________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 4 . . . . October 12, 2007



Welwyn Wilton Katz. Illustrated by Laszlo Gal.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi Press, 2007.
96 pp., cloth, $17.95.
ISBN 978-0-88899-807-1.

Subject Heading:

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Gregory Bryan.

*** /4

Reviewed from f&g’s.


I saw what Beowulf had to endure in the underwater hell he had now entered. Sea serpents and nicors attacked him from every side, yet he was not afraid. He killed them all without taking a single injury himself. I lost track of time except to note that the sun had come to noon and passed it and still he fought in that underwater murk of monsters.

One of the big movies of the year is likely to be Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, starring Ray Winstone in the title role and big name stars, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. The film is not yet rated, but one expects it is likely to generate interest amongst a wide variety of theatregoers. No doubt in order to benefit from the interest the movie will create; Groundwood Books has wisely decided to re-issue their 1999 publication of Beowulf. Written by Welwyn Wilton Katz and illustrated by the now deceased Laszlo Gal, middle school readers, no doubt, will be keen to pick up a copy of the re-issue.

     The epic story of Beowulf apparently dates back to around 500 A.D. and is considered one of the most famous pieces of Old English literature. The story was likely sung by bards or “skalds” for centuries before it was first written down. In Katz’s retelling, including a two-page closing author’s note, the book is 96 pages in length. The first half of the book is primarily told through the voce of Aelfhere, the skald. The aged Aelfhere, speaking with his grandson, Wiglaf, relates the heroic deeds of Beowulf. Aelfhere tells of Beowulf engaging in a swimming contest with Brecca whilst fully armoured. Later, Beowulf defeats the fearsome beast, Grendel. Grendel’s mother then turns her wrath upon Beowulf but the heroic Beowulf prevails again. In the second half of the book, the narrative switches to the third-person, when Aelfhere takes Wiglaf to meet Beowulf.

     The unfamiliar names of characters and places may prove troublesome for some young readers; however, such things seem not to have restricted the popularity of fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series of books. In Katz’s version of events, Aelfhere has been endowed with the Gift of being able to read people’s minds, whilst Wiglaf has the Gift of “true seeing,” allowing him to see events of the past, present or future.

     Included within Beowulf are 25 full page, full colour illustrations by Laszlo Gal. Although Groundwood is promoting the illustrations as being reminiscent of those from an illuminated manuscript, the illustrations did not strike me in this manner. I concede that the irregular borders of the artwork are interesting. The mix of dark and of colour is also evocative, however, despite the fabled subject matter, I suspect that young readers would have preferred artwork seemingly more realistic.

     Parts of Katz’s retelling are wonderfully well written. I particularly enjoyed the almost sympathetic manner in which she described the aging Beowulf toward the book’s end. “Beowulf was thinner and grayer and more lined than Wiglaf had seen him in his dreams but still quite muscular and erect.” Then, a few pages further on, Aelfhere says to Beowulf, “You have fought trolls weaponless and won; you have crushed enemies on the battlefield by your grip alone; you have swum league upon league weighed down by armor and weapons. You have nothing left to prove, Beowulf. And now you are old--.” There is a dignity in the way that Katz has Beowulf carry himself, despite the ravages of years and of conflicts.

     Katz’s Beowulf is well written and provides an accessible avenue for young readers to explore the heroic deeds of the legendary Beowulf. Although I do not rate the book quite so highly as when Val Nielsen reviewed the original Katz edition, I agree that this is a book that middle school readers should read.


Gregory Bryan teaches children’s literature in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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