The Hero Beowulf

written by Eric Kimmel
illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher

Eric A. Kimmel's The Hero Beowulf

Book review by Monica Friedman

Ages 8-12

The Classic Old English Epic of Hero and Monster, Retold for Children

The epic poem of Beowulf is among the oldest surviving manuscripts in English, but it tells a story that still resonates with modern readers. Beowulf is the quintessential hero, stronger than any man, and nobler as well. The story comes from a time when heroes were drawn without flaws, godly creatures always willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of others.

Review - The Hero Beowulf

This beautiful and faithful version of Beowulf remains true to the spirit and words of the original, while creating an accessible story, accompanied by powerful (but mostly bloodless) illustrations. It covers the first third of the manuscript, beginning with Beowulf’s deeds as a child and ending with the celebration that follows his slaughter of the monster Grendel.

This is perhaps a little disappointing, but it is still a children’s book. The death of Grendel’s mother and the brave and heroic death of the old Beowulf might not translate well into this medium.

What the book includes is handled skillfully. The story opens with ten-year-old Beowulf killing a nest of trolls, leading swiftly to his encounter with the sea serpents. This comprises the first two illustrations, and the image of five massive monsters looming over the beleaguered ship is a fast way to draw children into the story.

Above all, this is a story about courage. Beowulf never hesitates to defend others from the evil of the world.

Upon confrontation with the sea serpents, while the other sailors begin “crying to the gods,” Beowulf “did not wait for the gods to answer. He slipped a dagger between his teeth,” and then jumps overboard.

When his lord, King Hygelac, tells him about the terror the “savage monster” Grendel has wreaked on the kingdom of King Hrothgar, he announces, “I will drive this foul creature Grendel from Heorot Hall or die in the attempt.”

More to the point, although Grendel has already killed every man who challenged him, and many who haven’t, Beowulf removes his weapons and armor and announces, “Since Grendel uses neither sword nor shield, neither shall I. Let no one say that I had an unfair advantage over him.” Then he calls out over the marshes his challenge to Grendel, a “fight to the death.”

Review - The Hero Beowulf

Fear has a different meaning in a world where fate is predestined. Beowulf is born a hero and accepts his responsibilities in life, and his inevitable outcome. “Why should I fear?” he asks. “If I am fated to win, then Grendel cannot defeat me. If I am fated to lose, then it has been my destiny since the day I was born.” And yet readers may not feel the same bravery when they see the hideous green thing that rises up from the marsh, a slimy, claw-handed monster with jagged, broken teeth and green skin.

One of the most enduring aspects of this story has always been the satisfying conclusion of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, and The Hero Beowulf does not disappoint. The image of the hero ripping the monster’s arm right out of his shoulder is an appropriate finish to the timeless battle. For fans of monster and heroes, epic battles, or the old tales, this is a satisfying work of literature, full of power and emotion, strength and commitment.

Read more of Monica's reviews.

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