Isle author's 'Beowulf' is magical
"Beowulf, A Hero's Tale Retold,"
by James Rumford (Houghton Mifflin, 48 pages, $17)
I FELL IN love with "Beowulf," the oldest surviving hero tale of England, years ago in high school. So when I heard it was the topic of Hawaii author/illustrator James Rumford's new book, I had to get a copy. It did not disappoint. The back cover says it's for "Ages: Strong-hearted and up," and this classic tale of good over evil has enough action, gore and tragedy to satisfy the most bloodthirsty reader.
Beowulf sails out of Anglo-Saxon England to rescue the Danes, first from a man-eating ogre, Grendel, and then from Grendel's mother, "she-who-brought-evil-into-this-world." Much later, when Beowulf is old and growing feeble, he is mortally wounded fighting a dragon but is still able to save his homeland.
The story's origins are lost in the ancient mists, and Rumford really dug to find what he hopes is an authentic version, sorting through the many interpretations of the past couple hundred years. Some commentators see it as a missionary story to bring Christianity from England to Denmark, with Beowulf's death at the end symbolizing Christ's sacrifice. Others see it as a cautionary or morality tale, showing how good deeds and valor will be rewarded. Rumford puts enough clues in his artwork (Norse gods, Christian apostles, the monk on the opening page) to satisfy both camps.
To give an extra layer of authenticity, he opted to tell the tale almost entirely in Anglo-Saxon words we still use today, painstakingly researching the origin of each word. The result is a magical story with the musical sound of the heroic: "Grendel roared and writhed and wrestled to free himself from Beowulf's locklike grip"; or the queen's speech: "Your name, Beowulf, will be known far and wide, taken by the wind and borne by the sea.
"Blessings upon you!"; or the description, "When sleep was at its deepest, night at its blackest, up from the mist-filled marsh came Grendel stalking." Spine-tingling!
Many of Rumford's books have received national awards, and this one seems well on its way. It already has a starred review from the children's literary guide Horn Book, and is mentioned in the School Library Journal. In recognition of his superior artwork, the book is being sold at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Adding to the book's timeliness: A film adaptation of the "Beowulf" story is due in November, with Angelina Jolie playing Grendel's mother. Now that will be something to watch for!
Rumford is finishing a book about an Iraqi boy who likes calligraphy, "Silent Music," and a second book about a giraffe that left Africa to join the menagerie of a Chinese emperor.
You probably know his early Hawaiian voyaging story, "The Island-Below-the-Star." Check out his other books. Each has a unique story and art style. You'll be enchanted.
Elaine Masters is a writing coach with 16 published books. Her newest is "Momi's Birthday Surprise." Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org