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Monday, August 5, 2013

Best Beowulf Graphic Novel Ever!

Hinds, Gareth (1999) Beowulf  Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.

I would love it if high school English students would read the wonderful poetic translation of  Beowulf by Seamus Heaney and be able to experience the combination of hero story and horror story that comes through to be when I read it.  It would be great if the first time through they would be able to see the armored hero, the epic battle, the slavering monster, the guts and the gore that make this story the equal of any action movie Hollywood could throw out there -- but the fact is that it takes time to learn to see images in your head as a reader, and if you are new to reading epic poetry it is especially hard, and some English teachers try to make Beowulf into something more than what it is -- a wonderful campfire story. 

So listen up, if you want to get high school students excited about an epic poem translated from old English, what you need is Gareth Hinds' graphic novel adaptation of Beowulf.   Yes, it does, at times, make the whole story into a superhero battle -- but folks, that is what it really is -- and get this, Hinds (who has also done brilliant adaptations of King Lear and The Odyssey) really loves literature.  He tells the whole story in the order it appears in the original manuscript (and not just the excerpt of the first battle that appears in literature anthologies  -- we're talking the battle with Grendel's Mom and the battle with the dragon when Beowulf is an old man and has returned to his own country).  he also loves the language of the original poem, and though this is a prose translation, it includes lines like this:

"Never since I first laid my right hand to the sword and bore the shield on my left have I given this hall of the Danes to any man to keep.  And  now I give it in trust to thee.  Do thou keep it as befits thy grace.  Be of good hope; be valiant; and watch for the foe."

or this:

"Now it came to pass that King Hygelac made war against the men of Frisia. and he took with him a great host and many famous chiefs, but the king was slain and all his nobles with him, save Beowulf only.  Then Beowulf took the kingdom himself, ruling its people well for fifty years, until will began in the dark of night -- a dragon, to rage."

Add to this beautiful illustrations that remind me a bit of Alex Ross's work --so much emotional content in the image of Beowulf walking away from us along o grey and joyless cliff-edged beach.  At times the book runs for several pages with no words at all, at times it read more like a picture book, with the words separate from the images -- so the format is at time unfamiliar for both the experienced graphic novel reader and the graphic novel non-reader alike.  That's okay, though.  This thing rocks.   

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