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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Wealtheow – Ashley Crownover

Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf
Ashley Crownover
Iroquois Press, 2008
208 pages

I admit that I’m rather jaded against the “feminist revision” of numerous traditional tales. I enjoyed MZB’s Mists of Avalon way back when, but got tired of the “Women are always good” vibe I got after a while (as well as the Avalonian-Goddess-worship-is-historical movement that also rose up in response to the novels). And I continue to see rather awkward, “GIRL POWER!” reworkings of various stories and themes, including in fantasy lit.

Wealtheow manages to avoid the cliched pitfalls while maintaining a unique perspective on the story of Beowulf. The story centers on Hrothgar’s wife, Wealtheow, from the time of their marriage through Grendel’s siege and on into Beowulf’s arrival. Rather than presenting a simpering maiden or a GODDESS! worshipper, Crownover gives us a Wealtheow who is dedicated to her people (both those she grew up among, and those she married into), as well as to the sanctity of the land. Though she shows strength of character, this is no Mary Sue; not everything is perfect for her. And the devastating secret that brings about the creation of Grendel becomes a burden only she can truly carry. And I like how the story doesn’t turn into “Women are always good, men are the bad guys” dualism; Grendel’s mother has a surprising origin in this tale!

This is a very quick read; I finished it in a day, and it would be a good book to take on a plane trip. It’s well-written, though. I had no trouble remembering which character was which, and she manages to tell a relatively short story without using cardboard characters. She weaves the traditional tale of Beowulf with her own embellishments that are believable and blend well with the original. I can’t speak to the historical accuracy, so I can’t guarantee that modern heathens won’t be having similar wincing moments that other pagans had in response to the Avalon books. However, the descriptions of Danish culture and religion didn’t strike me as nearly as fanciful as some other modern revisionist tales, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying the tale rather than groaning in pain from some poorly executed “update” or “improvement”.

Overall, this is a great debut novel, and I very much look forward to more from this author.

Five pawprints out of five

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