Paper given by Anna Smol (Mount Saint Vincent University)
Past President’s plenary, Canadian Society of Medievalists, Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario. May 29, 2012
Anna Smol, who has been teaching topics such as Old English and Tolkien at Mount Saint Vincent University, examines another topic that has interested her: medievalism and children’s literature, focusing on early Beowulf adaptations and on contemporary retellings of the story for children.
Sir Kingsley Amis, the famous English novelist once famously described Beowulf as “the anonymous, crass, purblind, infantile, featureless heap of gangrened elephant’s sputum, Barewolf”. While most people might not describe Beowulf as infantile, Smol notes that Amis’ statement reflects a common public assumption that medieval stories are for children or teens.
Between 1870 and 1914 more than twenty children’s versions of Beowulf were published, with twenty more done in rest of 20th century. There have been a further twenty new publications in the last decade alone. These authors and publishers would not call Beowulf as infantile, but saw it as an appropriate text for children.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the medieval era as primitive period in a nation’s history, part of the evolutionary progress of a country, where it started out like a child and matured into the state it had presently had become. The influential book Boyology; or, Boy analysis, by Henry William Gibson in 1916 recommended that children, in particular boys, read about historical figures and events that would guide them morally. Medieval heroes, such as Richard the Lionheart, were seen as great examples for boys, and it would be during this period that Beowulf would be taken up as reading for young males.
Smol speculates that Beowulf was even used as children’s literature during the Middle Ages, as it was quite possible that it could be delivered to an audience of adults and young people. However, the story of Beowulf faded away from historical consciousness for some time, remained virtually unknown until an 1837 English translation of the poem started getting people interested in it again.
During the 19th century the popular view of medieval world was that it was like ‘child-like nation’ – very different from the sophisticated-perception of their own present-day society. Samuel Johnson, for example, said of medieval literature: “when very wild and improbable tales were well received, the people were in a barbarous state, and so on the footing of children.”
The comparison between the Middle Ages and childhood continued to develop and stories like Beowulf were viewed as the building blocks of a manly character. Romanticized views of Beowulf can be seen in books such Brave Beowulf, by Thomas Cartwright (1908), Beowulf: For School Use, by John Harrington Cox (1910), and A Book of Famous Myths and Legends, by Thomas J. Shahan (1901). The medieval warrior was seen an ideal of English heroism.
Smol point outs in these early books female characters from the original story are poorly represented. Queen Waltheow often just gets one or two lines in these works, and is described as a beautiful hostess with no political role. The important female character, Gredel’s Mother, she is just a monster woman who comes out of nowhere. In one version she is described as ‘the awful sea woman”.
Smol also examines more recent versions of Beowulf aimed at younger readers, such as Gareth Hinds’ Beowulf (2007), Beowulf: A tale of blood, heat and ashes, by Nicky Raven (2007), Beowulf, by Michael Morpurgo (2006) and Beowulf, by Welwyn Wilson Katz (1999), to see what has now happened to this masculine heroic ideal character. In Gareth Hind version, which is graphic novel, Beowulf is muscular, primitive looking, with an exaggerated physical appearance. Moreover, except for Grendel’s mother not a woman in sight. Other versions also continue to give a ‘manly’ take on the story. On the other hand, Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf, by Ashley Crownover (2008), has the story told from a woman’s point of view.
Medievalism studies has been an area of study now rapidly expanding beyond just the romantic view. Tom Shippey points out that “the Middle Ages remain present, moreover, in the modern consciousness, both through scholarship and through popular media such as film, video games, poster art, TV series and comic strips, and these media are also a legitimate object of study, if often intertwined with more traditionally scholarly topics.”
Smol is continuing her work on Beowulf and children’s literature, as well as on how medievalism effects medieval scholarship. You can visit her website for more details on her research.