Book Review: Beowulf Graphic Novel

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Ya’ll like gore? Blood? Torsos ripped in half by dripping, in-side-out monsters? Go no further than Beowulf in almost any iteration. The original epic. The 2007 movie. And this Gareth Hinds graphic novel, though it’s probably the easiest to swallow because it is cartoon-y and meant for a younger audience. Still…

Beowulf is a true epic, which means it’s a really, really long poem about a bigger-than-life hero and an eye-popping adventure or ten. Beowulf is also really old. The bits and pieces of it that we still have constitute some of the oldest bits and pieces of the written English language and come from the 400s. It’s really famous. It’s really classic. And it’s been translated and adapted many times (because Old English needs to be translated for most people) including into multiple English editions (some in verse), movies, and graphic novels. Yes, there is more than one graphic novel but I’ve been on a Gareth Hinds kick lately and apparently so have bookstores.

I read Beowulf (whole or in part) when I was in high school or maybe even middle school. What I remember was feeling muffled and dark—confused and the presence of evil. There is definitely something wooly about reading old language and there is definitely something evil about this story. On the surface it’s about a hero (or a couple of them). But simmering right underneath this hero story is the larger-than-life monsters, Grendl, Grendl’s mom, and the dragon. Honestly, just saying “Grendl, Grendl’s mom, and the dragon,” sounds like no thing but a chicken wing. But these monsters are nasty. They are the very thing of nightmares on steroids. They are ruthless, bloodthirsty, and violent. They are dark and evil and if you really get to thinking about them your knees might get to knocking together. In other words, they are exactly the kind of monsters that could make a truly epic hero. But they’re also scary as heck and even a little bit nasty. And don’t you even think about getting attached to a character because as soon as you do they’re going to have their limbs ripped off and their guts splattered on the wall.

Not that characters are exactly why you might read this epic poem. The story was originally meant to inspire, to put on display the kind of character that one would need to survive and even thrive on the ancient British Isles. Meaning, the kind of person who had more testosterone than brain cells, was inordinately large and had a matching ego, stood up for his or her neighbors and family, etc. Nowadays, you’re more likely to read Beowulf under compulsion, as the modern life is a much more rounded, nuanced place. From this experience, besides confusion and terror, you might gain an understanding of ancient man, of history, of anthropology, of human nature and desire, of the origins of things… Certainly the story has some dramatic moments (though we were still hundreds of years away from a solid Hero’s Journey), some suspense, some emotional weight, but the style, pacing, and other things are pretty far removed from what most of us are comfortable with.

And after I’ve said all that, let me bring you back to the reality here: I am reviewing a graphic novel version, specifically the one by Gareth Hinds. Well, I thought it was pretty good. Still gory, still dark, and completely busting with rippling biceps, it was what it should have been. I especially liked the way Hinds used black ink to make Grendl seem even eerier and more sinister. He was also first, solid on the page, and then artistic on the page. Hinds usually has these illustrative flourishes and here they turned a late night read of a very short story into an interesting time. I still have issues with following a story well in graphic novel form, but I was already familiar with the story of Beowulf, so that might have helped.

If you are going to have to read Beowulf, this would be a good companion volume. Otherwise, it’s a good way to introduce ancient literature to a teenager who is ready for violence and gore. Just tell him or her not to expect any redemption or any neatly packaged, familiar stories.

I couldn’t help it. I thought this was so funny. A cartoon from School Library Journal titled “Teaching Graphic Novels”

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