The epic poem Beowulf is one of my favorite readings from ancient and medieval literature. I have read and listened to it multiple times, for personal fun and for class assignments. After discovering Gareth Hinds through a blog I follow, I investigated his portfolio further and discovered his graphic novel rendition of Beowulf. I was intrigued to see how he handled a distinctly oral text in a visual format, so I found a copy through the library and sat down to read it.
While the graphic novel had a few redeeming qualities, such as several excellent pieces of artwork, it also had some fundamental flaws. Perhaps the biggest strike against it is the fact that the story would be almost impossible to follow for readers not already familiar with the original poem. The narrative and dialogue portions are placed in large textboxes that look identical and make it unclear whether the narrator or one of the characters is speaking, and it is almost impossible to decipher who the characters are because the book omits speaker tags and doesn’t clearly identify each character. Additionally, I noticed a weird imbalance between text and pictures. The book would either have huge sections of text or several pages with no text at all, which decreased the narrative clarity even more. A mantra in the visual fields is to “show, don’t tell.” Here, Gareth Hinds seems to have been flipflopping between the two extremes, instead of balancing his use of text and visuals.
My guess is that a classic in graphic novel format is intended to be more accessible to younger readers and to pique their interest in the original text, but the confusing narrative and often gory pictures do not seem to suit a young audience. With a few exceptions, the artwork was underwhelming as well. The monsters and humans looked a little silly with narrow, stretched bodies and faces. I thought that overall the artwork lacked the gravity and dark grandeur of the poem, as did the translation that Gareth Hinds used. Some people may prefer A. J. Church’s translation, but I think Seamus Heaney’s is richer and captures the poetic elements better.
Given a choice between the graphic novel and the original epic poem, I would choose the poem every time. If you are interested in reading Beowulf for yourself, I recommend trying Seamus Heaney’s translation. Heaney’s version is available in book format, as well as in audio form online for free (Part 1 and Part 2 of the audio version). For more thoughts on the original poem, here’s my review at our sister site Thousand Mile Walk.