Whose Song Is Sung
Frank Schaefer, Whose Song Is Sung, Tor Books, 1996, hc, ISBN 0-312-85756-x, 300 pp.
I picked this up on a remainder shelf which in one sense is a pity for it deserves better and in another is fortunate since I would not have otherwise read it.
It is a retelling of Beowulf from the viewpoint of Musculus, the dwarf, the extension of the title being “Or, a Narrative of the Travels of Musculus Herodes Formosus, the Dwarf, though Barbarian Territories, Including an Account of His Sojourn with the Northmen, and a True Description of the Demise of a Monster Known as the Grundbur at the Hands of the Hero, Beowulf, and certain other Related Incidents, which have elsewhere been Misrepresented.”
The dustjacket blurb remarks “Blending strong historical research with riveting storytelling, bestselling author Frank Schaefer has crafted a compelling tale that is at once grand in scope and intimate in human detail.” I have no notion of how reliable the “strong historical research” is – blurb writers are not exceptionally reliable in their descriptions – and, for that matter, am quite uncertain as to the extent to which Schaefer has taken liberties with the Beowulf legend; it has been ages (to not coin a phrase) since I read Beowulf if, indeed, I’ve ever read Beowulf at all. On one hand Beowulf and its imagery are so widely repeated that elements of the story sound familiar irrespective of one’s acquaintance with the original; on the other it one finds with the decrepitude of advanced age that there are books that one has read that one has no memory of having read.
Thus it is that I cannot offer to the interested reader any details as to where and in what way Schaeffer has invented novelties. Lacking this sop to scholarship let me proceed to a discussion of the work itself.
The novel is presented as the reminisces of the dwarf, Musculus, being written in his nineties whilst residing in a monastery, the events in the Beowulf legend having occurred when he was in his forties.
The first third of the book is a history of his life prior to that time. He was a court dwarf and familiar of the Emperor Heraclius. After the emperor’s death he was exiled and sold as a slave in the hinterland . He was acquired by the Greek merchant Kapsabelis in Kiev. When his master was slaughtered by Azak the Bulgar he escaped and made his way north. After two years alone in the wilderness with the raven Amin as his only company he made connection with a group of northmen (called Geats in the book) led by Einnar also known as Beowulf. He travels with them as they return to their homeland.
The second third of the book is an account of Beowulf’s homeland, its politics, its customs, and the circumstances whereby Beowulf set out to slay the Grundbur (Grendel). The last third of the book is an account of the arrival at Heorot, the slaying of the Grundbur, and the final slaying of its mate.
I am inclined to believe that Schaeffer does not alter the tale except in those instances where Musculus remarks that the scops got the details wrong. On the other hand I do not know how much detail he added.
The story is well told – it is a good read – and the atmosphere and customs of the time seem to be accurate. The treatment of women and slaves will offend modern sensibilities of course.
This page was last updated October 1, 2000.