I have a confession: I never read Beowulf in high school. Or college. I read Canterbury Tales more times than I can count (yet only remember a handful of the stories). I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ad nauseum – and I like that story. But no Beowulf. How did I miss it?
I’ll tell you how, we tried to cram so much into such a short amount of time. We spent hours and hours in school, but spent very little time actually studying. Somewhere along the way, Beowulf was lost to me. I’m not sure if I was ever really exposed to it or not. It might have been something I breezed through in a Norton Anthology and regurgitated the next day for a pop quiz, only to be quickly forgotten. I couldn’t tell you. I only know that I had a vague idea that it was an epic poem involving something named Grendel when I began working at a bookstore as an adult. Even then, I couldn’t tell you if Grendel was the monster or the man.
As we began our Middle Ages/ Early Ren. (450 AD to 1600 AD) year while classically homeschooling, it dawned on me that this was the year for Beowulf. I had already read the picture book by Eric A. Kimmel to kiddo when she was a wee one, but I’m sure she was so tiny she had fallen asleep; now was the time to embrace the story.
And we did. I read her the picture book shortly before my trip to Atlanta. It fit right in with all the Celtic and Norse mythology we’ve been reading to bridge the gap between the ancient times and our exciting year ahead. “What a guy! He tore off the monster’s arm! I can’t even do that,” she exclaimed. She was very pleased that this particular picture book could give the story in “one-sitting, all today” as opposed to the stories of Odysseus and Troy which all took weeks of chapter by chapter to finish. I foresee reading this again and again over the coming months, she loved the story so much; I have to admit, I did too.
I liked it even more when I discovered there was a cartoon made in 1998 starring Joseph Fiennes as the voice of Beowulf – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKjcoFZmKuA. We got to watch that and call it school. It was a lot of fun. (There’s one for Don Quixote we’ll be watching next year when we make it into the 1700s.)
Naturally, I was curious as to the accuracy of these versions. I won’t ever truly know, because everything is a translation, but I thought I’d give an adult version a go. There’s so many versions out there, I think I’ll just try a different one every Middle Ages cycle. So I took the Constance B. Hieatt version with me to Atlanta and enjoyed it immensely, especially the little extras at the end.
The kiddo, of course, keeps asking me why we are using “fake stories as lesson books, they aren’t real stories mother!” I keep telling her, very ineloquently, that these stories help us understand the people who told them. Read them to her as bedtime stories and naturally she’s thrilled at the excitement of them.
We’ll collect more versions over the years and by the time she is grown she will know the story well – and remember it. Next go around we’ll even tackle it in poem form, and eventually we’ll read Gardner’s Grendel.
Do you have any favorite versions of Beowulf? Or, more importantly, do you know any great stories of the time period that should not be missed?
“Then it came to me: Zola had said: ‘To have a child, to plant a tree, to write a book.’ That, he said, was a full life!” – Betty Smith
What I love about being a book reviewer is the constant discovery of new things. Picking up books I may have never had the opportunity to read, and learning from those books – not how to write better necessarily, but – what kind of writer I want to be.
Book reviewing has also required me to read things more closely, not just the way I would for school, but in a more personal way as well. It’s not just about finding the literary value, it’s not just about liking or not liking, it becomes more and more important to be able to people and my readers why I loved a book. What moved me to passion? What is so relevant about this story to my own life? In doing that, it makes me dig deeper into myself, deeper into my library, and deeper into the art of research.
I’ve slacked off the last few weeks about publishing a literary journal post, but I haven’t stopped reading the literary journals. I meant to write this yesterday, it’s been dancing around in my head the last few weeks as I’ve alternated between picking my way through McSweeney’s issue 18 and researching to see if anything was written about Betty Smith. I’ve been scouring the internet for evidence of things written about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or perhaps a long buried article or story she may have had published before infamy. I didn’t know a lot about her, so it’s been an educational endeavor.
I started with what was available in the back of the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition that I read the book from. The little extras this edition provides are wonderful, including the first piece Smith ever published: a bit of prose called “Winter” when she was 8 years old and still in grade school, under the name Elizabeth Wehner.
I enjoyed reading the article from This Week that she wrote called “Fall in Love With Life.” It’s a beautiful glimpse into her mind and life and what led her to know that she had had a full and marvelous life. It was refreshing to read, after feeling like a failure on most days, knowing I’ve had a child, planted a tree, and written book, changed my outlook on my life at 30.
Of course, the research continued and in my searching I found this: http://web.njit.edu/~cjohnson/tree/context/context.htm
I also found this and am pretty disappointed that I can’t find a copy of “On Discovering Thomas Hardy” anywhere: http://www2.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/s/Smith,Betty.html
If anyone knows of any publications or articles written on or by Betty Smith, please share. I’d like to discover them too.
It is quite possible that if I were to finish this book in it’s entirety without skimming, I might feel like slitting my wrist by the time I made it to the end. So though I only made it 75 pages in, I’m finished reading The Color Purple. I’m weak, or whatever, I can’t handle it.
Regardless of the fact that it is by far one of the most depressing topics out there, I cannot stand reading the dialect. And I’m from the South. Is this how Brits feel when they read Cockney?
I mean, I get it, they spoke that way then. And some people still do. Whatever. But I can’t handle 288 pages of it, on top of all the incest and baby drama.
So while Celie is praying for God to save her from this horrible life, I’m praying for that saving to involve some kind of literacy that will iron out all the times she says “ast” instead of “ask” and turn all the “dats” into “thats.”
God forbid I say this, being that I am a huge fan of reading and I’ve yet to see either of my examples in production – but maybe some stories are better absorbed via a Broadway musical than in a book. (Hearing dialect and reading dialect are very different things to me.) Some things like: The Color Purple and Wicked, for example.
So, since I can’t stomach the book, I’m going to break a rule of mine and attempt the movie or musical soon. I think a story can be important and still not feel the need to suffer through it in certain formats.
What about you guys? Anyone read or seen The Color Purple? Share your thoughts.
Maybe if I can survive the movie, I’ll try again.
Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher: Collins Classics/ HarperPress
Length: 140 pages
“I hate The Great Gatsby, it’s so boring,” my husband exclaimed when he saw me re-reading Fitzgerald’s novel.
“Boring!? How can you say that? Something happens in every sentence!”
Since I first read The Great Gatsby in my high school English class, I was enamored by Fitzgerald and the magical world of symbolism he weaves. I dreamed of writing something that had as much depth, as many layers. As a 16 year old, I was blinded by that symbolism, all I saw was the green light, the yellow car, the envy, the American Dream. I was caught up in the use of the names Daisy and Myrtle. I was dazzled by the colors and the literary devices.
As an adult with a husband, daughter, and home, for the first time I see the simplicity of the story. I see the story no one talks about, the one beyond the green light and the yellow car. This time I see the beauty of a narrator who is sucked into a world and is omniscient in that world, but is never quite a part of it – like William Miller in Almost Famous. This time I see the epic, but typical, sadness in a story about greed, love, and regret.
If you’re in your late twenties or early thirties and haven’t read The Great Gatsby since high school, I recommend that you do. It looks so different, but still great, from here.
*About this edition: The Collins Classics edition is a dandy little pocket paperback, and actually would serve well for students. There are definitions of words and phrases that are used differently than what is typical. I’d recommend it to teachers who require their kid’s to all have the same edition.