Why We're Reading Beowulf In The BathtubNPR's new kids' fiction column — by Juanita Giles, founder of the Virginia Children's Book Festival — kicks off with an explanation of why the epic poem Beowulf is the perfect bathtime read.
A few days ago my friend Julie confessed she had never read Bridge to Terabithia. To quote Blanche Devereaux, "I am stunned! Just stunned! Stunned is the only way to describe how ... stunned I am!" I told her she had to read it immediately, but seeing as how I would never let my copy out of the house, she went and got her own that same day. Whew: Crisis averted.
When I love something, I want everyone else to love it too (please love it Julie!): That's especially true when it comes to books and exceptionally true when it comes to children's books (and let me tell you if you've never read Bob, Not Bob! by Audrey Vernick and Liz Garton Scanlon you are missing out), so hello everyone: I'm Juanita, and I'm here to spread the love, so stick with me, and you'll learn what books my kids and I are loving each month.
When my kids love a book, they immerse themselves in it. When my son was four, he came into the dining room hiding behind an armload of Japanese maple branches I had just pruned. Trying to be a good mother, I quelled my immediate impulse to tell him to get that mess out of my house and instead asked him what on earth he was doing.
"I'm Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane," he replied, with a tone of "what the heck else would I be doing?"
Well, okay then, I'll allow it. But he still had to clean up his mess.
Let me clearly state that my kids are not geniuses, at least not that I know of. Not one of them has ever sat down at the piano and started playing Mozart from memory, nor have they used toilet paper rolls and pipe cleaners to create a perpetual motion machine. My kids are regular kids: They have chores, early bedtimes, Legos, bicycles, and dogs. I am not a genius either, but remember, my kids are my captive audience.
Hence Birnam Wood in the dining room, and Beowulf in the bathtub.
We don't read Ramona, or Junie B. Jones, or The Wild Robot in the bathtub. Those are bedtime books. Bath time is for epics, myths, and classics. When my kids were too big to fit in the tub all together, suddenly I had alone time with each child, a rare thing with three children so close in age. As my children lounged in the tub, they inevitably asked me to tell them stories, and not being a good maker-upper-of-stories, I told them the best stories I knew: Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tell-Tale Heart. And they loved them and asked for those same stories each bath time, but woe unto me if I left out a detail or added a new one. The last thing I wanted was an argument about which prediction the witches made first, so to the source I went: Bath time became a to-be-continued affair, and now here we are with Seamus Heaney's tremendous translation of Beowulf.
More accurately, here we are now near the end of Beowulf. We've met and dispatched Grendel and Grendel's mother, we've seen King Hrothgar present the Geat with the sword Nægling, we've seen Beowulf become king and a shadow of his former self. I've been stunned by my son's insight into the old king's moral failings, namely his pointing out that Beowulf's decision to seek revenge against the dragon could would not turn out well — doesn't Beowulf remember how Grendel's mother's quest for revenge led to her death? — and his noting that Beowulf defeated both Grendel and Grendel's mother with his bare hands, so taking a sword to fight the dragon was completely out of character. Now the old king is dead, and we are wrapping things up with Wiglaf. We've passed the climax of the story, so my son no longer leans forward in the tub to find out what happens next. It's all downhill from here.
Even though my son took to Macbeth when was he was four, I figured Beowulf would be a stretch. It had been a while since I had read it, and though I find Heaney's translation the most accessible I've encountered, the language itself can be an impediment to the story. The lack of rhyme scheme, the endless digressions, the long speeches, and the completely unfamiliar concepts (hello, wergild) make Beowulf a challenge. So what would a little boy make of it?
In short, he loved it.
When you are 17 years old and laboring to read, much less care about, an epic 3,182-line poem written 1,000 years ago that even in translation may read as a long-dead language, it can be hard to remember you are having to read Beowulf because the story is so GOOD. I took a chance that a regular kid who lives and breathes Star Wars would take to an epic tale when he heard it, no matter how unfamiliar the language. And he did.
The difference between slogging through Beowulf myself when I was 17 and reading it aloud to my son now (I am no longer 17) makes me think that it and other epic tales may actually be more suited for children than adults, much like more modern epics such as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. And hearing them read aloud may be the key to unlocking the incredible stories behind the unfamiliar language. Just as Hamlet and Macbeth are meant to be seen and not read, Beowulf, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Gilgamesh are stories to be heard, not read.
So here we are back with Wiglaf, and I'm facing the same conundrum all parents face when they come to the end of a book they are reading with their children. What on earth do we read next? There's no need to panic: I'm on the job.
Since the bathtub is reserved for these big stories and epics, I may pick up Emily Wilson's recent translation of the Odyssey (I am not ready to read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud), or Ramesh Menon's retelling of The Ramayana. Or maybe, just maybe, I'll surprise my son with Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, the novel that predates the film Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope by six months. It may not be in verse, but what's more epic than Star Wars?
Thankfully for my kids and for me, they don't spend their entire lives in the bathtub. Beowulf may go well with bubbles, but it is hard to beat Junie B. Jones at bedtime. Trial and error have taught me that my kids and I won't always love the same books and stories, and I guarantee you and your kids won't either, but when we do, oh my goodness, it is an unbelievably rich experience. So what will we be loving next month? I have a good idea, and it may just make you snort milk out of your nose.
Juanita Giles is the founder and executive director of the Virginia Children's Book Festival. She lives on a farm in Southern Virginia with her family.