“ … there will come of a surety, sooner or later, either sickness or the sword; fire shall consume you or the floods swallow you up. Be it bite of blade or brandished spear, or odious age, or the eyes’ clear beam grown dull and leaden. Come in what shape it may, death will subdue even you, you hero of war.” – King Hrothgar to Beowulf [featuring my liberally substituted ‘yous’ for ‘thous’].
Just before I ventured into the Disconnect, I emptied my ship of its weight: I threw slag to the roil, some else to my barrow for when I return; I took but books and clothes, one of which I’d thought lost once in the sty and I happened to find after I’d rid of the rest: my comic – nay, graphic novel – adaptation of Beowulf! Drawn and written by Gareth Hinds, my copy was bought on impulse from the children’s section. Since, I’ve flipped through it a number of times, but always somewhat whimsically without the weathered eye.
I honor Beowulf; I am fascinated with him and it. I suffer Englisc to read aloud Hwaet!, We gar-dena in geardagum, þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon, hu ða aeþelingas ellen fremedon! and snort and snarl and war-trill my R’s. There is no other barrow in Geatland (southern Sweden) than their doom-gloried champion’s. So, when I saw it in the children’s section – which was then as is now peculiar, given how outright graphic and gorriffic Hinds’ paintings – I couldn’t resist, even if I was there to belatedly give Rowling’s First a try.
And his vision is spot-on. Every panel is meticulously detailed, including FUTHARC chiseled into the wood-paneling of Heorot, to the marrow tufts in broken bone. Battles toil epically through multiple pages with neither narration nor dialogue, and – most impressively, to me – there is never a nighttime sky lacking constellations.
Through art I can think of no better way to communicate the rife, pervasive otherworld of the Old World War-Ethic: the fixed (albeit chaotic) bigger-picture against which all life and quarrel and joy in the impermanent foreground is foreplay. Hinds never draws attention to it. Characters never speak of anything much beyond the plot-at-present, and “God” in their speech is as hollow as “the” – much as it is in any Beowulf, manuscript or adaptation, other than Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman’s script-to-the-Zemeckis’s-movie that wonderfully portrays the startling pre-Christian orature penned by a monk-scribe as Hrothgar’s world in cultural transition. Instead, you see in the art the importance of story-keeping and -making etched into the heavens.
That is to say, the visuals drive Beowulf this time around. Hinds begins
For this edition, the author and editors have prepared a new text, based on the translation b A. J. Church published by Seeley & Co. in 1904. This is a colloquial translation, and we have attempted to strike a balance between easy readability and the poetic drama found in our favorite verse translations (particularly that of Francis Gummere, which appeared in the original, self-published edition of this book).
meaning the dialogue and narrative is occasionally stilted, what with the artificially archaic (and pretty darn out of place) “thees” and “thous” and “thys” – especially in bizarre sentences any Dane would blush at, like Art thou that Beowulf who contended with Breca in swimming on the open sea? ‘Twas indeed foolhardy. Guffaw.
And somewhat relatedly, while the book is certainly pretty fat, I’d wager that all the dialogue and narrative might be collected in a few panels. The consequent problem is that it tells only the cursory Sparknotes plot, which – as they say with Jane Austen that you just can’t read for ‘plot’ because you’ll always end up with a wedding – makes Beowulf rather hollow. Of course, now every Beowulf-that-has-been and Beowulf-yet-to-come must stand against the downright almost-perfect Zemeckis adaptation and the Heaney translation, both of which are thick with emotion and the raw between-the-lines stuff that’s mana for any twenty-first century reader.