In the latest of her series describing children’s early responses to stories and language, Virginia Lowe recalls her son Nicholas’s first encounters with Beowulf.
N: I like the monsters – pretend monsters in books. I am crazy, aren’t I?
V: Why are you crazy?
N: Cos I like monsters. I’m not scared of them if they haven’t got anything dangerous like guns and spears and bows and arrows and swords!
This was a very mature reaction to the scary, both acknowledging it and saying openly that he enjoyed it. Nick was almost four (3y11m).
It was his first look through White/Provensen’s Myths and Legends. A friend had given Rebecca a Ladybird book of myths, containing the stories of the Minotaur and the Gorgon. Rebecca had never shown any interest, but Nick had recently devoured them, so I tried the library for something more aesthetic.
When he was younger, Nick had avoided scary things completely, leaving the room as the story was read or the Count was on Sesame Street, or running from the theatre when mock violence erupted. Harry the Dirty Dog was scary, because it was easy to imagine getting dirty, but then not being recognised by your family! This was fearful in a way Sendak’s benign Wild Things were not. There was an intermediate stage, where he gave cuddles to the reader or to the scary creature, often accompanied by ‘He yoves me, that yion!’
This afternoon, he was fascinated by my abbreviated telling from the pictures of Beowulf, Grendel, and especially Grendel’s mother. He had had a particularly disruptive week with many tellings-off, and I surmised that a monster-mother was easy to identify with. Later, as he retold the story to John after work, he used ‘kid’ and began ‘the little one’ but changed it to ‘not the mother one’, so he seemed to be identifying.
We collected Rebecca from school, then I read the Beowulf story to both. Despite his stated liking of monsters Nick held tightly to my thumb, and sat on my lap at particularly tense moments. He felt anxiety, but talked big about his enjoyment.
This was followed by a painting session, and Rebecca started making a horse mask out of two paper supermarket bags. Nick was keen to act out the story.
N: I’m pretending I’m a monster, Becca. I’ve got a good idea. I can be the monster that was in the book we read, and you can be the person that kills him! I could be Grendel and Becca could be the person.
R: But I’m being a horse!
N: Well they said they’re riding on horses when they were after the mother, so I could be the mother.
This is the only time he offered to act a female. Two months later he was fascinated with the Groke from Jansson’s Moomintroll series, saying: ‘We’ve never seen one and there’s nothing real about them’ but never acted this female villain.
Next day was a Saturday. After we all four had had a cuddle in the big bed, I asked Nick if he was still Grendel. He said he was and crawled under the bed. John was Beowulf, and started spouting mock alliterative Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Nick was loath to come out, having scared himself. He knew that Beowulf must kill him. For quite a while he contented himself with throwing out shoes and other objects from under the bed.
Some snatches of dialogue. When John had trouble following his convoluted plot, Nick called him names –
N: Well I have to come out and you have to kill me, Silly.
N: Just pretend to kill me.
J: A sock was slung suddenly. Grendel gasped and great was the pain.
When John briefly left the room
N:I’m getting tired of this
V: Why don’t you attack someone who isn’t Beowulf? (So you wouldn’t have to be killed, I meant)
N: Cos I got to do something that I can’t really do, and that’s eating people!
N: I need to go to the toilet, and how can I with Beowulf there? (John was back).
J: (obligingly): I’m looking out the window.
So Nick took a break to the toilet. On return, J lay down beside the bed
J:Beowulf sank down into the swamp
N: Not yet, Silly dum dum. We’re up to a different part. Cos I’m only doing the fighting bits.
Here it becomereally wild, and Rebecca joined in. But he insisted:
N: We’re still playing it, and this is the bit where you’ve got a gun.
By 4y10m he was able to say of a Christmas present, D’Auliers’ Book of Greek Myths
N: The one with all the scary monsters in is my favourite book!
He spoke as one who had come to terms with all the varieties of fear that the literary world so far had presented to him, learned how to handle them, and from those experiences, learned something about coping with the threats which the actual world can present.
Dr Virginia Lowe lives in Melbourne, Australia. She is the proprietor of Create a Kids’ Book, a manuscript assessment agency, which also runs regular workshops, interactive writing e-courses, mentorships and produces a regular free e-bulletin on writing for children and children’s literature generally. Her book, Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell (2007) is published by Routledge (978-0-4153-9724-7, £29.99 pbk).
Book of Greek Myths D’Aulaire. Ingri and Edgar,
Moomintroll (series) Tove Jansson,
Famous Legends Book 1 JDM Preshous,
Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak,
Myths and Legends Anne Terry White, illus.by Alice and Martin Provensen
Harry the Dirty Dog Gene Zion, illus. by Margaret Bloy Graham.