Courage Book Review – “I will stir up the waters of the old days and shape the long-ago then into now.”

BeowulfToday’s offering is a great retelling of Beowulf. This version is subtitled, A Hero’s Tale Retold, and was written and illustrated by James Rumford. What is particularly appealing about this retelling for kids is that Rumford tells the story using only words that have entered English from Anglo-Saxon roots. This gives the book something of the gristle and chewiness of the original poem. Words and phrases such as “fire-hearted” “locklike” “gold-shining” and “over the wide whale sea,” give this Beowulf real guts. Rumford acknowledges a debt of inspiration to Seamus Heaney’s masterful and muscular translation of Beowulf. The illustrations are full of writhing, serpentine forms and dark cross-hatching, making the art both dynamic and somber, much like the story itself.  It sounds wonderful read out loud.

But why, you might ask read this story to kids? What does a monster tale from more than a thousand years ago have for our kids today? Isn’t the super-hero with sword and shield a bit too retro in this information age?  Isn’t this just something English literature majors have to get through in college?

Certainly, this ancient predecessor to so many popular stories (did someone say Lord of the Rings?) is one of the gold standards for physical courage tales. In an age when smiting and smashing were regular activities, this sort of courage was highly prized; of course the heroism of physical courage would be celebrated with poems and sagas. Along with physical courage, Beowulf also upholds honor in repaying debts of service, and in protecting the people in his care; we may call this moral courage.

What may make this classic important to share with kids today is precisely its super-hero, almost one-dimensional physical courage. This foundational piece of English literature may have helped to shape cultural ideas of what courage is, what heroism is. Do we see intellectual courage here? Spiritual courage? Social or emotional courage? No. But can stereotypes offer us a lens for examining our own ideas and beliefs? Yes. Like metaphors, another literary tool, stereotypes allow us to grapple with complex ideas and make meaning of our own experience.

Beowulf: A Tale of Blood, Heat, and AshesAnother version for kids is Beowulf: A Tale of Blood, Heat, and Ashes, adapted by Nicky Raven. This is illustrated by one of the lead artists from the Lord of the Rings movies, John Howe. The writing lacks the Anglo-Saxon punch of Rumford’s telling, but the obvious visual debt of LOR to Beowulf demonstrated in the art makes it an interesting companion to the Rumford book. Share these two with your kids, and follow up with a conversation about physical courage, and whether that’s the only kind of courage that makes a hero.

You might also enjoy Heaney’s translation for yourself, which includes the original text opposite the translation.  Try reading it out loud for a vocal workout!  You can almost understand these chewy words if you hear them spoken.  Sit by a smoky fire in semi-darkness for the best effect!

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