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“You enter the extraordinary by way of the ordinary.” ~Frederick Buechner

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Overview Voice: Point of View Case Study with Beowulf

Workshop: An Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults


This is one of the oldest written legends still being explored, perhaps not with the same intensity as Cinderella, but also is known just because of its name. The following three authors kept to the truth of the legend itself, but at the same time approached it from a different story within the legend.

They tell the age-old tale of Beowulf using the same content, almost word for word in the description of Beowulf’s battles with Grendel, and his mother, yet by their style, they depict three different heroes in the person of Beowulf himself.

Rosemary Sutcliff tells her version of Beowulf in prose, but retains the poetic language throughout.  She uses the age-old story opening, ‘once upon a time’, to hook her readers to the tale in Beowulf. 

“In the great hall of Hygelac, King of the Geats, supper was over and the mead horns going round …..And their Captain sat in the Guest Seat that faced the High Seat of the King, midway up the hall, and told the news of the coasts and islands and the northern seas.”

By beginning the tale through a narrator, she sets up a mystery. “And he drank deep from the mead horn as it was handed to him, and shook his head, and waited to be asked why.” 

Without losing the poetic sense, Sutcliff gives background to Beowulf himself. “To the other men in Hygelac’s hall that night the seafarer’s story had been no more than a far-off tale, though one to raise the neck-hair and set one glancing into the shadows; but to Beowulf it was word of a friend in dire trouble, and an old debt waiting to be paid.”  

She begins the poem by setting it in an historical content before the legend, establishing tone, setting, character, and conflict.  Her style adds poignancy to Beowulf’s heroism, by giving the readers a sense of his character before we see him as the warrior. He is both heart and duty bound to commit aid.

In Beowulf the Warrior, by Ian Serraillier, the story begins with the description of Heorot, the huge hall, and the night Grendel first attacked, setting a scene of terror.  Serraillier retains the poetic form of the story and heightens the tension by focusing on visual images.

             “A hideous monster lurked, fiend from hell,
                        Misbegotten son of a foul mother,
                        Grendel his name,…
                        He, one night, when the warriors of Hrothgar lay
                        Slumbering after banquet, came to Heorot,
                        Broke down the door, seized in his fell grip
                        A score and more of sleeping sons of men
                        And carried them home for meat.”

By setting the story with a larger-than-life threat, the author prepares for the arrival of a larger-than-life hero in Beowulf. He comes with warriors, but fights both Grendel and mother alone, since no one else is strong enough to overpower them.  He is a hero of immense abilities.

Robert Nye, in Beowulf A New Telling, uses prose and begins his story with the legend behind the first king of the Danes, Scyld Scefing, a giant man, whose descendant is Hrothgar who builds Heorot. 

“Hrothgar had a backbone that would bend to no man.” 

Hrothgar grimly takes on the battle against Grendel, almost losing his own life. It is these battles that the poets spread wherever they go, one of which is told in the court of Hygelac, king of the Geats, uncle of Beowulf.

Nye goes on to describe Beowulf as young, below average height, disproportionate body, and weak eyes. “He had been badly stung by bees as a boy.” Beowulf had made the best of all he had, putting each imperfection to work in the service of his integrity. Thus, his real strength lay in the balance of his person—which is, perhaps, another way of saying “that he was strong because he was good, and good because he had the strength to accept things in him that were bad.” 

In this version it is Beowulf’s wits and inner sight that prevail. In the finale Beowulf uses bees to stop the dragon, leaving the reader with a sense of humorous irony. As he dies Beowulf gives his own instructions:  “Tell them what you like, the ones out there, but remember the world will need to be a little older before it understands this last exploit of Beowulf. Yes, and all the others too! Meanwhile, it must have an ordinary kind of hero to believe in. Make sure you give them that, Wiglaf.’”

Each version by each author gives the same exploits of Beowulf, but with a different kind of hero in each. One is a hero of dedication and compassion, one almost superhuman—seemingly invincible, and one an ordinary man, who recognizes his own strengths and weaknesses. Each hero is brought to life by the author’s style, choice of their story, and of their curiosity into the legend.

Action Steps:

            In what ways do you think the authors’ decisions re voice and point of view contributed to their individual styles?

Share: Which version interested you the most? Why?

                                                             Read deep, marcy

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