If you don’t know the story of Beowulf by now, I have no sympathy — as a freshman at university, I had to read it in Old English. This version, adapted by Gareth Hinds, uses the 1904 translation by A. J. Church — a vernacular rendering, concise and eminently readable. Hinds has also done the graphic work in what is one of the most beautiful graphic novels I’ve seen in a long time.
So, there is not much to say about the story. It just is, and Hinds made absolutely the correct choice on which translation to use. In the original, self-published version, he had used a verse translation by Francis Gummere. However, in the format of a graphic novel, a verse translation would prove awkward. As uninflected as the text of Beowulf is, there is still that aura of what happens around the words that in a graphic presentation would be superfluous.
The illustrations are magical. They occupy a territory that moves between dream and reality with never a hitch. The opening illustration beautifully reflects the brief story of King Scyld and his death and burial at sea as something that happened long ago: a sense of fog, a sense of unreality, a sense of a distant, distant past all encapsulated in one ethereal drawing. The book then moves to the style that relates most of the story: clear, detailed, stylized but also maintaining a high degree of realism, highly worked, giving the feel of an early woodcut and a cinematic treatment.
This last is something that deserves — even requires — elaboration. A graphic novel, that grown-up descendant of the comic books of my childhood, is really a small, polished storyboard, and I think any medium that presents a narrative in both text and image is going to have to take that into account. Hinds has worked with both long shots and close-ups, if I may use that terminology (and I’m going to), and done something that is possible in a graphic novel but not in a movie: the combinations he has chosen for individual pages give a wealth of images around the main action that brings the story vividly to life in what would be on camera a long shot. In the scenes of Beowulf’s first entry and “interview” with Hrothgar, for example, there are small cameos — close-ups — of the minor characters going about their business — eating, drinking, serving, watching the conversation, that fill in what would be a large scene in a film, with much of this subsidiary action lost unless the camera cut to reaction shots. Here, it is not only presented clearly but does not chop up the flow and remains intimate in scale. The illustrations are largely monochrome — mostly in browns and grays, sometimes in blues and greens in Book I. Even in Book II, the section dealing with Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, which is done largely in a russet palette, the one color that is conspicuous by its almost total absence is red, of that particularly violent sort that generally inhabits graphic novels displaying this level of bloodshed. Hinds moves to a largely gray and white palette for the final book, Beowulf’s battle with the dragon after his long and successful reign as king of the Geats.
(Another touch that I enjoyed particularly — in the night scenes with a sky backdrop, Hinds has used a map of the constellations, with their names, in a blue verging on purple that is the perfect contrast to the browns and grays of the main action.)
I’ve been through a number of graphic novels lately, ranging from adaptations of classics to retellings of venerable fantasy stories, and this one is simply one of the best: the text is clear, the illustrations beautifully conceived and rendered, and the overall treatment extraordinarily intelligent and sensitive. Two thumbs up.
(Candlewick Press, 2007)