The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse
Summary: Rune washed up on the shores of the Geats as a baby and many have hated him ever since. They believe he was an offering to the gods and that, by saving his life, King Beowulf placed the kingdom in jeopardy. Now a young man, Rune struggles to fit into his society and to prove himself worthy to be a warrior. The awakening of a dragon gives him the perfect opportunity to show his mettle, but Rune fears he may fail his king in the hour of his need.
Review: The Coming of the Dragon intrigued me with its promise to elaborate on the story of Wiglaf, that enigmatical kinsman of Beowulf who shows up at the very end of the poem to play a pivotal role in the history of the Geats. The book sought to give a more human face to the events described by focusing on the people under Beowulf’s rule and by describing their everyday lives. I relished the opportunity to immerse myself more fully in the time period of the poem and to experience what it might have been like to live as a Geat, but, in the end, I think it may have been a mistake to write this book.
My first problem lies with the intended audience of the book. It is classified as middle grade and the age of the protagonist (Wiglaf here is only a boy on the cusp of manhood) as well as the language and writing style all bear this out. However, most people read Beowulf in high school. The intended audience is thus reading a book based on a poem they may know nothing about. Retellings should add a new dimension to a well-known tale, helping readers see the story in a new light or consider aspects they may have missed. The new dimensions give them their value. If readers have no familiarity with the original story, they may enjoy The Coming of the Dragon as a good adventure, but they are arguably missing out on the entire point of the book.
This retelling, however, in trying to fill in the background information missing in the poem, takes away all the mystery that I love in Beowulf. The poem fascinates me because of all the unanswered questions. Who is Wiglaf? Why was he not mentioned before? Why does his sword work when Beowulf’s fails him? By answering some of these questions, The Coming of the Dragon destroys some of the magic. That which I understand completely does not have the same power to invite me in as does that which keeps eluding my grasp.
As a book that seeks to strip away mystery, The Coming of the Dragon also lacks the incredible, thought-provoking subtlety of Beowulf. Several integral aspects of the poem simply go missing. The first obvious one is Christianity. The characters here fully believe in the Norse gods, who actually make appearances, proving their existence (and thus suggesting Christianity is not true?). I understand that the original story had pagan elements, that the characters in the original story were undoubtedly pagans, and that the Christian elements came later. I understand that some critics think the poet who wrote Beowulf down simply imposed his beliefs on the story. William Witherle Lawrence, for example, writes in his essay “Beowulf and Epic Tradition” that “though ever present, the Christianity is all on the surface” and suggests that pagan elements were left in simply because the story was so well-known that these elements could not be changed. However, the tension created by pagan and Christian elements presented alongside each other raises important existential questions, as does the ultimate inability of the Beowulf-poet to reconcile these belief systems. The Coming of the Dragon strips away this fascinating ambiguity completely.
The second aspect of the poem which I find disturbingly missing is the issue of Beowulf’s pride. The poem suggests that Beowulf acted wrongly to confront the dragon and put his people in jeopardy so he can win more fame—a viewpoint presented interestingly alongside emphasis placed on brave deeds and the belief of the characters that they will attain immortality only if the stories of their exploits live on after them. The Coming of the Dragon, however, only briefly touches on the nature of pride by having one character condemn the boasting of warriors if the warriors cannot prove themselves good men as well as good fighters. Beowulf himself, however, remains a noble and heroic figure, untainted by the suggestion that he should not have risked his life so foolishly. In other words, the facts of the story are told in a straight-forward manner and the readers are not encouraged to think long on the nature of pride or the actions appropriate to men depending on their state of life.
Since Beowulf in this version of the tale technically commits no sin in pitting himself against the dragon, he does not, as in the poem, leave his people open to the ravages of their neighbors. The sense of impending doom disappears. A happy ending replaces it. And thus the entire spirit of Beowulf is ripped to shreds. In his essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” J. R. R. Tolkien describes the paradox of the attitude of the warrior ethic in Beowulf as “defeat inevitable yet unacknowledged.” The heroes fight evil even though they know they will lose. This devotion to right imparts to them a certain dignity which is beautiful even if the events conspiring against them are horrible. In The Coming of the Dragon, the guarantee of a happy ending not only strips the story of the dignity, but also, I would argue causes the story to resonate less strongly with the experience of the readers. Tolkien summed up the experience of Beowulf thusly: “He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy.” In the real world, we simply do not expect happy endings.
Of course, one could argue that the intended audience of the book justifies a happy ending, but I think such reasoning does an injustice to the intelligence and the feelings of middle grade readers. Though we tend to look back upon childhood as an idyllic time, I remember it was also a time when I felt powerless. I knew the adults made the final decisions and that if I were to pit my word against an adult, I would always lose, even if I spoke the truth. I knew life had bitter endings and that life was not always fair. Books can do a service by giving us the happy endings we so desperately crave, but they can also do a service by reflecting life as we see it—and reminding us that we are not alone.
Ultimately, The Coming of the Dragon does prove a lively adventure middle grade readers will surely appreciate, but the association with Beowulf makes little sense and the story only suffers from comparison with the poem. I am looking forward much more to the companion novel, Peaceweaver, which will be released in March 2012. I expect it will broaden the scope of Beowulf as Barnhouse intended by following characters who lived during the same timeframe, but it will also prove itself a story in its own right—one that does not lie in the shadow of Beowulf.