Blacktip Island’s rugged shores are the setting for Antonio Fletcher’s modernized rendition of the epic poem Beowulf. (photo by Paloma Fairlead / BTT staff)
Local author Antonio Fletcher this week released his modern Caribbean retelling of the Old English epic poem Beowulf in an effort to popularize a literary classic by recasting it in a modern setting to make it more culturally relevant.
“Most folks know the Beowulf story, or the first part of it, but who’s really read it? Or seen the movie? Not me,” Fletcher said. “Bringing it up to date, making it matter here and now, that’ll make Blacktip Islanders proud, you know. Taking some stale old story and claiming it for our own. Like what Derek Walcott did with The Odyssey. I expect this’ll do at least as well.
“An Old English poem and the modern Caribbean don’t seem likely to work together, but that’s where it gets its energy,” Fletcher said. “I switched out those cock-eyed, four-beat staves with a soca rhythm to give a Caribbean feel, and instead of ‘wine-dark seas’ and ‘whale roads,’ I got ‘rum-dark seas’ and ‘wahoo roads, so it’s pretty different. Calling it Barra-Wulf,” ‘cause the hero’s like a barracuda.”
Fletcher said his inspiration came at a bar late one night.
“Sitting in the Ballyhoo a few months back, and ol’ Dermott had had him too much white rum and started tearing the place apart, laying out anyone who got within reach,” he said. “I thought, ‘Dermott looks like a big, shaggy animal busting up a good party, and that put me in mind of Beowulf.
“Barra-Wulf starts with the Blacktip Island mersquatch busting up a resort bar on a big karaoke night,” Fletcher said. “Barra-Wulf, he motors up in his in his flat-end canoe, hears about a monster ruining island parties and decides to do something about it. He whacks the mersquatch, then the mama mersquatch, just like in the poem. At the end, he dies fighting a giant barracuda. Kills it, but he dies, too. It’s something everyone can relate to.”
Local literary critics applauded Fletcher’s efforts.
“Cross-cultural literary appropriation is a long-standing literary tradition, so Antonio is in fine company. I expect,” Blacktip Times book reviewer and part-time literature professor Paloma Fairlead said. “Beowulf is about a hero who travels great distances to test his strength against supernatural monsters, despite impossible odds. That take on the human condition is universal, even on Blacktip, and shows we’re not so different from people a thousand years ago on the other side of the world.
“I haven’t actually read ‘Tonio’s book yet, but it sounds like he swung for the fences,” Fairlead said. “Tackling a classic like that is refreshingly ambitious on an island where ‘literature’ is too often the label of a beer bottle. It’s ‘Tonio, so the language and phrasing are probably a bit rough, but it will no doubt resonate with readers.”
Some residents, though, were not so positive.
“Haven’t read ‘Tonio’s book either, but no way anyone could make that old thing more boring, so ‘Tonio’s on solid ground there,” James Conlee said. “Thing is, this’s the 21st Century. People have smart TVs and email and Ebay and all that. Nobody’s got time for some 300-page poem. Unless there’s sex scenes in it. And there’s not, as far as I could tell.
“Man fights a monster, then goes fishing, then dies. Nothing new about that,” Conlee said. “My signed copy makes a great coaster, though. And a doorstop, in a pinch.”
Fletcher remained unphased by the criticism.
“People on this little rock need heroes, and I’m giving them one, one that could be any one of them in the right circumstances,” he said. “Except one person, but I’m not saying who that is.”