Krysta has already reviewed Boys of Blur, and I’ll agree with her that it’s a superbly written novel, with a compelling story and a great cast of characters. Set in the Florida Everglades, it builds a strong sense of place, which, while modern, also manages to stretch back deep in time to an era of magic. Today, however, I don’t want to review the book so much as think about how it functions as an adaptation. Children’s versions of Beowulf were fairly popular in the late Victorian era, but we see fewer of them today (Rebecca Barnhouse also has one), so I wanted to take a closer work at how Wilson presents the story and themes to a contemporary youth audience.
Wilson does not seem to have written Boys of Blur with an educational market in mind. Nowhere on the book jacket or on Wilson’s author website is there a clear indication that this is, in fact, a retelling of Beowulf. Although I don’t wish to imply that it is impossible to write a story that is both educational and, well, a good story, I do think there’s something to be said for not feeling pressure to tell the story a particular way (example: when youth Shakespeare adaptations feel the need to maintain something of the Elizabethan language, so educators will feel good about placing the adaptation in their classrooms).
The book does signal its connection to Beowulf to those in the know. There are swamp monsters that the locals call “Stanks” but which readers later learn are more properly called “Grens.” There are brief allusions to Cain, and the Grens’ mother has an underwater cave appropriately stocked with an assortment of weapons. And in case readers don’t see the plot parallels, one of the boys brings up the book Beowulf itself near the end of the story. This is a bit meta—the text Beowulf inside of a Beowulf adaptation. It clearly is intended as a helpful marker to the audience, to signal the connection between Boys of Blur and the Anglo-Saxon poem, but, personally, I’m just stuck wondering how a kid can claim to love Beowulf so much he’s read three different translations and yet not have commented on how his own life was beginning to mirror the tale.
Luckily for him, however, Boys of Blur is dark—people are in serious danger of dying—but the story isn’t quite as violent, or graphically violent, as its source. Wilson has found a nice balance of making the stakes high enough for young readers to experience the fear and concern that his characters do while fighting the monsters, without making the book overly gory.
The book is also updated a bit to suit a contemporary audience. “Beowulf” is an actual character in the story (though not actually named “Beowulf”), but he is also a role. Many, or any, can be Beowulf. Anyone, including kids, can be a hero. Additionally, football seems to fulfilling the role of “masculine rite of passage” rather than soldiery or war-making. Though not all the football player characters are portrayed as thugs, it is still possible to draw a football/violence parallel and to see football as the activity in which all “proper” boy are expected to engage in this small Florida town.
Nonetheless, there is still a sense in Boys of Blur that Beowulf needs to be a tale with roots, with a history deep in the past. The Beowulf figure speaks an unfamiliar language, though not Anglo-Saxon, and he and the Grens have a history that goes back farther than the existence of the town in which the story takes place. While this particular adaptation is not as self-conscious about signalling its connection to the medieval or the Anglo-Saxon as others, it seems clear that Beowulf cannot be imagined, at least here, as a completely modern tale. It may be a long while before we see someone follow attempt to write a sci-fi or futuristic take on Beowulf.