School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—Loosely based on the final years of Beowulf's kingship, this imaginative retelling fleshes out the story of the only man who truly stands beside the great king to the end. Rune is an infant when he washes ashore in a mysterious boat and is spared death by King Beowulf and Amma, a strange old woman who becomes a mother figure to him. The king protects Rune and trains him to fight, but he remains a threat and a misfit in the minds of most villagers. He is content living a simple life until a vicious dragon is awakened and destroys everyone and everything he loves. Avenging his family leads him to answers about his own heritage as well as some nail-biting suspense as he confronts the dragon more than once. While Rune's naked insecurity and self-doubt wear thin at times, his innocence and perseverance make him a sympathetic and unlikely hero. An adventure-filled coming-of-age tale.—Mandy Lawrence, Fowler Middle School, Frisco, TX
Children's Literature - Kathleen Karr
Barnhouse, an Old English and Norse scholar, takes a creditable stab at continuing the Beowulf saga during the hero's old age as king of the Geats. The story is told by Rune, the foundling who was rescued and raised as a farmer by the wise woman Amma. Rune has prickly relationships with most of the superstitious Viking community who see him as a curse-bringer. By the age of sixteenwhen the main story opensthese attitudes have left Rune a shy, defensive, whipped-dog sort of outcast. That's when The Dragon wakes-and Rune is present to cower in fear as the beast gives him a scorching nod before proceeding to torch the kingdom. Attempting to prove himself, Rune is always just a little too late: too late with his dragon warning to King Beowulf (whose Great Hall is already sizzling); too late to warn his farm family (Amma, their householder and sons are already burnt to crisps.) And always on the horizon is his nemesis, Dayraven, trying to murder Rune's reputation, then Rune himself. With King Beowulf as his only defender, Rune must learn to grow within his constraints to find his place in this harshly male Viking world. How he outwits both Dayraven and the Dragon becomes a tale of truth telling and courage. Add the sword-fighting and head-lopping action and Barnhouse's novel makes a good reluctant reader choice for middle school boys. Reviewer: Kathleen Karr
Shaping her novel around the last part of Beowulf, Barnhouse ponders the question of good leadership in a violent age. When the infant Rune washes up on the shores of Geatland, many see him as cursed, but the aging King Beowulf spares him and places him in the care of Amma, a wisewoman, who raises him with the ancient lays. When the dragon of the poem lays waste to the countryside and kills many, including Amma and much of the guard that are not off defending against the ever-threatening Shylfings, the now-teenage Rune seeks to prove himself and avenge Amma. In a gutsy move, the author locates the climactic battle with the dragon in the center of the novel, forcing Rune and the Geats to cope with life in a post-Beowulf world and imagine new paths to prosperity. Much of this part of the narrative and the characterization seem more informed by 21st-century sensibilities than ancient Scandinavian ones, but within the framework of the likable Rune's coming of age it works, providing readers with much food for thought—and some hope. (author's note, pronunciation guide) (Fiction. 10-14)
Read an Excerpt
From the corner of his eye, Rune saw the scythe blade swing down. As he watched, horrified, it cut into Hwala's calf. Everything happened at once: Hwala yelled; Skoll turned, puzzled by the sound; and Skyn's mouth dropped open as he realized what he'd done. Then came the blood.
"Father!" Skoll cried, catching Hwala as he stumbled.
Skyn's scythe dropped to the ground.
Rune rushed forward to kneel beside his foster father.
From between clenched teeth, Hwala grunted, "Get Amma."
Almost before the words had been uttered, Rune was running, racing toward the farmhouse and the hut beyond it that he shared with Amma. Gods, let her be there, he prayed, his arms pumping as he skirted a boulder and pelted through the homefield, not taking the time to go around it. "Lady of the Vanir, I beg of you," he whispered as he burst through the hay. He skidded to a stop, but not fast enough to keep him from colliding with Amma.
"Sorry," he said, panting as he steadied her. "Hwala's hurt."
"I know. Where is he?"
In his sixteen winters, Rune had learned not to question how Amma knew the things she did. "The west field," he said.
She picked up the basket he'd knocked from her hand. "I'll need water."
Rune nodded and took off for the hut. When he caught up with her again, she was only halfway there. He took her basket in one hand, her arm in the other. The image of the blade hitting Hwala's leg, the blood welling around the wound, made him want to pullher into a run, but she was already moving as quickly as her age would allow.
How had it happened? They had come to the end of one row when Hwala had turned. Had he walked directly into the path of his son's blade? How had Skyn not seen him?
After what seemed an eternity, they reached the edge of the field. Across the stubble and the shocks of grain, Rune could see the curve of Skoll's shoulders as he bent over his father, who lay on the ground, fallen stalks of grain around him. Skyn stood a little distance away, his face gray, the fist of his shorter arm beating into the open hand of his longer one, over and over again, as if he wasn't aware he was doing so.
Rune helped Amma to sit on the ground beside Hwala. She shooed Skoll back and reached out to probe the wound with her fingers.
"Water," she said, and Rune crouched beside her, handing her the waterskin.
"Get away from him. I'll do it." Skoll's voice was as icy as his eyes.
Rune opened his mouth, then closed it and handed his foster brother the water. It sloshed and gurgled inside the leather bag. Skoll gave him a look that made his meaning clear. Rune rose and backed away.
"I need goat wort," Amma said, and Skoll rifled uncertainly through the basket until she snapped, "Give me the whole thing." With one hand on Hwala's leg, she reached for a leather pouch and opened it with her teeth.
Rune clenched his fist. He would have had the bag of goat wort open by now and the leaves crushed between his fingers. Instead, Amma had to do it all herself, taking precious time. He turned his head so he didn't have to see the pain etched into Hwala's face.
Finally, as she finished tying a bandage tightly around the wound, Amma spoke to Hwala for the first time. "If it doesn't fester, you won't die."
He nodded wordlessly.
"How will we know if it festers?" Skoll asked.
"You'll know." She gathered her pouches and jars and placed them back in her basket. "You two." She gestured toward Skyn and Skoll. "Take your father home. Don't let him put any weight on it." Then she turned back to Hwala. "Bed for a few days at least. I'll come in the morning."
From the Hardcover edition.