The reason we read N.D. Wilson’s The Boys of Blur smack in the middle of several ancient literature selections is its relationship to Beowulf, which we read first. Apparently I forgot to mention this to the girls in my literature class. I assigned half the book for one week. When we met the next week for discussion, I asked what they thought of it. They really weren’t appreciating it much, and their reasons had to do with how weird and dark the story is. I was a little surprised that they were all feeling the same way. We talked a bit more, and I asked if they’d noticed any familiar elements after having read Beowulf.
What are the bad creatures called in Blur? “Gren,” they all said. Then the lights came on. “Ohhhh! Grendel!”
Once the girls made that connection, their attitude toward the story changed. It’s still darker than many of the books we’ve read. Hard things happen to good people; some die. But the second half made so much more sense when they started thinking of Beowulf. They ended up truly enjoying the story.
I won’t recap Boys of Blur here, since Sara has written such a thorough review.
Here are some of the questions we discussed after reading both books:
In Beowulf, the identity of the characters is established by recounting their lineage as each is introduced. Perhaps there is a famous, courageous warrior or king in a man’s family tree. Does he have a heritage worth living up to, or must he live it down?
How is this emphasis on ancestry echoed in Blur?
In Beowulf, the fight between good and evil takes the form of man against demons, descendants of Cain. This is purely strength and courage against strength. Good and evil are black and white.
In Blur, the fight continues, but it has grown into a fight against envy and hate as well.
Are good and evil as clearly defined?
How/why does Wilson expand on this conflict?
Does his Christian outlook change the presentation of the conflict?
Charlie tells Mrs. Wisdom that he’d rather die than not try to save his cousin. Because he has said this out loud, and because he focuses on thoughts of his family when hateful thoughts try to take control, he is able to go on when he doesn’t believe it possible. Do other characters learn self-sacrifice in the story because of their loyalty to family or something else?
Is their motivation the same as Beowulf’s? If not, why not?
In Beowulf, we are constantly reminded that everyone is eventually going to die, no matter how bravely they behave.
Does Wilson maintain this tone? Does he turn it on its head? Why/how?
In Beowulf, swords are important enough to have names. However, they seem to fail when they’re needed the most. What are we to think about this?
What are the main weapons in Blur? Do they do the job, or is it something else that prevails? What are we to think of this?
What is the significance of the ironwood sword that finally kills the Mother?
I really enjoy Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, and have taught from it a couple of times.
This one is particularly fun because there is a photograph of Viking artifacts facing nearly every page of text.
Having said that, I will tell you that I chose to use Tolkien’s translation for this class. As much as I love Heaney’s poetic form, I have found that it is simply too difficult for most students to understand on their own. When I taught in a school and saw my students five days a week, I could walk them through the story, reading, interpreting, and discussing. I don’t have that kind of time with this class. They have to do as much reading as possible on their own and come to class each week with a basic understanding of what they have read.
I think reading Wilson’s The Boys of Blur in conjunction with Beowulf gave my girls a little more time and motivation to contemplate Beowulf that they wouldn’t have had if we had read Beowulf and moved on.