Charles Keeping’s Beowulf




The British illustrator Charles Keeping (1924–88) is remembered largely for his work with children’s books. But his morbid style—his first book commission was Why Die of Heart Disease?—often felt better suited to adult fare, and his long career also saw him illustrate Wuthering Heights, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Idiot, and—most impressive—the complete works of Dickens, from Pickwick clean through to Chuzzlewit. The series took him a decade.

In 1982, he contributed these inspired illustrations to an adaptation of Beowulf for ages nine and up. (You can see more of the drawings at Book Graphics.) If your nine-year-old can handle a bleary, ceaselessly gray world in which the sun is a soot-black blot and humans roam the earth in a miasma of hair and stink, have at it. 

As dismal as these drawings are, there’s also a wry humor to them, and real sympathy—especially for the enemy. You can see it here in Grendel’s eyes, which look more scared than scary. As John Gardner did in Grendel, Keeping bestows humanity and dignity on him; you end up sort of rooting for him. (Spoiler: he is slain.)

Keeping brought the same weird pathos to his original work. In 1975, he wrote Cockney Ding Dong—“his most personal work,” a biographer attests—a collection of songs from his childhood. There’s apparently a record of the songs, too, in which Keeping lends his own vocal talents to a number called “They’re Moving Father’s Grave to Build a Sewer!”

Exactly the man you want illustrating Beowulf for the kids.