Beowulf Pitfight! Michael Morpurgo Versus Rosemary Sutcliff

Some of my teacher friends get cross with me when I use the term “Cattle Poo Chronicles” to refer to the books Kurtzhau regularly has to endure from school.

My complaint is not that these books don’t pass his blood-and-thunder test. Rather, that that they are technically flawed and only “Important” and “Significant” because institutions buy them and make children read them, and because adult critics praise them. Further, I suspect that the children and young people who vote for these books in various award schemes probably don’t have access to the wider range of literature now available to them.

Really, it’s not actually about the subjective opinion of my kids – though Kurtzhau is a canary in this matter. It’s to do with more objective criteria like conflict, complication, pacing etc. These are things you can actually measure. (Though these are not the entire worth of a book, I think they are the prerequisite for having any merit as an actual novel, rather than, say, an essay piece or extended prose poetry.)

Just in case you think I’m biased by my pulpish tastes, let’s compare passages from two versions of Beowulf, one by Mr Morpurgo, and one by the god-like Rosemary Sutcliff. Each passage covers the same transition point: Beowulf arrives before Hrothgar and pitches for a go at Grendel.

First, Mr Mopurgo:

Monpurgo 002

monpurgo 003

I make that about 500 words. So, how would we summarise this using my the outlining style introduced in Storyteller Tools:

Wulfgar the Herald: These guys look scary, but come I think they come in peace.

King Hrothgar: Beowulf! I knew you as a little boy. Grendel is scary, but I think you can take him out.

Beowulf: Yes, everybody has heard how Grendel is scary, but yes, I can take him out.

OK… so we have three “buts” — three reversals, if you like — and all taking place inside speech. It’s a bit like those scenes in old plays where two peasants meet “I heard King Edward had the better of the battle but is now in poor cheer…”

None of the buts have any immediate implications for the action, though they do establish that Grendel is scary. There’s also no conflict here. I can’t come up with a story question, let alone a QABN (Question Answer But Now).

The chapter outline would read:

Hrothgar welcomes Beowulf to his hall as the last best hope.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s turn:

Monpurgo 004

 

I make that roughly 600 words, slightly longer, though she could write shorter.

First, note that Sutcliff is much more florid and poetic in her language. That’s a matter of taste. Some kids – and adults – would bounce right off that. However, there’s also a more objective measure; the outline:

King Hrothgar was once kindly, but is now old and grief stricken.

King Hrothgar : Awesome to see you kid, but are you on the run having killed a man?

Beowulf: No, I came to kill Grendel (implied: “but you might not let me take up the challenge). Please let me take a shot.

King Hrothgar: Nice gesture, but Grendel tends to kill all champions that come against him. Please think about this…

Beowulf: But we have thought about it. We want to do it, but accept we might die.

King Hrothgar: Sigh. OK, but let’s party first (implied: might be your last)

I make six buts, making Sutcliff roughly twice as fast-paced as Morpurgo despite her rich language.

Better, five of those were part of a conflict:

Can Beowulf persuade Hrothgar to let him have a crack at Grendel? Yes, but Hrothgar thinks Beowulf will get killed. Now  Beowulf must take on an appalling monster.

And the chapter outline would read:

Beowulf persuades Hrothgar to let him attempt to kill Grendel, but even so the old man thinks Beowulf will die.

Comparing these two passages is uncomfortable because in the light shone by Rosemary Sutcliff, Morpurgo’s efforts are exposed as a dry chronicling dressed up with melodrama. Sutcliff, on the other hand, had a literary heart that beat in time to the pulse of conflict.

Unfortunately, it was not the grand old lady’s book that came home in Kurtzhau’s schoolbag.


I’m very glad to answer questions via email or in the comments. However, if you have no idea what I am talking about, perhaps you want to try my book on outlining (UK)(CA)(USA)!

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Posted in Book Review, Geek Parenting, Outlining, Storyteller Tools
5 comments on “Beowulf Pitfight! Michael Morpurgo Versus Rosemary Sutcliff
  1. I enjoyed this! And agree with it ….!

  2. mharoldpage says:

    🙂 Thanks. Feel free to retweet or FB it…

  3. Murasaki_1966 says:

    I hope you gave him the Sutcliff to read. Se was my entry into Roman Britian, and I treasure her books.

  4. Geoff Hart says:

    Got to agree with you about some of the tripe I was exposed to in grade school. My particular bête noire was Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers”, which convinced me I never again wanted to read anything by that author — an oath I’ve maintained to this day.

    It occurs to me based on your Beowulf examples that our disagreement (over voice) in another discussion thread may actually relate to how we’re defining voice; I was equating voice with an author’s style, and as your example shows, style can make all the difference.

    It’s also worth noting that for every one of us who “got” why Beowulf was important and why it has survived the centuries, there’s (probably a minimum of) two others who hated and despised the story. I think the great virtue of the canonical books that are forced upon us is precisely that they each of them has survived the centuries. We may not like them, but they speak strongly and passionately to others who have kept them alive. Understanding why others like them, even if we don’t, provides an important lesson in humanity.

    It’s the diversity of world literature, and the diversity of the personal tastes that preserve it, that makes literature survive plagues, economic downturns, and wide swings of government political philosophy. It’s also worth noting that although you can “quantify” aspects of why a book does or doesn’t work for you, that does not in any way reflect an absolute value judgment. One’s choice of metrics is always deeply subjective, and should not be mistaken for laws of nature; it’s still nothing more than a personal opinion. Assuming that your preferences have any objective value can lead to enormous resentment when someone doesn’t care for one of your books. But understanding (and accepting) that tastes differ makes it easier to shrug off an unfavorable review.

    Speaking of someone who remembers teenage attitudes, I’d say it’s a very good thing we were all forced to read a wide range of books, including some that seem to be tripe. It gave us a chance to encounter great works we might never have discovered otherwise. The same teacher who forced us to read “Sons and Lovers” also offered Lord of the Rings as optional reading, and I’ll always be grateful to her for that. (Thanks, Miss Evans, wherever you might be now.) Plus a bunch of other books ranging from really good to “meh” that broadened my horizons and occasionally taught me a few narrative tricks I would never otherwise have learned.

2 Pings/Trackbacks for "Beowulf Pitfight! Michael Morpurgo Versus Rosemary Sutcliff"
  1. […] of Rosemary Sutclif's Beowulf – loved her use of words, especially compared to a dry translation: Beowulf Pitfight! Michael Morpurgo Versus Rosemary Sutcliff | M Harold Page Question is, are there any particular books by Rosemary Sutcliff that are recommended? Just been […]

  2. […] and the Worm: Taking on his fire-breathing worm, the aging King Beowulf (the best retelling of Beowulf is still the Rosemary Sutcliff one, by the way) brings a big iron shield plus his entire warband. When the dragon goes all Apocolypse Now, the […]

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