Current project: Beowulf as children’s literature

When I first got my full-time teaching job at Mount Saint Vincent University, I was assigned to teach children’s literature, as was just about everyone in my small department, which ran several sections of this popular course. But what could an Anglo-Saxonist do with children’s literature?  As I was learning about the subject as quickly as possible, I came across an adaptation of Beowulf by Kevin Crossley-Holland for young readers – I hadn’t seen any adaptations before that except for a few translations any graduate student studying Old English would know about. I started looking further, and with opportunities to do research in the British Library and at the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books in Toronto, I gradually discovered more texts, many of them from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That work led to my first article on the subject, Beowulf and Heroic Ideology” in the journal Children’s Literature. In this article, I described the general features of Beowulf adaptations for young readers at the turn of the nineteenth century, which I do not believe were well known either to children’s literature specialists or to medievalists. My approach was influenced by my previous research in Old English literature, in which I had become familiar with the Victorian idealization of national heroes, and also by Allen Frantzen’s book Desire for Origins which discussed the particular type of medievalism we could call Anglo-Saxonism, its influence on the formation of academic disciplines, and the pervasive concept of primitivism in readings of the past.

Picking up on Frantzen’s discussion of primitivism and the common trope of the “childhood of the race” in Victorian medievalism, I did further research focusing on Andrew Lang, who was responsible for popularizing an evolutionary theory of recapitulation to justify certain texts for young readers. I published my research in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly: “The ‘Savage’ and the ‘Civilized’: Andrew Lang’s Representation of the Child and the Translation of Folklore.”  (This research into disciplinary formations and primitivism also played a key role in my work on Elizabeth Elstob). Continuing from the Lang article, I broadened my scope to look at not only adaptations of Beowulf and other Old English stories, but also tales from Chaucer, Arthurian tales, and some of the fiction in children’s periodicals, which I published as “The Child, the Primitive, and the Medieval: Making Medieval Heroes in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries” in The Hero Recovered: Essays on Medieval Heroism in Honor of George Clark. Here, I looked further into evolutionary theories of human development, particularly in the emerging field of childhood education and management called “boyology,” which prescribed medieval hero tales and legends as suitable reading for boys of a certain age.

This long preamble of a tale finally brings me to my current research project. I have given several conference papers and talks lately – most recently, the past president’s plenary address for the Canadian Society of Medievalists on May 29, 2012 — on early Beowulf adaptations and on contemporary retellings of the story for children. I find it interesting that there has been a resurgence of Beowulf adaptations for young readers in the last decade to match the interest that we find in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My current research examines more closely how early twentieth-century texts on boyhood education – “boyology” — apply the theory of recapitulation to explain why medievalized hero tales are “natural” reading material for children. I am further investigating earlier concepts of boyhood education and extending my study to look at the education and reading materials given to girls to see if there is any application of the Beowulf story. I expect that further studies of the authors producing these texts will lead to some conclusions about the processes of medievalism – that is, of the interplay of professional and “amateur” medievalists in reading and recreating the past. In extending my current research to more recent adaptations of Beowulf in picture books, graphic novels, films, games, and longer texts, I can examine how concepts of gender, childhood, heroism, nationality, and race have changed (or have not) since the late nineteenth century. Throughout the project runs an awareness that medieval texts are continually made and remade to speak to us in different ways in different times.

The progress of this strand of my research has led me gradually further and further away from the topic of my PhD dissertation on Old English literature and into the field of medievalism. When I landed my teaching job, I expected to continue immersing myself in questions dealing with Anglo-Saxon allegories, but the reality of teaching heavy loads and courses outside my field of specialization (it was over five years before I could even teach a course in Old English) focused my attentions elsewhere.  My example is just one of many that can be found in small universities where the necessity of looking beyond the boundaries of one’s specialized field of training can open up rather than shut down unexpected possibilities for research.

Image:  The image used at the top of this page is an illustration by J.R. Skelton in H.E. Marshall’s Stories of Beowulf Told to the Children, published in New York in 1908. The file comes from Wikimedia Commons.