I remember first reading a version of Beowulf in my big brother's English Literature textbook that he'd brought home from school when I was 10 or 11. A stoic hero battling man-eating monsters and dragons: what's not to love? Some years later—I think I was 16—I read John Gardner's novel, Grendel, which took a decidedly different take on the epic poem—and loved it, too, for entirely different reasons.
It's easy to see that Beowulf is an influence on virtually all heroic fantasy fiction, from Conan the Cimmerian to The Lord of the Rings to A Song of Ice and Fire and everything in between and beyond. If you are unfamiliar with the story, well, you can check out the Wikipedia entry for some basics. There have been all manner of adaptations and reinterpretations in art, literature, games, and film through the years some better (much better) than others—and there are now plans for a TV series, undoubtedly inspired by the popularity of HBO's Game of Thrones and the History Channel's Vikings—but I have my own personal artistic favorite.
Above: A pair of Lynd Ward's unique illustrations for the 1939 Heritage Press edition of Beowulf.
Above: Michael Leonard's knock-out cover for the John Gardner novel which retells the story from the antihero-monster's viewpoint. "Grendel's had an accident. So may you all."
Above: Ricardo Villamonte's cover for DC's 1975 short-lived (6 issues) series. It was…a mess; a stinker and a half in which Beowulf meets Chariots of the Gods-style aliens (a hot property in the mid-1970s) and Grendel kills Satan (to spite Dracula) and becomes master of Hell. DC's Beowulf has shown up in some recent comics…but it ain't the Beowulf, no matter how much you squint.
Above: John Howe provided a series of beautiful paintings and drawings for
Beowulf: A tale of Blood, Heat, and Ashes in 2007. He had also illustrated the poem years earlier for an edition of the Time-Life Enchanted World series.
Above: Gaaaa. Robert Zemeckis directed a motion-capture animated film adaptation in 2008 and I put it on par with the DC comic. Not even a script co-written by Neil Gaiman and Angelina Jolie as Grendel's stiletto-heeled (literally) mother could save it.
Above: J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Beowulf was his life's work, perhaps dearer intellectually to him than his own fiction. The translation was finally published last year.
Above: Justin Gerard captures the epic battle between Beowulf and Grendel in Heorot's Hall.
Damn, I love this piece.
And that artistic favorite is?
Justin Gerard's illustrations for Beowulf: Grendel the Ghastly, a children's book adaptation by Michelle L. Szobody published in 2008 by Portland Studios. Justin's art is, in a word, stunning.
There's a soft, earthen quality to the works, evoking both myth and melancholy. Justin depicts King Hrothgar's realm as a land of blue and grey shades, one that the monster Grendel stalks in shadows until he emerges in the torchlit battle with Beowulf (shown above). Justin really out-did himself with the illustrations for this beautifully designed book—Cory Godbey adds icing to the cake with a time-worn map—and I would encourage everyone to track down a copy.
But I do have one problem. Look at the cover starting off this post: what's it say? Right there beneath the title? See it?
Beowulf: Grendel the Ghastly ends with the tease, "Then from foggy shadows a sea witch came skulking. Grendel's mother moved through the fields, moaning with mourning. She sought revenge for the death of her son." Followed by BEOWULF, BOOK TWO—THE MONSTER'S MOTHER and Coming Soon.
So here is my message to Justin: What the hell?
"Coming Soon," Gerard: "COMING S-O-O-N!"
That's a promise, a contract, a blood oath, a…a...pinky swear, goddamit. Oh, sure, you move, get hitched, wander around Europe exploring castles and local folk and goats, do commissions based on The Lord of the Rings for patrons (really nice they are, too), teach art, gear up to judge Spectrum 22 this coming weekend...and we won't even mention the whole "Bun Hur" episode. Blah blah blah, all very nice. Oh, certainly, I'm happy for your continued success and equally happy about your and Annie's marriage—but I'm going to avoid getting mushy here and take a hard line.
The sea witch has been skulking for 7 years! And I want Book Two. I want to see Grendel's mother's assault on the Hall, the battle beneath the lake, the magic sword, "Hrothgar's Sermon."
Followed by Book Three (presumably based on Beowulf's climactic fight with the dragon).
You hear me, MISTER Gerard? I'm waiting.