Retelling old myths and ancient epics is challenging. With his version of Beowulf
, writer Welwyn Wilton Katz faces the challenge honourably by using a heroic narrative voice true to a bard from the past. At the same time, she creates another dimension that is often lacking in stories of heroes by providing detailed information about the characters, their motivations and feelings, as well as their relationships with one another. This strategy makes the tone more intimate, thus increasing its appeal for a contemporary audience.
Katz has changed the focus from Beowulf to the fourteen-year-old Wiglaf and his grandfather, Aelfhere, relatives of Beowulf and minor characters in other versions of the epic. It is through Wiglaf's eyes and ears that the reader experiences the story. Katz also adds a supernatural element by assigning magical skills to the men of the Waegmunding Clan to which Wiglaf, Aelfhere, and Beowulf belong. Wiglaf's special talent is the "gift of true seeing", the ability to see events from the past, present or future. Unlike other versions of Beowulf, the storyteller here is a visible part of the telling: Aelfhere, who is concerned about the future of the Clan and wants, before dying, to ensure the Clan's, and his grandson's, well-being. To strengthen Wiglaf's courage and to foster his desire to become a warrior, Aelfhere recounts Beowulf's amazing deeds.
Wiglaf's magical true sight allows him to see Beowulf's adventures as if he were partaking in battling the wicked troll, Grendel, and killing monsters and sea serpents. His desire to meet the real hero is awakened. By the end of Katz's story, Wiglaf has moved from being a passive listener to an active participant as he helps Beowulf to slay the dragon. He becomes a man and a king, an honourable leader of his clan.
By meshing the emotional with the heroic, Katz diminishes slightly the grandiose tone of an epic narrative; at the same time, she has allowed the reader to empathize and identify with the story's characters and the events. In her fiction for older children and young adults, including False Face, The Third Magic, and Out of the Dark, Katz has explored interactions between the mythical and ordinary worlds; for the most part, however, she has kept the two worlds separate. In Beowulf, myth and story are one and the same, particularly at the end when, in retrospect, the reader is able to understand how the intricacies of relationships and emotions can lead to heroic actions.
Katz uses a rich and detailed poetic prose that breathes life into her retelling, enhancing the story's heroic images and landscape. She has thoroughly researched the Beowulf epic and, while she has taken liberties, she has done so coherently and respectfully.
Much the same can be said of Laszlo Gal's illustrations, finely executed in his realistic, and quite recognizable, style. This award-winning illustrator has years of experience depicting not only the world of myths and fairytales, but also creating historically accurate paintings of the past. In Beowulf, Gal eases the reader gently into this other world where heroes, monsters, and fire-breathing dragons clash. The pictures are presented within thin, elegant frames, and while they occasionally spill over the borders, they are always contained and balanced. The compositions and stylized poses suit the theme, but the monsters-Grendel, his mother, and the dragon-should generate a greater sense of horror and fear. Perhaps Gal is too refined an artist to animate the story's more grotesque elements.
This is an absorbing, well-realized retelling of Beowulf, a welcome version for young children not yet familiar with this timeless epic to read and savour, or to listen to enthralled.
Mariella Bertelli is a Toronto-based storyteller and children's librarian.