The Saga of Beowulf by R. Scot Johns

The Saga of Beowulf
R. Scot Johns
Fantasy Castle Publications, 2008
632 pages

I enjoy creative retellings of older tales–and Beowulf is one of my favorites. Having enjoyed Wealtheow by Ashley Crownover, I was curious as to what angle R. Scot Johns would take with his Saga of Beowulf. It’s a very different retelling, yet one that I still enjoyed a great deal. The original tale of Beowulf serves as a basic outline for this richly developed story; all the elements are there, woven into a thick tapestry of prose. I’ve read some retellings of myths and legends that took entirely too many liberties with the material–this isn’t one of those.

Johns has done a remarkable job of essentially writing a good piece of historical fiction. He’s done research on the cultures contemporary to the original Beowulf–Danes, Geats, and others, exploring the interrelationships among these peoples to a great degree. This gives the story a lot more context, and fleshes it out nicely. Similarly, his characterization remains true to the original legend, but gives the characters a lot more dimension. I enjoyed how realistically they interacted with each other while dealing not only with Grendel, but with intercultural politics and disputes, and all-too-human interpersonal relationships and concerns. The troubles with Grendel, his mother, and the dragon are just one of several threads of story throughout this read.

Johns is a very detail-oriented writer; he takes four paragraphs what other writers might describe in a quarter of that space. This sometimes works to his advantage in giving a solid foundation to his story. Unfortunately, there are also places where the descriptions are too wordy, and the story drags to the point where I started skimming just to get to the next conversation or event. This is pretty much my only complaint with the book overall–for the most part I found myself immersed in the book enough that I managed to finish it a lot faster than I expected (which gave me a nice break from schoolwork!).

This is an awesome book if you want a good, solid read that will last longer than a single plane flight, but will keep your attention even through 600+ pages. Whether you take it as a retelling of Beowulf and are interested in how true it remains to that tale, or whether you approach it as its own unique work, there’s a lot to like here.

Five pawprints out of five.

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