Madeleine Polland, Beorn the Proud. Bathgate, ND: Bethlehem Books, 1961/1999. 185 pp. Paper. ISBN: 1-883937-08-6. $12.95.
Truth, beauty, and goodness rarely join hands in a children's book. Perhaps because children's books often seek to be didactic, they sacrifice art for teaching. Concern for truth destroys beauty in favor of pedantic passages extolling the virtues of a particular figure. This concern for goodness often cheapens the novel. Unlike Augustine and his apples, the focus becomes whether Johnny will return the stolen pencil instead of the fact that he has offended a holy God. However, occasionally these qualities do come together; Beorn the Proud is one such example. Opening in the Irish hills of the ninth century, a young girl named Ness discovers her village has been attacked by the Black Strangers, the Vikings. Beorn, son of the Sea King, kidnaps Ness and proudly takes her to Denmark as his slave. However, misfortune after misfortune occurs on their journey, culminating in the death of Beorn's father. Left leaderless, the Vikings turn to Beorn's evil cousin for leadership while Beorn chafes against the youth that prevents him from being king. Angered at his new position, Beorn reproaches Ness and her God of humility. During these dark days, Ness overhears a plot to conquer the king of all Denmark. In response, Beorn, his loyal men, and Ness journey to warn the king. After their arrival, Beorn discovers a way to defeat the larger attacking army. In preparation for the battle, the Vikings try to win the favor of their gods by sacrifices, including human ones. Finally, warring troops led by berserkers fill the snow-covered country. But Beorn's plans succeed, and they are victorious. The ancient king rewards him by declaring Beorn his heir over the heads of more worthy men. Not long after this, the king dies. In his arrogance, Beorn tries to assume the throne. Instead the warriors banish him and his followers. Once again Ness speaks to Beorn of the God of meekness. For the first time, he hears and understands. In his new humility he finds the strength to ask his people's forgiveness and lead them to Ireland. In this way, God provides for these outcasts.
The strength of Beorn the Proud lies not only in the engaging plot, but the author's ability to write lovely prose within the limits of a child's vocabulary. This prose not only evokes the sweetness of green Ireland and the arrogance of Beorn, but it also teaches the power of a child's faith and witness.
Despite its many strengths, the novel has weaknesses as well. Parents with young children must remember that this book deals with the history of the time as it was and includes things like: human sacrifice, prayers for the souls of the dead, and the Vikings's cheap regard for human life. But such episodes present wonderful opportunities to teach little ones how to understand the horrors of sin and to discern, so that they may not be "victims of the printed word."
Wisely, Beorn the Proud avoids a "conversion experience" which often belittles the work of regeneration that only God can provide. However, because of this there is a tendency to understand Beorn's conversion as a mere assent to a new God more suited to his new surroundings. This reminds us, though, of what we never can forgetthat fiction, indeed all art, can merely show. Only God's word and the sweet foolishness of preaching tell us the way to God.
Connie (Mrs. Calvin) Keller