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Beowulf

by Welwyn Wilton Katz, Laszlo Gal, illus.

If your only experience of Beowulf has been a brief excerpt at the beginning of a survey course in English literature, then you may have given (as I did) short shrift to this West Saxon ballad about a fifth-century hero. But this new version by Katz and Gal makes an eloquent argument for revisiting Beowulf.

Katz, a prolific Ontario-based author who has won several awards for her fantasy novels, has drawn upon several English translations of the ballad as background for her own prose version. She has retained the essential elements of the story: Beowulf’s superhuman strength, his bloody triumph over the monster Grendel, his fatal battle with the dragon, and finally his wake. What’s new here is more a matter of emphasis than pure invention. Wiglaf, the much younger kinsman of Beowulf, is given pride of place at the beginning and end of the tale so that an adolescent character frames the myth and partakes of the final triumph when he helps Beowulf and becomes his successor.

The prose style of this retelling, with its evocative detail and suspenseful descriptions, does justice to the older ballad versions and may make the tale more accessible to young readers. The illustrations also succeed in combining tradition and innovation. Laszlo Gal is an expert illustrator of traditional tales, and researches his subjects so that his paintings capture the spirit of the tales. These paintings are based on Viking art and resemble illuminated manuscripts in their elongated figures and ornate detail. At the centre of interest are the monsters, and the scene in which the hag drags Beo-wulf into the depths of the ocean is marvellous. If this book is your first introduction to Beowulf, I can see it making for a long and fond acquaintance.