The epic 10th century poem Beowulf is the oldest existing literary work in the English language, and yet few speakers of the modern tongue would be able to pick out more than a handful of words throughout its nearly 3200 lines of verse. Year after year throngs of distraught Lit-101 students are subjected to extracts in bad translations, leaving the vast majority with a less than fond remembrance of the effort, and little desire to pursue the story further.
Fortunately for me, I was in the minority in this respect. I had gone to college at the age of 28 to learn the craft of writing, a non-traditional student with an outlook altogether different than the hoards of degree-seeking teens whose goal was merely to get through. I fell in love with Beowulf. It captivated me. Something about this ancient folk tale from the cold northlands called out to me, and so I followed.
At the time I was working as a counter clerk in a rental video outlet, and one day it occurred to me that there had never been a film made of this classic work. By then I was several years into my study of the poem, learning Old English that I might read it in its original language, and reading every academic essay concerning it. Thus, I felt I was ideally suited to undertake that task. And so I set to work.
Unfortunately for me, so did Neil Gaiman. After several more years of work, as I was sending out my script to agents and producers, I was to discover that not one, but two filmed adaptations were already in the works, rendering my screenplay obsolete.
Yet, as I had wanted to be a novelist in the first place, I didn’t let this hinder me, but took it as a sign to press ahead. Thus began the adaptation of my adaptation into prose. What I feel came out of this was that the novel has a heightened visual aspect that it might not have gotten otherwise. Throughout the screenwriting process I had imagined vividly exactly how each scene would play, and although the book has naturally more in it than the script, its characters were brought to detailed life long before I ever wrote page one.
Like many fantasy authors, I’m a devoted fan of Tolkien, and it was through him that I had my first real taste of Beowulf. I had read professor Tolkien’s 1936 dissertation on the poem, and read Gummere’s translation as a result. During the reading of the poem that first time I woke up in the middle of the night with a wholly unrelated story running through my mind, a lucid dream as vivid as if it were the story of my own life. So compelling was it that I got up at 3 a.m. and started to write it down, working diligently until the sun came up. That next day I went out to a thrift store and bought a beat up manual typewriter that barely worked, and decided to become a writer.
That was nearly twenty years ago, and just last fall I finally published my first novel, the culmination of ten years worth of work on Beowulf. I have yet to finish writing down the dream I had that night so long ago, as the journey it revealed is still unfolding.
For detailed notes on the adaptation process I underwent in writing The Saga of Beowulf, or to read sample chapters, please visit my website at www.fantasycastlebooks.com, where you will also find a wealth of resources to further your enjoyment of this epic tale.
R. Scot Johns is a life-long student of ancient and medieval literature, with an enduring fascination for Norse mythology and epic fantasy. He first came to Beowulf through his love of J. R. R. Tolkien, a leading scholar on the subject. As an Honors Medieval Literature major he has given lectures on such topics as the historical King Arthur and the construction of Stonehenge. He owns and operates Fantasy Castle Books, his own publishing imprint, and writes the blog Adventures of an Independent Author, where you can follow his progress as he writes The Jester’s Quest, his second novel.
You can visit his website at www.fantasycastlebooks.com.