The Coming of the Dragon
Rebecca Barnhouse
Random House
2010

I taught portions of Beowulf several times in my few years as a high school English teacher. I often wished for a way to really bring this tale alive for my students–after all, it’s got such terrific story elements: heroes, villains, dragons, body parts being ripped off, pagan culture… what’s not to like? Even a major villain’s mom gets involved.

Enter: The Coming of the Dragon. Barnhouse focuses on the story of Wiglaf in this tale (a lesser known part of Beowulf), and she does a marvelous job of humanizing these mythic heroes. There’s a dragon, of course. And he’s the usual terrifying, fire breathing sort (even seasoned warriors quail before him). Beowulf is the leader of his people; he’s portrayed as a wise and heroic leader. Wiglaf comes of age in this tale, rising to take on the mantle of leadership through his wisdom and valor–despite his genuine fear many times during the tale. In addition, Barnhouse does a superb job of recreating Anglo Saxon culture in this story. In fact, this is perhaps the best feature of the book. Their devotion to their gods, their superstition, their way of life, the presence of both strong men and strong women–all is reflective of an author who’s done her homework.

All in all, if you’re looking for a solid (and clean!) adventure read for your high school kids, if you’re teaching Beowulf and would like a companion tale, if you would like a window into the Anglo Saxon way of life, if you want a book with real heroes–then check this book out from your local library. While you’re at it, check out Redeemed Reader’s lovely discussion of heroes and the significance of the heroic journey.

Worth noting: Peaceweaver, published this year, is a companion novel to this one and focuses on the story of Wiglaf’s future wife who grew up in a different community than did Wiglaf.

Recommended for young adults (although middle schoolers will enjoy this tale, too).

Things to Note/Discuss

  • As mentioned, this is a heroic tale–a nice example of the heroic journey/epic in contemporary language. It may be a good tool to use to look back at some of the great heroic epics, Beowulf among them.
  • The Anglo-Saxon worldview is quite different from our own. Worth discussing, particularly in terms of their superstitions and what they believed as truth (even down to dragons). “The circle of firelight” only shows so much; in other words, to an oral tradition who did not have the benefit of all the scientific study our own culture has had, who’s to say that dragons aren’t real? They gave the best explanation for various phenomenons they could. 

Cover image from goodreads; book from my local library

 

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