Sunday, February 25, 2007

Book Review : Beowulf graphic novel

"Take warning by him O Beowulf.

Wondrous it seems when Almighty God gives a man fortune and fame and a wide dominion - power over great parts of the earth, an empire so ample that he can comprehend no end to it. But it ever comes that the frame of the body fragile yields, fated falls, and there follows another who joyously thy jewel divides, the royal riches, and cares not for his predecessor.

Take thou, therefore, good head, O Beowulf, against pride and arrogance. choose the better path; profit eternal. Now, indeed, thou art in the pride of they strength and the power of they youth; but there will come of surety, sooner or later, either sickness or the sword; fire shall consume thee or the floods swallow thee up. Be it bite of the blade or brandished spear, or odious age, or the eyes' clear beam grown dull and laden.

Come in what shape it may, death will subdue even thee, thou hero of war."

This is the friendly advice given to Beowulf by King Hrothgar of Denmark. Grim though it may be, it is sound.

Gareth Hinds graphic novel adapts the classic Norse myth of the legendary warrior named "Beowulf". Originally self-published by Gareth Hinds as a series, it has been released again, by Candlewick press, as a single graphic novel, albeit with a new text which is based on a 1904 translation by A J Church.

The book follows a poetic approach rather than the use of prose and on a first glance, the text may not seem to be directly linked to the images around it. On careful inspection though, one realizes that the images tell a story by themselves, often times embellishing details that the poetic text glosses over; the details of battle, for instance. Hinds does not intrude on his visual story-telling by putting in unnecessary words - words that may take away from a reader's own comprehension of events.

Beowulf is initially shown to be god-like almost, in his stature, strength, reserve and ability to take down mighty monsters. The first part of the book builds on the legend that was the mythical Beowulf in his youth. On conquering Grendel and his troll-mother, Beowulf is showered with gifts by King Hrothgar of the Danes. Perhaps the most important "gift" given, is the advice quoted above.

Until this point, one might be led to believe that this is another story of an all-conquering hero, who with his great abilities and strength is able to perform many great deeds, but this is where Hinds' vision comes into play. We see Beowulf again, but in old age! He possesses a similar stature, but his visage is that of an old man - one who has seen a lot in his life. He is almost resigned to impending death while he sets out, again, to take on a monster/dragon that has been tormenting his people.

Interestingly, the book traces Beowulf's life in just two events, both of which are about how he deals with monsters that are troubling his friends or his people. In the first half, he is full of vigor, confidence and agility and is able to easily take on monsters at will. In the second half, though regal, he is old and doubts if he will return alive from the dragon's lair. Interestingly, while the first half is resplendent in color, the second is illustrated in grim, gray tones. Compare these images of Beowulf from the two stages of his life in the book...


The story comes full cycle with the death of Beowulf and the homage paid to him by his people. On a grim note, the story-teller who has been reciting the saga of Beowulf also forsees the end of Beowulf's people - the Geats. The Geats were people who supposedly occupied the lower half of Sweden and were either killed or driven from their homeland by the Swedes. Many claim that the Wuffing dynasty of Denmark was set up by fleeing Geats, but nothing is known for sure.

Hind storytelling style is really interesting...he is able to make us aware of the fickle nature of life using the stories of the rise and fall of even great, mythical warriors. He evokes wonder and pity for the same character by judicious use of imagery that will stay with us long after we have put down the book.

The story of Beowulf has seen numerous adaptations and is supposedly set to appear on film to be directed by Robert Zemeckis. Then there was Michael Crichton's "Eaters of the Dead"/"the 13th Warrior" which was a farcical take on the Beowulf mythology. But I find Hinds' graphic novel adaptation to be one of the best so far...


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