An Interview with Author Rebecca Barnhouse – The Coming of the Dragon

12 Apr

Rebecca Barnhouse is the author of The Coming of the Dragon. She writes books for middle graders and young adults. Rebecca teaches and writes about medieval topics and about children’s literature set in the Middle Ages. Please visit her website at

1. I try not to interject myself into these interviews, but I have to comment on the premise of your book, The Coming of the Dragon. As I understand it, the story is not a retelling of the Beowulf story, but it does involve King Beowulf and some elements of the original Beowulf story. When I was a teenager, (which was probably only about 20 or so years after the whole Beowulf/Grendel incident occurred) most of my classmates (all boy school) were very good readers, but the idea of reading an epic poem in something that only vaguely resembled the English we knew was not exactly one that we embraced. However, most of us loved the story and I think that proves that if a story is compelling, we are willing to push through anything to finish it. The story of Beowulf had many of the elements that boys love:  heroes, monsters, and battles. So, with that entirely self-absorbed introduction over, please tell us about The Coming of the Dragon. Is the story involving Grendel mentioned in this book? Where in time, in relation to that event, does this story occur?

How great that you and your classmates loved Beowulf when you were teenagers! “Heroes, monsters, and battles,” as you say—what’s not to love? (Well, besides all those digressions and difficult names and stories within stories that can make it very hard to follow the main action of the poem.)

In The Coming of the Dragon the focus is not on the first half of the poem, in which Beowulf battles Grendel and Grendel’s mother. Instead, I skip forward to the second half of the poem, which takes place after Beowulf has ruled for 50 years. When a thief steals a goblet from a dragon’s hoard, the dragon gets revenge by destroying much of Beowulf’s kingdom. The king takes a small band of warriors with him to fight the dragon—but except for one young warrior, they all abandon the king in his hour of need. That’s the story I’m telling in my novel, so in that sense I am retelling part of the poem. But I’m also inventing a lot of backstory for my protagonist, Rune, whose nickname comes from the from runic letters inscribed on the amulet he wears around his neck. It was there when—as a baby—he washed up on Geatland’s shores. So was a sword, a shield, and a coat of mail. Throughout the novel, Rune struggles to find his courage and his identity.

2. What about this novel do you think young boys would enjoy?

Besides heroes, monsters and battles? How about ancient swords, chain-link mail, and masked helmets? Or a terrifying, fire-breathing dragon? Trust me, this is not your friendly, ride-on-my-back, read-my-thoughts kind of dragon. It has no name and it wants vengeance! If that’s not enough to get boys reading, there is also friendship and a smidgeon of romance—and plenty of action to make them keep turning the pages.

3. What style would you say it is written in? Is there any history to
be learned from this story?

Although the novel—like Beowulf itself—is historical fantasy, the style is realistic. I want readers to experience the heat and wind and acrid smell that Rune feels when a dragon flies directly over his head. The kind of weapons sixth-century Scandinavian tribes used, the architecture of their halls (no castles here!), the kinds of food they ate, the drinking horns they used; that’s the kind of history readers will pick up from this novel. There are also references to Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse literature and culture.

4. Is this novel intended for middle graders? Do you think young
adults would like it, too?

Rune is 16 years old. Originally, the book was intended for a YA audience, although now it’s being marketed for middle grade readers. But I think it’s for anyone who loves fantasy.

5. Your previous novel, The Book of the Maidservant, has a girl
protagonist. Did you give any thought to the prospective audience
for The Coming of the Dragon when you were writing or editing it?
Did you intend for this to be a book for boys?

I wasn’t really thinking about the audience when I wrote the book—instead, I was thinking about how to tell Rune’s story while remaining as true as I could to Beowulf. As a teenager, I loved fantasy novels about both male and female characters (still do, in fact), and never thought of them as being boy books or girl books.

6. Is there a sequel planned for The Coming of the Dragon?

There’s a companion book, called Peaceweaver, in the works. A different character, a girl, tells her version of events, and there’s some overlap with The Coming of the Dragon.

7. If you had to describe this novel by comparing it to other books,
which would you choose and why?

Besides Beowulf, right? The novel is full of the classic fantasy tropes, such as a main character of unknown parentage who has to prove his mettle both to himself and to those who are suspicious of him. In some ways, I’m drawing on all the fantasy novels I read growing up, starting with the works of J. R. R. Tolkien (who makes liberal use of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon literature himself). Recent novels that might make good comparisons to this one are Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother, which is the first novel in her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, or John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice books.

8. Can you think of any novels by other authors that you would
recommend to boys?

For readers who want more about Beowulf, Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel, Beowulf, is excellent. Other fantasy novels I recommend include Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia books, starting with The Thief, and Cinda Williams Chima’s The Warrior Heir and its sequels. A wonderful novel that middle grade boys and girls are going to love, Matthew Kirby’s The Clockwork Three, is coming out in October 2010.

For readers who have the patience for gorgeous, complex language, I highly recommend Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea (published in 1967, it features a school for young wizards). For YA readers, I can’t recommend Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock highly enough. Cynthia Voigt’s The Wings of a Falcon, too.

9. When is this novel being released?

October 26, 2010.

10. Rebecca, your bio says that you’re a teacher. What do you think
schools can do to encourage boys to read?

Individual schools don’t have control over this, but the number one thing I wish the country would do is get rid of our focus on testing. Without meaning to, No Child Left Behind has turned “reading” into reading sentences and paragraphs in order to answer multiple choice questions. It has gotten rid of the concept of reading for pleasure (not to mention its pernicious effect on the arts, on science, and on any subject other than reading and math).

Something I think teachers and schools can still do is to recognize other forms of reading than novels, which we sometimes focus on to the exclusion of nonfiction. I’ve known boys who can very happily absorb encyclopedic works about engines and vehicles, but who are left cold at the thought of reading fiction. I know I’m stereotyping here, but I’m also taking examples from my own family. Exciting magazine stories, for example from Flying or Sports Illustrated, are valid reading material, too, and reading about subjects they feel a passion for can help both boys and girls gain confidence in their reading skills.

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Written by Carl

  1. Kirsten Lesko

    April 12, 2010 at 11:41 am

    I love the idea of involving elements of the Beowulf story. Beowulf is very difficult to get into and understand. It sounds like this book could provide a great bridge.