Monday, January 19, 2009

The Saga of Beowulf

The Saga of Beowulf
by R. Scot Johns

(Fantasy Castle Books / 0-982-15380-5 / 978-0-982-15380-2 / October 2008 / 640 pages / $14.95 / $13.45 Amazon)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

It would be hard to find anyone in the English speaking world who has never heard of Beowulf. Most could tell you he was the hero of "some old poem" who killed "that monster, Grendel." Some younger people might have seen the comic book-like movie flaunting its digitalized special effects, but most of the population will have had to have read parts of it in school, in translation.

Not many will remember why they had to read it in school, but there's a good reason: it's the first identifiable work of literature written in English. The problem is it must be read in translation (unless one is a graduate student in English, perhaps) because it was the language spoken when part of the Germanic languages split off and became modern English. We call that founding language Anglo-Saxon, or Old English. Supposedly, the verses in which the Beowulf story is told constitute very powerful poetry, but very few are able to appreciate it today. It takes work to pick out a single understandable word in two or three lines of verse, and a semester or two of college-level study to get comfortable with it.

The story itself, of the hero Beowulf saving a neighboring tribe of Danes from the horrible Grendel, and later from his equally horrible mother, ultimately becoming king of his own tribe, the Geats, and dying while saving them from a ferocious fire dragon, is a dramatic one. But in addition to the language problem, the tale is made even harder to appreciate by virtue of apparently being written down by two different people hundreds of years after Beowulf lived, by the fragments of the manuscript which have disappeared, and by its being compressed possibly for purposes of recitation.

All this is by way of saying that there is a terrific story here, but how to make it accessible to today's typical readers? Author R. Scot Johns has the answer: spend ten years researching the poem and the historical documents of the era, and weave it all into a novel, a novel of 630 pages. The result of this impressive scholarship is a labor of love: an astoundingly readable, satisfyingly meaty historical tale of fierce battles, of intricate clan ties and loyalty, of Norse folklore, and of characters who develop over time to stand as distinct personalities that were only dimly glimpsed in the ancient version.

As to how Mr. Johns managed all this, he has a website ( with extensive and interesting author's notes laying out the documents and the manner of stitching them into one continuous narrative. The book itself has glossaries of names and places, and a map of ancient Scandinavia, but these are helpful only when needed and do not intrude on the continuity of the story. There are no footnotes, for example.

One might reasonably ask, "What possible prose style would suit ancient poetry rendered into a modern novel?" Mr. John's solution seems to be rather a hybrid: in places he uses what feels like Old Norse hyperbole, and in others a more sensitively observed, human-scaled style. Since the original story featured heroic deeds of strong, brave men with large swords, chain mail, and horns on their helmets fighting monsters with mythic abilities, exaggeration is only fitting, and faithful to the original. In other places, when warranted, the style eases into a more comfortable, conventional narrative, with few flights of bellicose elaboration. It retains the feel of an ancient story, yet can be enjoyed comfortably and without rescanning the lines.

As a reviewer of books, I'm inclined to want to march right through a text. At the same time, I found myself enjoying the story and wishing to slow down and immerse myself in it. Torn between these two desires, I noted that Grendel and his mother had been dealt with by the halfway point. What, I asked myself, could possibly fill the rest of the pages?

To my surprise, I found I enjoyed the second half even more than the first, with accounts of battles with normal humans (well, ancient Swedes, anyway), an ill-advised raid into Frankish territory, sea voyages, Frankish politics and military maneuvers, the puzzle of Roman ruins, struggles over kingly succession and tribal politics, courtship, and more small doses of mythology: stone-eating trolls, fearsome dwarfs, and, overseeing all, the three Fates of Norse mythology, spinning out the threads of lives, measuring and cutting them when the time comes. It's all cleanly written and edited, a few errant apostrophes notwithstanding.

Mr. Johns' version of Beowulf is a terrific bargain at its current selling price. It should appeal to, and delight, those who like the original poem, those who enjoy the sword and sorcerer/dungeons and dragons type of yarn, lovers of historical fiction, and the many readers who are tired of the same old formulas and wish for something completely different. It would be an excellent choice to read the summer before signing up for an Old English course. If only I had had it back then!

See Also: The Author's Website


Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Okay, now the book is on my to-be-read list. The author has a wonderful website.


Scot said...

Thank you Dr. Past for your kind review. I am very pleased to hear how you enjoyed my work, particularly given your knowledge of the work on which it's based. It greatly encourages me to continue in my efforts. I'll see what I can do about those errant apostrophes.