Tag Archives: Kevin Crossley-Holland

Beowulf – 4: Charles Keeping’s illustrations

Moving some books around I found a copy of Beowulf, with the credits on the cover to Charles Keeping and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Readers will know that the illustrator is not normally the first named. Most readers of children’s books in the post war period will be familiar with Charles Keeping and his style of illustrations. Many of my copies of books by Rosemary Sutcliff have them, including Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf.

It is not immediately apparent that this is a book for young readers, but the blurb on the back says that it is ‘retold for children’. A Wikipedia search tells me that Oxford University Press created a series of four books, this is one of them, to showcase Charles Keeping’s illustrations. It was published in 1982. I can’t remember how it came into my possession, possibly I inherited it in the collection of books I received when my mother died a few years ago. 

This is the fourth in a series of connected posts, connected by the ancient English poem Beowulf. You can find links to the previous posts at the end of this piece.

Beowulf

This is not a translation, but a retelling by Kevin Crossley-Holland. I referred to another version of his in the first post I wrote on this ancient poem as well as the version by Rosemary Sutcliff published in 1961, also with illustrations by Charles Keeping. In the present version the illustrations are powerful and provide the dark atmosphere for the story.

They are in black and white which makes for stark images and reflects the Nordic location of the poem. Beowulf was a Geat (from present day Sweden) who travelled to assist Hrothgar, the king of Denmark. This king had built a huge feasting hall, Heorat, that was being terrorised by a monster called Grendel.

The illustrations do not shy away from the horror, violence, and pain. The story tells how Beowulf defeated Grendel, causing his death by ripping off his arm. Not just one but two monsters are taken on by Beowulf. If anything, Grendel’s nameless mother is an even more formidable enemy than Grendel. She has supernatural powers and Beowulf must wrestle with her underwater. 

The pictures are drawn with fine lines, which pick out individual features, for example of sleeping warriors. But the lines are also used to create the surroundings of the figures, often in fog, or at night, or with simple stalks growing from the ground. When we see them, the people’s faces are gnarly and often scarred. Grendel is the stuff of nightmares.

Through the dark night a darker shape slid. A sinister figure shrithed down from the moors, over high shoulders, sopping tussocks , over sheep runs, over gurgling streams. It shrithed towards the timbered hall, huge and hairy and slightly stooping. Its long arms swung loosely. (17)

Perhaps only the one-armed Grendel shrieking as he ran is more terrible. Or his hairy arm, ripped from his body and pinned up by the entrance to the hall. Commentators suggest that Charles Keeping’s monsters have a human and vulnerable quality to them, and that makes them appealing to the viewer/reader.

Charles Keeping 

Charles Keeping was born in 1924 and spent some of the war years in the RAF serving as a wireless operator. At the end of the war he was wounded and after his recouperation attended art school and began his career as an illustrator. It took off after he had illustrated Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel The Silver Branch. He had a very successful career, illustrating children’s books most often. He died in May 1988.

Beowulf by Charles Keeping & Kevin Crossley-Holland, published in 1982 by Oxford University Press.

You can see several of Charles Keeping’s illustration on the Paris review website (September 2015) called Charles Keeping’s Beowulf with a link to yet more.

Related posts

Beowulf – 1 (February 2021)

Beowulf – 2, in which he meets a feminist (June 2021)

Beowulf – 3, Grendel by John Gardner (March 2022)

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Filed under Books, Books for children, illustrations, Reading

The Exeter Book

When did English literature begin? Where, how did it begin? A contender for the honour can be found in a city in the South West of England: Exeter, in its Cathedral Library and Archive. It’s called the Exeter Book.

The Exeter Book has survived a thousand years, not always cared for, and not always intelligible. It is now in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives collection, and you can visit it on its monthly open days.

What is the Exeter Book?

Written in Old English some time between 960 and 990 the Exeter Book – or The Codex Exoniensis to use its Latin name – is first heard of in the library of the first Bishop of Exeter, Leofric, in 1072. It is not known how it came into Leofric’s possession.

Originally the Book had 131 parchment leaves, but the first eight pages are lost. The text was written by one person, in miniscule Old English, and with some runes included.

The Book contains 96 riddles and some longer poems. A few of the poems have Christian connections, but the collection is largely secular, despite its long connection with the Cathedral.

Another mystery is the reason for its original compilation. The anthology may have been a random collection of riddles and poems, or the favoured pieces of its first owner, surely a wealthy man. The preparation of the 130 parchment leaves, from animal skins, and of the ink from oak galls would have required many hours of labour.

Leofric’s described the Book in this way:

mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoð-wisan geworht (ie: a large English book of poetic works about all sorts of things).

Leofric was a collector of books. He gave 66 to his cathedral between 1050 and 1072 when he died. The first page of his Anglo-Saxon Missal, now in the Bodleian, contains his ‘curse’, first in Latin and then in Anglo-Saxon.

Bishop Leofric gives this missal to the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle in Exeter for the use of his successors. If anyone shall take it away from thence, let him lie under eternal malediction.

Why has it survived?

The survival of the Book is a good story in itself. It may have survived precisely because it was not valued. It is more than a thousand years old, but for 700 years few people, if any, could read Old English and the great tome was neglected. There is evidence that it was used as a stand for a pot of glue and to hold gold leaf. It bears the marks of significant neglect, such a scorch mark on the last few leaves, perhaps from a poker. It may have survived precisely because it was not valued. Despite his curse, in the 17th century many of the books from Leofric’s library, along with others from the Cathedral’s collection, were given to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Exeter Book was left behind, perhaps unnoticed.

Why is it important?

Books were treasured articles in the 11th century. They required much labour to produce and sacred texts with their illuminations required skill and artistic sensibility. The Book has a very pleasing regular script, even if it contains no illuminations.

The Exeter Book is one of only four Old English books to have survived to the present. You probably know of Beowulf. In recent times, interest in the text has been reawakened. In particular, both WH Auden and JR Tolkien are known to have been influenced by the poems. The riddles have been translated into Modern English by Kevin Crossley-Holland and published by Enitharmon Press (2008). One of the riddles inspired Nicola Lefanu to compose a song (Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 27th April 2017).

Riddle 47

A moth ate words. That seemed to me
when I heard of that strange happening, a curious event,
that the insect, a thief in darkness, devoured
what was written by some man, this excellent language
and its strong foundations. The thievish stranger was not
at all the wiser for swallowing these words.

For the answer change the last letter of this blog’s name.

An Artist’s Treat

The book is kept in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives. I visited it in April 2017. There are monthly open days to view the book and talk to Archive staff. They are proud and enthusiastic about this precious volume: no lying ‘under eternal malediction’ for them. And, yes, visiting books is the kind of thing I do for fun, or as a Writer’s Treat.

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