Thursday, February 26, 2009


I first became acquainted with Beowulf when I was a freshman in high school. There was an all-school assembly where a theatre group from the city came and performed a “play” based upon BEOWULF. It was more like a dance recital with some percussion and a little bit of acting. Though excited to not be in class, most students were bored by the performance, including the seniors who were studying the poem in their English classes. Even though I felt the show was a bit unusual, I was transfixed by the experience and it wasn’t because of the performers. I was interested because I found the story that was told (experimental and rudimentary as it was) fascinating. Thus began a lifelong love for first piece of literature ever written in English, BEOWULF. I read the poem when I was a senior in high school, re-read it and translated a small portion from the original Old English for a medieval English class in college, and re-read it again when Seamus Heaney’s now-famous translation was first released. My fascination with the tale has led me to read and watch other works about Beowulf. There are a variety of them out there, from comic books to novels to movies (the most recent being the 2007 CGI film version from Robert Zemeckis and Neil Gaiman). The tale of Beowulf is extraordinary and inspiring and though most of these works have had sparks of originality and creativity, none has been outstanding. That is until now.

R. Scot John’s THE SAGA OF BEOWULF is a novelized re-telling of the story of Beowulf. The novel follows the main plotline of the original poem. During the Dark Ages, a legendary Geatish hero named Beowulf travels across the sea with some fellow warriors to the land of the Danes. Daneland has been ravished for twelve years by an ogre named Grendel. Many men have tried to kill the creature, but have ended up only as another meal or sacrifice. Beowulf arrives upon the shores of the Danes and promises to kill the creature. He does, but the joy of having the monster slain is short lived because Grendel has a mother who is more cunning than her son. She threatens to continue the siege that Grendel began twelve years before. She must be dealt with. So, Beowulf travels to Grendel’s mother’s den and with the help of a magical giant sword, kills her, too. He returns home and eventually becomes the king of his own clan and after many other adventures meets the end of his life after fighting a ferocious dragon. He succeeds in killing the dragon, but the wounds from the encounter are mortal and he dies. This is the basic plot of the original story and they are all included in THE SAGA OF BEOWULF. However, the novel encompasses much, much more.

The basic elements are expanded and other plotlines, some based upon other historical events and situations, have been woven into the story. Characters are given rich backstories that make them seem like real and compelling people, especially Beowulf. In many of the adaptations of the original poem, Beowulf’s character has been altered in a significant way to make him seem more human and less a Hero. Take for instance the Zemeckis movie version. There is no doubt that Beowulf is stronger than any man alive and can do heroic deeds. However, in that version of the tale, Beowulf’s character is compromised and he is shown not just to be proud, but pompous with a moral and ethical code no different than the rest of the savages he encounters. In THE SAGA OF BEOWULF, neither his humanity nor his almost superhuman abilities are skirted and Beowulf is shown to be the real Hero he is in the poem.

Beowulf isn’t the only character to be so fully and richly developed. Most of the other characters are, too. Many times background stories and exposition is for many readers often boring and the least interesting part of the stories they read, but in THE SAGA OF BEOWULF this is not so. Much of the exposition is dealt in flashbacks that not only provide crucial character history, but are just as exciting and interesting as the main action of the tale. And this is an action-packed story. A giant sea serpent, rock trolls, dwarves, fierce battles against sworn enemies, assassinations, sea journeys, a raid for fame and fortune into Frankish territory, and a battle in a ancient Roman arena against gladiators are all a part of the story. Besides the action and fighting sequences there’s some real-life history and political maneuverings as well as a dose of romance for good measure.

The novel is written in a style that modern readers should have no trouble following, yet is full of narrative poetry that does justice to the original epic. As a former high school English teacher there were times that I became very excited by some of the language in the story (Look, it’s a kenning!). A casual reader who has never read the original poem will probably enjoy the book as much as I did and not notice these poetic tributes, but they are a nice touch and are especially appreciated by those who are familiar with the original poem.

Purists might be offended by how the author has condensed events to fit a relative short time span. For instance, in the original poem, it is a span of nearly fifty years that Beowulf is king but in THE SAGA OF BEOWULF he is only king for a few brief months. The author explains in detail on his website ( why he made the decisions he made. Even though I felt it would have been nice to have seen some of the events of the novel spread out over a longer time frame, I understand why the timeline was shortened and felt that it took nothing away from the story or the character of Beowulf. In fact, other than a rather slow beginning and a few typographical errors, there is no criticism that I can say about THE SAGA OF BEOWULF.

In order to help readers more fully understand the text, the book includes a glossary of names, a glossary of places, as well as a fairly detailed map of the Scandinavia of the story. I found the glossaries particularly useful, especially during the first third of the novel when there were so many names and places, some of which even I wasn’t familiar.

In short, I found THE SAGA OF BEOWULF to be an exciting piece of historical fiction. Those who are familiar with the original poem will probably enjoy the novel as well as anyone who enjoys reading quality historical and fantasy fiction.

1 comment:

R. Scot Johns said...

Thanks for the superlative review Tom! I'm glad you enjoyed the read, and all the more so since you know the original so well. It's the views of well-versed readers like yourself that I most look forward to hearing. Sorry for the typos - that's what you get when you proof and edit your own work!