Some time ago I read an article published in the
“I was alarmed to hear two of the celebrity judges, Jerry Hall and Imogen Stubbs, testifying how much their children enjoyed being read Potter. Were their children, I snorted, to be allowed to choose the Book of the Year. ‘You should be reading them Beowulf,’ I snapped testily. ‘It’s much the same sort of stuff, heroes taking on dragons and all that, but the language is far more exciting.’ To their credit, Hall and Stubbs politely agreed with me, promised to read their children Heaney, and wound up helping him carry the day. Just.
“I did not, as reported, further argue that children’s books cannot be great literature. Of course they can, if they are well-written, stretch the reader’s imagination and open virgin minds to the magical powers of words.”
Another British writer (Robert Harris, if I recall correctly) later called Holden a ‘pompous prat’. I kind of have to agree. Not that I think Harry Potter books are the greatest literature on the face of the earth, although I think they're a lot more clever than Holden gives them credit for, or that Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf is the greatest translation of that epic poem ever, but if we go by Holden’s own criteria, the Harry Potter books get a 2.5 out of three: they stretch the reader’s imagination, they open virgin minds to the magical power of words, and (half a point) they are fairly well written. Anyway they’re a heck of a lot better written than a lot of children’s and adult literature that I’ve come across in the last 20 years. I don’t know if it can be counted how many kids have developed a love of reading because of the Harry Potter series. Lots, I guess. I'm not saying the Harry Potter book that was nominated that year deserved the prize, but I am saying that Anthony Holden gets at least a 1.5 out of two: he’s pompous, and (half a point) he’s fairly prat-like.
On the other hand, I do think children should be exposed to classics like Beowulf. But would I read them Heaney’s translation? I don’t know. It depends on the age, the level of linguistic advancement, and the attention span of the child. Of course, the greater the age, the greater the likelihood that the other two elements will be greater as well, as long as the child hasn’t been raised on video games.
I’ve read two translations of Beowulf in my life, and bits of a few others. My senior year in high school, our textbook had excerpts from the translation by J Duncan Spaeth. Okay, here’s the Spaeth translation of the section where we first meet Grendel, the villain of the piece (or one of three villains, actually):
"The demon grim was Grendel called,
Marsh stalker huge, the moors he roamed.
The joyless creature had kept long time
The lonely fen, the lairs of monsters,
Cast out from men, an exile accurst.
The killing of Abel, brother of Cain
Was justly avenged by the Judge Eternal."
When I was a Sophomore in college, we read Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation. Here’s his take on the same section:
"This gruesome creature was called Grendel,
notorious prowler of the borderland, ranger of the moors,
the fen and the fastness; this cursed creature
lived in a monster’s lair for a time
after the Creator had condemned him
as one of the seed of Cain – the Everlasting Lord
avenged Abel’s murder."
And then, seven or eight years ago, I read Seamus Heaney’s translation (which I bought partly because it was a bilingual edition – not that I can read Old English, but I'm always wishing I could):
"Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
The Eternal Lord had exacted a price."
They’re all fairly similar and they’re all fairly advanced reading material – say 10th grade level, maybe. And that section is already 100 or so lines into the poem. It starts out with some lengthy history/genealogy about Scyld Scefing, who was like the great-grandfather of Hrothgar, who is the king of the Danes, the people that Grendel disturbs. To be sure there are a few interesting bits here and there describing Grendel tearing limbs and drinking blood, and the part where Beowulf kills Grendel is pretty exciting, but what child is going to sit entranced and listen to
"Hrothgar, protector of Shieldings, replied:
'I used to know him when he was a young boy.
His father before him was called Ecgtheow.
Hrethel the Geat gave Ecgtheow
his daughter in marriage. This man is their son,
here to follow up an old friendship.
A crew of seamen who sailed for me once
with a gift-cargo across to Geatland
returned with marvelous tales about him:
a thane, they declared, with the strength of thirty
in the grip of each hand. Now Holy God
has, in His goodness, guided him here
to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel.'"
And what parent is even going to know how to pronounce Ecgtheow?
Whenever a classic is too wordy or too vocabularily complex, many people resort to film versions or children’s books of said classic. There are not a few of these for Beowulf. And about 90% of the books for young readers came out in the last year or so, prompted no doubt by the 2007 film version. The problem with most of these book adaptations is that they don’t stick to the original story very closely. For instance, in Robert Nye’s 1982 retelling for young adult readers, Beowulf is not just a warrior, he’s also a beekeeper, and how he kills the dragon is by having a swarm of bees fly down the dragon’s throat and sting it to death from the inside. Couldn’t the dragon have just sneezed or burped or something and fried the bees to a crisp? And how many bees does it take to sting a dragon to death?
Anyway, many of the recent Beowulf books are merely graphic novelizations or other adaptations of the 2007 film. And the film versions . . . oh my goodness! Most of them I haven’t seen because they’re usually rated R, what with all the bone crunching and eye poking and blood drinking and arm ripping and stuff. The 1999 film of Beowulf is a futuristic sci-fi adaptation so I say it doesn’t count, and the 2007 tv version (called Grendel, even though it’s mostly about Beowulf) is really bad, so it doesn’t count. There is a 2005 film, an Icelandic production called Beowulf & Grendel that stars Gerard Butler as Beowulf (so it can’t be all bad, and some medievalists have praised it for the accuracy of the arms and armor, etc), but it has, in addition to the blood spurting and eye poking, some Old English four-letter words that don’t show up in the original manuscript.
As for the most recent film, the 2007 sort-of animated version, I refused to see it after reading about the changes that had been made to the original story. In this film, Hrothgar, king of the Danes, is actually Grendel’s father, having been seduced some time in the past by Grendel’s mom (portrayed as a temptress whose appearance sort of hints at serpent-ness and who has built-in high-heel-shaped feet).
When Beowulf confronts Grendel’s mom, she seduces him, too, with the promise that she will make him the greatest king ever if he will give her a son. So he takes her up on it! Then he lies about killing Grendel’s mom to Hrothgar!! Then Hrothgar throws himself off his castle wall!!! Then Beowulf marries Wealtheow (Hrothgar’s widow) and becomes king of Hrothgar’s people!!!! By this time, I'm so shocked while reading the synopsis that I should no longer be surprised by what comes next, but it’s so silly I can’t help it: at the end, when the dragon attacks, it turns out that the dragon is really Beowulf’s son with Grendel’s mom!!!!!
So, if the films are too ridiculous, poorly made, or inappropriate to show children, and the books are pretty much the same (although I haven’t checked out all the newer picture books that aren’t based on the 2007 film, so there may be something useful there), what’s a parent to do to keep the offspring from being stultified by mediocre children’s literature?
My solution is to tell children the story myself, with the use of visual aids. The idea came to me after I bought some of the action figures from the Lord of the Rings films. As I pondered the appearance of the Éomer action figure, it occurred to me that it would make a pretty good Beowulf.
Fine, but what about Grendel? I scoured the toy store shelves for a monstrous looking action figure that wasn’t dressed like a commando or a wrestler, and the closest thing I could come up with was one of the X-Men. I know, I know, Grendel shouldn’t be wearing a little black Speedo and a yellow belt with a red X on the buckle, but then Beowulf shouldn’t be siring monsters in exchange for power, so I'm not going to let this little variance from authenticity bother me too much.
Actually, after I got the X-Men character, I did see something that I thought might make a pretty good Grendel, but it was like 14 inches tall. I heard there was a smaller one, too, but I never found it in toy stores, so I never acquired it. It’s the werewolf character from the movie Van Helsing. And now I can't even find the 14-inch one. Oh, well.
Anyway, next I needed a Grendel’s mom. I thought trying to find an appropriate Grendel was difficult and time-consuming! I finally gave up on my search for Grendel’s mom. That is, until I read about and saw the pictures of her in the 2007 film. Built-in high-heeled feet? Who does that sound like?
Yes, I think a Barbie doll would make a very good Grendel’s mom, especially a vintage one, because she has such a sinister expression on her face.
But I don’t have any Barbie dolls hanging around at present, so when I tell the story to children (like my nieces, for instance), I have to kind of skip over that part. I'm thinking I’ll hit a few garage sales soon, though, and maybe pick up an evil-looking Barbie in preparation for the next time I'm asked to entertain the kids.
Finally, I also thought I’d never find a good looking dragon. They all seemed so transformer-like or Lego-ish. But one day I was lucky to find a beautifully horrible dragon in a discount bin at Target.
So, having most of my characters ready, I tell the story by skipping over the genealogy and going straight to a description of a mead hall. From recent archaeological finds, it has been determined that mead halls may have looked pretty much like this:
Well, if I had a Popsicle stick collection, I might be able to make a pretty good mead hall, but I don’t, so I'm forced to rely on Lincoln Logs.
So I explain how Grendel was terrorizing Hrothgar’s people because he didn’t like their loud partying. As you would expect, kids pretty much relish the part where Grendel tears the men apart and eats them. I don’t have any other dolls, however, so I have to substitute something that will give the children an equivalent sense of the horror of such an act. I’ve noticed in dealing with children that they are usually far more upset by outrages perpetrated on animals than they are about damage to humans. Ian likes giraffes, so Grendel’s first victim is a giraffe.
And what could be more innocent than a little kitty? Except I feel, frankly, that my three cats deserve anything Grendel could dish out to them.
If that isn’t horrifying enough, you could show Grendel doing something really heinous, like eating an endangered species or something.
Then Beowulf attacks Grendel the next time he comes to the mead hall. You’ll notice that Beowulf isn’t wearing his helmet, partly because it says in the story that he removed his helmet, sword, and armor (but not all his clothes like in the 2007 film) before lying down and pretending to go to sleep, and partly because Éomer’s helmet keeps falling off anyway.
After Grendel is dead (from bleeding to death after Beowulf rips his arm off, which I can’t show because that would ruin the X-Men doll), and after Grendel’s mom is killed with the magic sword, then I sort of gloss over (as the poem itself does) Beowulf’s long 50-year career as the just and good king of the Geats (not the Danes!) and get to the fight with the dragon, and Beowulf's sad death and subsequent funeral.
So yeah, that’s my solution to introducing young children to Beowulf, until they’re old enough to sit and listen to Kevin Crossley-Holland or Seamus Heaney or whomever. Sometimes I let the kids hold the dragon and do some fighting themselves. They seem to enjoy that. And sometimes I pretend that Grendel is Anthony Holden. They seem to enjoy that, too.