We recently received a graphic novel version of Beowulf. We’re debating which section it should go in because, well, some of the panels are pretty… graphic. The first time I picked it up, and opened it, I turned to a page of someone (I assume Beowulf himself) emerging from a pool of blood. I wasn’t surprised though, because it’s Beowulf. It’s not a story about sunshine and lollipops.
Now, graphic novelizations of the classics are nothing new–we had them back when we called them comic books. Children’s sections are filled with retellings of the classics at a child’s reading comprehension level. Personally, I don’t think any version of Beowulf worth its salt would be age-appropriate fro the under 13 crowd.
But this brings up the larger question–should we be “dumbing down” the classics at all?
In most cases, it is not merely the plot that makes these works part of the cannon–what really makes books stand the test of time cannot be replicated in a retelling, especially one that’s aimed at children. If you want to know the plot of something because it’s part of the society’s collective consciousness, then read the summary on Wikipedia or get the Cliff’s Notes.
Now, I’m not talking about retellings that are adding to or re-imagining the story. Such as the way that Gail Carson Levine treats many fairy tales or a setting of Romeo and Juliet in a modern high school setting. I’m talking about deliberately simplifying a classic text that just gives people the feeling that they’ve “read” whatever…
What it gets down to is that there are very few classics that are appropriate for children. I can think of very few instances where it is not the content, but the language that makes something difficult for kids. In the vast majority of the Western Cannon at least, the language isn’t the main instance that makes these works inaccessible–it’s the content. Killing your father, marrying your mother, deciding to marry for love or money… these aren’t “kid” topics. Beowulf is a violent, bloody story. When you sanitize it down to a G or PG level, it ceases to be Beowulf.
Pretty much the only thing in the literary adaptations section that doesn’t make me cringe is Mary Pope Osborne’s Tales from the Odyssey. She is not dumbing down Homer, but is taking episodes from his epic poem and making them accessible. There are many episodes in The Odyssey that stand alone by themselves and are perfectly appropriate for those under 13, even if Homer’s poetry has a ridiculously high lexile level.
Now, I’m all about children reading “inappropriate” literature, but I don’t think we should necessarily be throwing them at them, or shelving it with “appropriate” literature.
And, if you’re old enough to handle the blood and gore of Beowulf, then maybe you’re old enough to take a crack at a translation of the original text, but no, I won’t make you read it in Old English.
-posted by kidsilkhaze