Did you have to read excerpts Beowulf in school like I did? Did you also dutifully plow through the poem, not actually enjoying it?
My attitude toward Beowulf was transformed by Seamus Heaney’s new translation accompanied by illustrations, including ancient objects similar to those found in the poem, a few photographs depicting scenery like that described in the poem, and a few ancient paintings.
Until I read the illustrated edition, even though I’d read before of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, and his mead-hall, Heorot, I didn’t realize that Beowulf’s world existed in a real time and place. I had viewed it all as fantasy because of the monsters Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the fire-breathing dragon.
Your readers will see armor from the period, swords, arrows, gold vessels, rings, torques, and other jewelry; they’ll see mead-halls and ships, barrows and drinking horns, and depictions of sea serpents, dragons, and monsters.
Unless your readers have studied Beowulf already, they may need help with understanding some aspects of the story: The family trees that follow the poem help with understanding the relationships of the main characters to each other.
You may need to explain that the author of the poem was a Christian and removed by 100 years or more from the action of the story; thus, the characters sometimes sound pagan (as they were at the time of the story) and sometimes sound Christian (as the author of the poem was).
And your reader may need to know that the culture of the Geats, the Danes, and the Swedes was one of blood feuding, boasting, and drinking in mead-halls.
This is a book for the very best teen readers since it requires readers to enter a world almost totally alien to our modern one, but the story has some great action sequences—when Beowulf fights Grendel, ripping off his arm, when he fights Grendel’s mother, and when he fights the dragon. In between are less exciting parts, though there are other exciting descriptions of battles as well.
Reading Level can’t be determined, but this book is a challenging read for adults.
Of interest to boys and girls.
Whitbread Award, 1999
This review has been acquired and adapted from CleanTeenReads.com.
This review was acquired from CleanTeenReads.com on May 15, 2014 and was not completed using Compass Book Ratings’ standardized checklist. Nevertheless, it contains useful content information which is included here. The overall number ratings have been approximated based on this information.
Hell used often, always to denote a place or a damned being; Grendel called “hell-serf”; Grendel’s mother called “hell-bride,” “hell-dam.”
Introduction: explanation of blood-feud, “where the kin of a person slain are bound to exact a price for the death . . . by slaying the killer . . . .” Poem: Mention of mead hall being burned, “the blood-lust rampant”; Grendel kills thirty men, more men the next night, not graphic, mention of continued raids; Beowulf boasts of being “boltered in the blood of enemies,” of binding “five beasts,” of “raiding a troll-nest,” and “slaughtering sea-brute”; avenging his people’s enemies; Beowulf knows that if he’s killed in fight with Grendel, Grendel will kill other Geats and take Beowulf’s body back to his lair to feed on, somewhat graphic; warriors in past tried to fight Grendel but were slaughtered, somewhat graphic; Beowulf tells of killing nine sea-beasts, not very graphic; Grendel imagines himself killing and eating men in mead-hall; Grendel kills and eats a man, quite graphic, story repeated a number of times; Beowulf grabs Grendel in armlock, they struggle; Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm—recounted in more detail later, arm described in more detail also; Grendel retreats to his lair to die, somewhat graphic; Hrothgar says his “house glittered and reeked and ran with blood”; hero in story slays dragon with sword; mention of king who’s ambushed; story told of a Danish king’s death; two men “spear-gored”; mention of “blood-plastered coats of mail”; grisly description of bodies burning on funeral pyre; man desires vengeance, king killed, his “hall ran red with blood”; king attacks enemies, is killed; mention of sword “slathered in blood”; Grendel’s mother kills friend of Hrothgar, eats victim, story repeated later; Beowulf finds head of man she killed, “hot gore wallowing up”; Beowulf shoots sea serpent with arrow, it’s killed with “boar-spears”; Grendel’s mother grabs Beowulf, but can’t crush him or rip through his armor; “sea beasts” attack him; Beowulf attacks her with sword, but it doesn’t affect her; they fight hand-to-hand, she tries to knife him, but his chain mail protects him; he siezes “sword in her armory,” beheads her in one blow, “beheads Grendel’s corpse,” takes it to Heorot, “dripping blood”; mention of king who killed his own men; mention of “jabbing blade or javelin” that can kill someone; Hrothgar defended his land “with spear and sword”; mention of possibility of king of Geats dying in battle from spear or sword; mention of queen who had people shackled, tortured, run through with sword, somewhat graphic; concern that marriage of Hrothgar’s daughter to old enemy may re-ignite feud, someone will be killed, somewhat graphic; king of Geats killed in battle, described in more detail later, not very graphic; dragon comes out at night and burns down homesteads, burns Beowulf’s throne-room; prince of Geats killed by Swedes, not graphic; Beowulf avenges prince’s death by killing king of Swedes; description of prince accidentally killing brother with arrow; mention of feelings of father watching son hanged, ravens ready to eat his body; mention of battles between Geats and Swedes, Beowulf’s kin avenge killings; king killed, brother avenges death, somewhat graphic; Beowulf killed man with bare hands, somewhat graphic; Beowulf fights dragon, sword doesn’t pierce hide, breaks, companion’s shield burns up, dragon bites Beowulf’s neck, companion knifes dragon in stomach, Beowulf stabs dragon also, kills it, Beowulf dies from wound; prediction that Geats will be attacked by others now, memories of past battles; threats of hacking up bodies and hangings, somewhat graphic; Swedish king attacked, blood spurts out, king kills attacker, then killed by another attacker, quite graphic; mention of attacks by arrows; Geat woman imagines “enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles.” Illustrations: painting of giant eating someone; stag attacked by hound; skull pierced by lance; woodcut of man killed in mead-hall; photo of actual Iron Age man found preserved in bog who’s been “throttled and his throat cut”; two warriors fighting dragon; woodcut of scavengers on battle field with ravens circling above.
Queen described as “a balm in bed” to her husband; mention that Hrothgar leaves the mead-hall “to lie with . . . his queen and bedmate.” Illustrations: facing page 9, painting of naked giant, shows buttocks; facing page 13, photo of possible idol, shows non-representational penis; facing page 47, medieval painting of hell shows naked bodies, buttocks, not graphic; facing page 63, more naked bodies of souls in hell, not graphic.
Mature Subject Matter:
Alcohol / Drug Use:
Mention of warriors becoming “flushed with beer”; servants pouring mead; Beowulf suggests man is drunk; many mentions of drinking mead, some of drinking wine, ale; Danish queen offers goblet for all to drink from; they toast Beowulf; mention of drunk comrades. Illustrations: drinking horns.