________________ CM . . . . Volume VI Number 14 . . . . March 17, 2000

cover Beowulf.

Welwyn Wilton Katz. Illustrated by Laszlo Gal.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, 1999.
63 pp., cloth, $19.95.
ISBN 0-88899-365-X.

Subject Headings:
Beowulf-Juvenile fiction.
Epic poetry, English (Old).

Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.
Review by Val Nielsen.

**** /4

Although the beginnings of the Beowulf story lie so far in the past that it is impossible to be exact about them, scholars think it is the earliest epic poem written in a modern language, perhaps dating back to the eighth century. According to Welwyn Katz's notes, Beowulf was probably sung by bards or "skalds" for at least two hundred years before it was written down in the West Saxon language. In her version of Beowulf, Katz has given young readers a vivid and exciting re-telling of this ancient story. Postulating a gift-bestowing genetic "link" in the noble Waegmunding line (one that gave Beowulf the strength of thirty men and his kinsman Aelfhere the gift of reading people's minds), she invests young Wiglaf, Aelfhere's grandson, with a supernatural gift of his own. His gift of "true seeing" entails visions of events, whether past, present or future, which come to him unbidden. Shaken by a fourth vision involving Beowulf, the boy settles down to listen to his grandfather's recounting of the bloody battle between Beowulf and Grendel and the ensuing slaying of the troll's hideous mother. "Who better than his famous kinsman to train Wiglaf to be a warrior?" thinks Aaelfhere, as he makes plans to take his grandson to visit Beowulf's mead hall. So it is that when Beowulf resolves to seek out and kill the dragon which has been wreaking havoc among his people for centuries, Wiglaf is one of the honored warriors that are allowed to accompany him, not to help him in the fight (for Beowulf is determined to vanquish the dreaded beast alone), but "...to watch only, just in case." In the terrible and deadly struggle between Beowulf and the dragon that ensues, 14-year-old Wiglaf is the only one of all the warriors who takes up his sword to fight beside the aging hero. Together, they slay the fire-breathing Wyrm, but poison from the great beast is so deep within Beowulf that he dies from his wounds, leaving Wiglaf, last of the noble Waemundings, to succeed him as king.

Katz's notion of the inheritance of supernatural gifts works wonderfully in her version of the old tale, for it enables her to tell the story through the eyes of young Wiglaf, an endearing and courageous adolescent not mentioned in other versions until the end of the tale. The author recreates the story with beauty and simplicity, achieving a tone and style reminiscent of the old Norse sagas. Bringing the drama and pathos of this thousand year old story to life are award-winning artist Laszlo Gal's magnificent paintings based on the art of the Vikings. Their dark but bold colours and sinuous line provide a stunning complement to the text.

Welwyn Katz's love of mythology has been the inspiration for other outstanding books for young people, including The Third Magic (1989 Governor General's Literary Award) and Out of the Dark (1995 Ruth Schwarz Award). In Beowulf, Katz's faith in her young readers' intelligence, combined with her ability to translate mythology into gripping stories, has given middle years readers a rare chance to enjoy a story which has echoed through literature for more than a thousand years. No school library, elementary, junior or high school, should miss acquiring this treasure.

Highly Recommended.

Val Nielsen is a retired teacher-librarian living in Winnipeg, MB.

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

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364