'Beowulf' for kids smites critics
By Jolie Jean Cotton
Special to The Advertiser
By Jolie Jean Cotton
The timing of Hawai'i author and illustrator James Rumford's new children's book "Beowulf" is serendipitous. With the film version of the 9th-century Old English epic poem starring Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and Angelina Jolie scheduled to open in November, you might assume the release of Rumford's retelling of the story was cleverly planned. You would be wrong.
Rumford's work began six years ago when a good friend suggested he do a book based on the ancient poem about the Scandinavian warrior Beowulf.
"I smiled, thinking to myself: No way. I haven't even read that dry-as-monastery-dust poem and don't intend to," Rumford said. "But my friend insisted. She even handed me a CD of Seamus Heaney reading his justpublished translation."
Rumford listened to the CD and was mesmerized. He saw the challenge as an experiment.
"I decided from the start that the illustrations had to show how multilayered the poem was, and my retelling needed to offer a glimpse into a bygone world when our language was French-less and Latin-less," Rumford said. "This last was tricky because I wanted to retell the poem using only English words that could be traced back to Anglo-Saxon, the language of the poem."
In the original, Beowulf faces three battles: one against Grendel, a social outcast, one against Grendel's mother and a final confrontation with a dragon.
"(The dragon is) going to be the destroyer of Beowulf. He's going to show Beowulf that arrogance doesn't pay," Rumford said, as he flipped through the pages. "Beowulf is going to be right-hearted and true to the end but he forgot he thought, 'I can do this all by myself.' I really wanted that emotion to come out of the book more than I wanted the gore."
Rumford said he did paint some bloody illustrations, "just to get them out of my system." But he left them in his closet.
"I really wanted my book to have that emotional feel to it, because I thought the story was told not just so that people would squeal with laughter around the fire a thousand years ago when they heard this," Rumford said. "In the end, it would be a story about a man who lived his life and had these challenges as we all have."
Rumford refers to his illustration of a thin, frail 80-year-old Beowulf preparing for battle.
"How many people do that in their lives? They will sacrifice themselves in the end, whether to take care of their grandchildren, because their children have died, or to help a friend, or for their own spouse that has Alzheimer's. They dig their own grave taking care of that other person. I wanted to show that."
"Beowulf" is a college English literature staple that has spawned reams of critical analysis and Rumford struggled to adapt it for young readers.
"I read all this commentary on it, and I came away more confused than ever," he said. "It's very difficult to understand what the poem is about. ... You have this group that thinks it's a Christian poem. This group thinks it's a pagan poem. Another group says it's an ancient poem. Is Beowulf Jesus because he has these 12 people that go with him? Or is this to make fun of Christianity?"
For Rumford, "there were only a few things that stuck in my mind that made sense to me, and one was that this is not a typical medieval story or an ancient hero story because the hero dies, and he can't overcome the final thing himself. And that doesn't work with all the other stories. And that's what fascinates people. The fact of whether it's a good poem or not, I can't say."
Rumford finished "Beowulf" in 2001, and the work took a roundabout path to publication. Initially, his editor at Houghton-Mifflin felt the story was too gory for kids. So Rumford's agent took the manuscript to Putnam Penguin and a bidding war ensued. Putnam won. But after many months, Putnam decided it didn't like the art. Houghton Mifflin made another offer and, finally, published the book.
The experiment is a success. Reviews of "Beowulf" have been glowing. The Hornbook called it "superb on all counts." A School Library Journal starred review proclaimed it "A beautiful retelling of the ancient poetic tale." The Junior Library Guild is featuring the book in their magazine, and has already purchased copies for resale to libraries.
The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has an extensive collection of medieval art, will feature Rumford's "Beowulf" in its gift shop.
"I can just imagine all of them in little yellow Met shopping bags," said Rumford, "making their way down the steps and onto Fifth Avenue."
The story mesmerized Rumford, and the illustrations he created are mesmerizing as well.