This is where it all started for me. I picked this book off a shelf in my Primary School when I was just 8 years old. Thinking back, I now realise this was the first fantasy book I ever read. When I opened the book I opened up a new world, a world of heroes and monsters, kings and warriors, swords and battle. Although it was a children’s book it was beautifully written with a lilting prose that echoed the lyrical nature of a poem. The simple line drawings complemented the story brilliantly, combining with the story to transport me straight into the Dark Ages.
The original Beowulf is a Anglo-Saxon epic poem. It tells the story of a Danish King, Hrothgar, who builds a great hall but attracts the attention of a monster, Grendel, that attacks in the night and slays his warriors. Beowulf is the hero of the Geats (from part of what is now Norway) who comes to rid the King of this curse.
The author of Beowulf:Dagonslayer, Rosemary Sutcliffe, wrote many other children’s books of which The Eagle of the Ninth is probably the most famous. I read quite a few, but it is Beowulf that has stayed with me. I think it primed me for the fantasy novels I would read later, particularly LOTR. J.R.R. Tolkein was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon, and the leading Beowulf scholar of his day. He would start his lectures by reciting the opening lines in the style of an Anglo-Saxon bard, as the poet W.H. Auden reminded his old professor many years later:
“I don’t think that I have ever told you what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.”