Kid Beowulf: The Blood-Bound Oath

I’ll admit it: the Beowulf legend has never been my jam. I read it in high school (don’t remember the translation) and read it again when that critically adored translation by Seamus Heaney came out years ago.

I just couldn’t get into it. I appreciated the story, and – yes – I understood it, but for whatever reason, I just couldn’t sink my teeth into it like I could with other myths and legends. King Arthur? Sure. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Yep. Edith Wharton’s Mythology? Why not? But Beowulf? Just didn’t do it for me.

So when Kid Beowulf appeared on my radar, I’d be lying if I said it immediately rose to the top of my reading pile. I liked the twist of making the story accessible to young readers, but…well, it was still Beowulf.

But I’m here to tell you I wish I had read this a lot sooner.

The book begins with a prologue that quickly runs through the original legend. In eight pages, we hit the major plot points of the story and get the condensed Cliff’s Notes version of the tale. But Fajardo clearly sets this prologue apart from the rest of the book. The art is a different style (more “realistic”), and the narrative bookends the legend by implying that the legend everyone reads is far from the truth.

At least, that’s as men have told it–
as I said, they twist the truth.
Too blind to know the proper tale,
Of a king’s run-rampant youth.

The book itself is divided into three parts: The Past, The Present, and The Future. Fajardo takes his time establishing the world and introducing characters. Kid Beowulf himself doesn’t even appear until Part Three.

In broad strokes, Part One (The Past) focuses on Hrothgar as a young man, Part Two (The Present) focuses on Gertrude as a young woman, and Part Three (The Future) finally centers on Beowulf and, eventually, Grendel.

The pace rewards patience, to be sure, which might make this one tricky with some young readers. Fajardo has managed to cram a lot of story into this book – it’s really rather dense – but the storytelling is mostly brisk.

He breaks with the legend when necessary to establish his own world and fully realize his own characters. Don’t go into this one expecting a slavish adaptation of the Beowulf legend (thank goodness). By the time Kid Beowulf is finally introduced, it’s clear that Fajardo is telling his own story. And by the time you get to the end of the book, it’s perfectly clear that the legend of Beowulf is just a jumping-off point for a much larger journey through the mythologies of the world. (Book 2 is The Song of Roland.)

But how is the story? I’ll admit that it took me a while to really get into it, but I chalk that up to my general hesitance toward the source material. About halfway through Part One, I was on board. Kids might have a tough time with character and place names, since Hrothgar, Holger, Daneland, and the Heathobards could prove to be frustrating stumbling blocks.

Young readers who are interested in history or fantasy settings will eat this up, and those who are already familiar with long-from graphic novel storytelling (through books such as Bone or Amulet) shouldn’t be put off by the length or depth of this story.

Let yourself fall into the story, and there’s a lot to enjoy here. Remember my distaste for the original epic poem? It’s not even a strike against Kid Beowulf, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the second book in the series. Beowulf and Grendel in France and dealing with Roland and Charlemagne? Yes, please.

The back of the book is lovingly filled with maps, glossaries, a family tree, an essay on the origins of the epic poem, fun facts, and a bibliography. Fajardo also walks us through his artistic process and includes a quick lesson on how to draw Beowulf and how graphic novels are created. All of this together really adds substance to the book, from an instructional perspective, and there’s a lot for inquisitive kids to dig into.

For older kids or really precocious younger readers, this one is highly recommended. Kudos to Alexis Fajardo for making me even consider giving the epic poem another chance.

(Disclosure: Andrews McMeel provided me with a review copy of this book. All opinions remain my own.)

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