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?
This week I read three books, of different genres, each in their own sitting. And if you’re looking for something to fill a nice, summer day, I recommend you give them a go too.
1. The House of Paper – Carlos Maria Dominguez
This is a beautiful and mysterious 103 page book about bookishness, and I love it. Prettily illustrated with so many quotes I was itching to underline, I cannot wait to purchase my own copy. (I checked it out from the library.) Bibliophiles will adore the title and author references, as well as the social commentary regarding people who build private libraries our of their book collections. Goes down best early in the morning with your coffee, or perhaps late at night with your tea.
2. The Colossus – Sylvia Plath
After reading The Bell Jar, I was in desperate need of getting to know Plath a little better. The Colossus and Other Poems is only 83 pages long, but rich is hauntingly gorgeous descriptions. I read somewhere that someone once described this collection as the coldest summer poetry available – and I tend to agree. If you’re from Texas, this is a good one to sweat out the morning in your garden just before brunch (or second breakfast) while your kiddo frolics with the dog and collects dead flies.
3. High Moon – E.J. Boley
Werewolves, gypsies, cowboys, and vampires – I just devoured this paranormal western while hiding indoors during the hottest part of the day. If Cormac McCarthy decided to pick up a punctuation habit and tell supernatural tales, it might come out a little bit like this. Except Boley manages something I’ve never experienced in a McCarthy novel – FUN. Using familiar phrases and titles as chapter headings was a nice touch. Being set in Texas is always a nicer one. Can’t wait to read Boley’s future endeavors.
*A Weekly Low Down on Kids Books*
Title: Goodnight Goon
Author: Michael Rex
Every parent I know can recite or nearly recite Goodnight Moon. It’s a timeless favorite. I’m not sure why, kiddo loves it, but it has never really moved me personally.
“In the great green room, there was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of a cat jumping over the moon…”
― Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon
It’s probably the cadence, the familiarity, the simplicity. It’s a lot of things. For kiddo, it’s also because she has the hallmark version that her out of state grandparents was able to record into… so she can flip through the pages and hear the story at her own leisure and will, the most exciting thing for a kid when they can’t read yet.
But to be fair, it’s boring. It’s appropriately sleepy, but I already have a hard enough time staying awake while I read bedtime stories.
I saw Goodnight Goon and took a risk. She loves Goodnight Moon, but she’s also wonderfully weird and gets very excited about monsters. I know my child, though, and sometimes she can be a bit of a purist. I wondered if a parody would be up her alley if it was just up mine.
In a cold gray tomb
There was a gravestone
And a black lagoon
And a picture of –
Martians taking over the moon
She laughed her butt off! She loved every page. Especially the end where the monster is cast under the bed for the night, “Goodnight Monsters Everywhere.”
“He’s under the bed!” she laughs.
“Maybe other kids will like it,” she says.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because they’re little. And the monsters. I like the bat. That’s the kind of monster I like.” Of course, she watches me type the review and also insists that I “put an L in it.”
I should have known all would be well. After all, this is a kiddo that adored the The Swamps of Sleethe.
I used to do a Weekly Low Down on Kids Books. Well, I used to pretend to do them, and really they were haphazard and sporadic at best, but sort of happened a few times a month at least.
I’m back. I’m back with a mission to share all the marvelous books we’ve been reading. Because, well, we have been reading more than we’ve let on. I know, our silence is stifling.
Title: The Snail and the Whale
Illustrator: Axel Scheffler
I bought The Snail and the Whale on impulse. I’ve been trying to do less of that lately, but it was too darn cute and the kiddo had been working on a snail painting. Plus, I was feeling a little bit guilty over keeping Christmas as sparse as I was.
A few new picture books seemed a good addition to a Jake and the Neverland Pirate lego set (the third set to polish off the Jake collection); but we purposely are trying to keep Christmas gifting simple… “What you want, what you need, what you’ll wear, and what you’ll read.” Accumulatively, we’d like for her to get no more than 4 presents from each category once all the grandparents have pitched in. Ideally I’d keep it to four items total, but I’m practical and I know the family members won’t let that fly.
So she got the rest of her desired lego collection, a Frozen tiara and tambourine, socks, new boots, and a handful of new picture books. There were some stocking stuffers and some other odds and ends – a geode science project for her school work, new paints, a painting apron, some canvases – and they were given to her in waves, not all at once on Christmas day. It gave her time to enjoy each gift before getting overwhelmed with another. We enjoyed it. She was spoiled without being spoiled. It felt like a nice simple holiday, yet kiddo managed to get everything she’d asked for.
Although The Snail and the Whale feels like a summer book – crossing oceans, travelling the world, visiting islands – we were excited to read it while cozied up in blankets and pjs. I can’t wait to read it to her at the beach once it warms up, though.
After reading this book for the second or third time, I finally asked kiddo, “So what are your thoughts?”
Kiddo, age four, says, “Other kids should read it, that’s my thought! But how about we put it where people can’t find it. So no one can tear it up.”
I think she was missing the point of the conversation. We started talking about the illustrations and what she thought. She likes the pictures, but thinks they got the font “mixed up.” I think the font is appropriately cute, but she’s learning to read and I think some of the swirly snail words were hard for her to recognize.
The book, however, is wonderful. The rhymes are fun, the pictures are fun. It’s all about adventure, having courage, and taking care of your friends. It’s definitely a great gift book for any little one, no matter what season.
“I think this is where I belong – among all your other lost things.” – Lang Leav
The tree branches are even still. No rustling.
The kind of night that leaves you staring at the sky, eyes peering through the cool fog in a way a camera lens can never quite capture.
So I retired indoors to read Lang Leav poems, proud of being mature enough for her to not be spoiled by the memory of the one who introduced us. Happy that no one can take the written word from me, no matter how awful they are.
Because I truly adore Lang Leav. She is my favorite currently writing poet, along with her partner Michael Faudet.
Then came Lullabies and Michael Faudet’s Dirty Pretty Things.
My other favorites, if you follow my blog, you know: A.E. Housman, Edna St. Vincent Millay…
Clearly, I enjoy the hint of melancholy mixed with nostalgia.
I like the presence of mind to live in the past, the present, and the future all in one moment. To acknowledge that your experiences have made you and your hopes are what you live for… and right now, this breath, simultaneously deserves all your attention. It’s a beautiful conundrum, balancing it all.
Title: City of Lost Souls
Author: Cassandra Clare
Genre: Young Adult/ Fantasy
Length: 534 pages
For me, what makes the writings of Cassandra Clare so captivating isn’t the fairy tale romance, the paranormal elements, or the bad ass fight sequences… at the heart of it all, it’s the way Clare manages to make a young adult fantasy saga an sequence of unexpected odes to her favorite pieces of literature.
“No man chooses evil because it is evil. He only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” – Mary Wollstonecraft
“Love is familiar. Love is a devil. There is no evil angel but Love.” – William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost
“I love you as one loves certain dark things.” – Pablo Neruda, “Sonnet XVII”
“All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” – William Butler Yeats, “Easter, 1916”
If you recall my review of The Book of Secrets you should be well aware of how much I cherish this particular aspect of storytelling. I love peeping into the mind of the author and what they’ve read before – what work we may have both cherished. I love to see how others acknowledge how literature builds a soul. Even if that soul is an imagined character in another book.
A reviewer on Goodreads mentioned they thought it was silly that all these Shadowhunter kids were completely oblivious of what went on in the mundane world half the time – Jace completely misses references to Madonna or Dungeons & Dragons games – but are well versed in William Shakespeare and Dante.
As a classical book geek it makes perfect sense to me. I was raised on Charles Dickens and the Brontes, not the latest boy band or pop culture trends. Poetry is timeless. New Kids on the Block obviously not so much.
One doesn’t expect these odes and references in a paranormal teen romance. I suppose that’s what makes them so stunningly lovely.
Title: A Shropshire Lad
Author: A. E. Housman
Illustrator: Charles Mozley
In February I stumbled across A.E. Housman. Between the state of my soul, the weather, and Housman’s poetry, I found a little hub of safety. In the words of my best friend, “Where has he been all our lives?”
Even in kid’s books, of all places.
The book I found is a $10 hardback from Good Books in the Woods. It’s a hardback. It was printed in 1968, and the style of binding, as well as the illustrations, reflect that. To me, it’s the perfect edition to have floating around the house for your kiddo to discover and flip through as early readers. Same classic poetry with a much different kid friendly feel.
Title: A Shropshire Lad
Author: A.E. Housman
Publisher: Penguin (Classics)
Genre: Poetry (English Journeys)
I know I just posted on this very same title yesterday, but I’ve been reading through it over my morning coffee on this cold, rainy day, and I couldn’t keep myself from sharing the best parts.
|A. E. Housman (1859–1936). A Shropshire Lad. 1896.|
|XLVIII. Be still, my soul, be still|
This melted me to my core. Melted me into a state of beautiful stillness, and I couldn’t keep that to myself. It’s so calming, so true, and so utterly gorgeous.
Not just for his poetry itself, Housman is inspiring because his work is so good and back in 1896 he was essentially self-published. Publishers turned this beautiful work down over and over again until finally he decided to publish the title at his own expense. Originally he wanted to call it The Poems of Terrence Hearsay, but was encouraged to change it. Sales lagged until about 1899 when the Second Boer War broke out and profits have surged for Housman’s work during every time of war since – especially World War I. Though this surprised the poet, it is not surprising to me… the entire work is about loss. There is much solace in reading about loss when you have lost or anticipate it soon.
Don’t be surprised if Housman is revisited often on this blog.
Title:A Shropshire Lad
Author: A.E. Housman
Publisher: Penguin (Classics)
Genre: Poetry (English Journeys)
A few years ago I became completely hooked on the Penguin Great Ideas series. I think they’re wonderful pocket sized source documents to keep around the house. I also love the Great Journeys… and now, I have a small collection of English Journeys as well.
The kiddo and I love scampering through the woods. We also love reading outside. These little paperbacks are the perfect books to tag along for our wooded adventures and frolics in the park.
Not to mention that, today, I think Housman became my favorite male poet – a title previously held by William Carlos Williams. The two are nothing alike. But I am nothing like who I was when William Carlos Williams was awarded his place on my mental pedestal.
Where William Carlos Williams amused me with “This is Just to Say”:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
I was in middle school when I discovered this. For some reason I found this bluntness endearing. I thought, “What a wonderful jerk to address poetry with such sarcasm.”
I don’t want poetry to be sarcastic anymore. I don’t appreciate the uncaring witticism the same way.
I do, however, love this:
Oh, when I was in love with you,
Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew
How well did I behave.
And now the fancy passes by,
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they’ll say that I
Am quite myself again
– “A Shropshire Lad: XVIII”
Ok, well, it seems it’s always the jerk lines that appeal to me. But at least it’s not about stealing plums anymore. Housman has real heart and soul as he describes landscapes and lovers, crickets and dead soldiers, the woods and the very real feelings of longing for something that has gone. All so beautiful and natural; and the pattern in which he writes lends itself to easily reading it aloud outdoors while the kiddo plays.
The dog seemed to enjoy it too. He stopped to look at me every time a poem ended as though I was denying him the chance to be included in the written word of humans.