarperCollins)
. I prefer this graphic novel version to Hindsâ. Chamberlainâs artwork has a spare, scratchy, woodcut quality that suits the age of the poem and gives the characters a weathered, hungry look. The colors have an earth-tone glow, as if lit by fire light. Petruchaâs text, while adapted with young-adult readers in mind, does justice to the epicâs stoic sensibility and concept of âwyrd,â or fate. Thereâs a minor misstep however: Since Grendel, here, is approximately the size of King Kong, itâs kind of ridiculous when Beowulf rips off the monsterâs arm, despite being barely longer than one of its clawed fingers. But this might be the best introduction to Beowulf
, particularly for readers too young for the PG-13 filmâs nudity and violence.