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23.03.01 Gilchrist/Mize (eds.), Beowulf as Children’s Literature

23.03.01 Gilchrist/Mize (eds.), Beowulf as Children’s Literature

Bruce Gilchrist and Britt Mize’s essay collection is an outgrowth of a symposium at Texas A&M in September 2016, part of a larger project titled “Beowulf’s Afterlives.” Their focus on children’s literature is a welcome addition to the growing conversation about medievalism and its cultural implications in modern times, including our contemporary moment.

Mize’s introduction contextualizes the collection by noting that “the single largest category of Beowulf representation and adaptation, outside of direct translation of the poem into modern languages, is children’s literature” (3)--and makes the important point that all adaptations and versions are necessarily ideological in the choices the authors and illustrators make in their processes.

Mize also refers to the ongoing reckoning around racism in the field of early medieval English studies, noting that the editors were finalizing the collection when the organization formerly known as the International Society for Anglo-Saxonists (now the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England) voted to change its name in the fall of 2019 (pp.16-17, n.15). [1] Mize discusses “the long entanglement of medieval studies as a discipline...with histories of personal and institutional racism,” relating that entanglement to the collection’s focus on children’s literature and pointing out that even “recent books are not devoid of racially loaded assertions to child readers that Beowulf represents their own people’s heritage--meaning the heritage of white English or Northern European people, extended to other regions through colonial settlement” (7).

Most of the essays similarly cite or gesture towards Anna Smol’s important 1994 essay, “Heroic Ideology and the Children’s Beowulf” (Children’s Literature 22 (1994): 90-100); Carl Edlund Anderson adeptly summarizes its main point: “most children’s adaptations of Beowulf up to the early twentieth century presented the tale with a decidedly traditional moral and didactic slant: the hero is strong, brave, and self-sacrificing, a defender of civilization, a supporter of kings and eventually a king himself, ostensibly demonstrating the innate superiority of the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’ from its earliest times” (113). Many of the essays also address gender stereotyping in addition to issues of racial and national identity in children’s literature more generally and in Beowulf versions more specifically.

The collection ends with a transcript of Mize’s conversation with Beowulf-adaptors Rebecca Barnhouse and James Rumford, followed by a thorough bibliography by Bruce Gilchrist of children’s versions of Beowulf. The transcript, of a session from the 2016 symposium, includes engaging insight into the authors’ wrestling with issues of fidelity to the original text; Barnhouse remarks that “a lot of times I had to remind myself that a novel and an Old English poem are not the same thing” (268).

The essays between these bookends progress largely chronologically through the vast corpus of Beowulf for children, and all of them are weakened by the collection’s lack of accompanying images. Since children’s literature is inherently visual as well as textual, most of the essays discuss details of illustrations; most of those illustrations are not reproduced. Even Gilchrist’s essay, with 19 images (the rest have 0-3 images), does not provide enough visual information to follow his argument easily. For almost all of the essays, I found myself googling illustrators’ websites, searching the Internet Archive, and using various “look inside” functions on commercial sites to try to find visual references. It is very difficult to engage thoroughly with the fine analysis in this collection because of this flaw. Issues with production costs at an academic press must have driven this lack of illustrations, and I am sympathetic to those issues. Nevertheless, it is very clear to me that this problem with this one essay collection should spur an important--and indeed already extant-- discussion in the field and in culture at large about user-friendly presentation of visual analysis. While I definitely recommend this book to colleagues, it is with the caveat that they will need to read it with many tabs open.

Please note as well that the chapters are listed in incorrect order on the University of Toronto Press website (accessed 19 Dec 2022). They are discussed here in the order they appear in the printed edition.

The chronology of Beowulf for children starts with N. F. S. Grundtvig’s 1820 Danish Bjowulfs Drape; Mark Bradshaw Busbee analyzes this text’s growing popularity over the course of the nineteenth century and its integration into the school curricula of Denmark. Renée Ward then provides an amazing reclamation of a nineteenth-century female author who has basically disappeared from view--Ward identifies a section of E[Leanora] L[ouisa] Hervey’s 1873Children of the Pear-Garden as the earliest Beowulf for children in English. Ward also provides excellent analysis of the orientalism of Hervey’s narrative framing device.

Moving to the twentieth century, Amber Dunai analyzes three Beowulf-inspired texts by J. R. R. Tolkien to “represent [Tolkien’s] developing interest in the folklore elements of Beowulf over approximately one decade” (86); that interest culminates in the early 1940s “Sellic Spell” as “a kind of prehistoric Bildungsroman” (100). Carl Edlund Anderson sees a mid-twentieth-century trajectory of children’s Beowulfs to move from the “didactic and moralizing tones” of earlier versions to “freer, more personal artistic treatments” (111); Anderson’s fine readings focus on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1961 Dragonslayer (a version of Beowulf) and 1956 The Shield Ring (which uses elements of Beowulf to tell a separate story) as exemplars.

Bruce Gilchrist’s “Visualizing Femininity in Children’s and Illustrated Versions of Beowulf” provides an engaging historical survey of illustrations of the poem’s female characters, with an understandable privileging of Wealhtheow and Grendel’s Mother. Gilchrist examines composition and presentation of the female figures to show that “each new adaptation also tends to perform an idealization of femininity reflective of its own era and context of production” (132). Gilchrist also convincingly delineates the growing illustrated monstrosity of Grendel’s Mother, who is presented as progressively more reptilian, more aquatic, and less human-like throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. His dispiriting but effective conclusion sees “overall a loss of human female presence and authority in the illustration history of the poem, and a concomitant unpleasant gain in the aberrant monstrosity of Grendel’s mother” (132).

Like Gilchrist, Janet Schrunk Ericksen uses a broad chronological sweep as she analyzes point of view in children’s versions of the fight between Grendel’s Mother and Beowulf. While the Old English poem occasionally veers towards Grendel’s Mother’s “focalization” (Ericksen’s term), children’s versions, in both text and illustration, tend to “restrict or redirect the horror evident in the Old English poem and utilize Beowulf’s perspective to offer a distinctive comment on or definition of heroism” (176), usually to encourage “sympathy with a hesitant or thoughtful aspect of his heroic character” (178).

Britt Mize’s contribution takes us much further afield, geographically, in his description and investigation of a 2011 Mandarin version of Beowulf, which he presents transliterated into the Latin alphabet as Bèi’àowǔfǔ. Merely the existence of a Beowulf for young Chinese people is a revelation, even more so as Mize informs us that its purpose is “to provide a foundation for understanding modern Western literature and culture” (192) for its readers. Mize enumerates some of the changes, often in nuance or focus, from the Old English poem; the most startling of these is the “mass suicide of the faithless retainers” (193) at the end. Mize makes the compelling argument that the Chinese adaptors have substantiated “what is in Beowulf only a hypothetical alternative” for the cowards to choose death over lives with shame (213).

Robert Stanton’s “The Monsters and the Animals: Theriocentric Beowulfs” is an analysis of versions of Beowulf that present some of the characters as animals instead of humans (note that “theriocentric” appears in neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor Merriam-Webster, so this animal-studies term is either very cutting-edge or failing to gain traction). Stanton rightly alludes to the problem of “the blurred categories of human, animal, and monster in the original poem” (222) in such an analysis. Millennials of a certain age (and perhaps their parents!) will find entertainment in Stanton’s reading of the Wishbone PBS dog as a dog-Beowulf for the younger set. Stanton attempts too much in this short essay, with comments touching on Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Rumford’s Beo-Bunny, and Beard’s “Grendel’s Dog, from Beocat.” Some of these texts arguably do not fit the criteria of “children’s literature” at all and Rumford’s Beo-Bunny is a self-published project held by only one library in the entire world (it is composed in “Neo-Old English” with modern English “translation” provided as well).

Speaking of Millennials, Yvette Kisor defines a “new Tolkien generation” as “the generation of youth in the first decade of the millennium whose pop-culture and literary sensibilities are formed partly by high-tech CGI-enhanced filmic versions of fantasy books, like the Harry Potter series and especially Jackson’s movies of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings” (243). She provides a thought-provoking review essay of three illustrated versions of Beowulf (Raven and Howe, Morpurgo and Foreman, Szobody and Gerard), stating that “All of these texts have one foot in the medieval--especially as refracted through Tolkien--and one foot in the straightforwardly contemporary as they utilize both story and image to satisfy an appetite for the medieval, the ancient, the distant, while at the same time appealing to modern sensibilities” (244). Of all the essays in this collection, Kisor’s fine analysis is most marred by the lack of accompanying illustration, as she discusses in detail the ways that the illustrators and marketers of these Beowulfs specifically alluded to Jackson’s films.

Despite the lack of illustrations, this collection makes important points about the ways that Beowulf has functioned as children’s literature in the last 200 years. As medievalists engage ever more deeply with modern medievalism, we will need to find a way to work with visual and textual artifacts in ways that are thorough, accessible, and user-friendly. How can we easily reference well-reproduced images, respect copyright, and keep presses’ and readers’ costs reasonable? In addition to other compelling questions, Beowulf as Children’s Literature presents us with this confounding more general problem.



1. For readers of TMR not familiar with these and related events, see Mary Rambaran-Olm and Erik Wade, “What’s in a Name? Past and Present Racism in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Studies,” Yearbook of English Studies 52 (2022): 135-153.