Monsters all

Emil Antonucci’s Grendel

This is my first of two posts for RIPXIV (Readers Imbibing Peril, 14th year), a community read of frightening books. And let me start with this: I’m not a horror-genre type of reader (or viewer — I repeatedly turn away from opportunities to watch certain films because I don’t like being frightened — and yes, I know exactly what I’m missing, so no thank you!). But this particular theme allows me to grab a few books I’ve been meaning to (re-)read for years.

Today’s theme is monsters, of the blood and gore type, with a focus on one monster in particular: Grendel. The original tale, of which we have only one copy, and that because a trustee threw it out the window of a burning library back in 1731 (you can find a brief history of the manuscript-that-nearly-died here), has inspired poets and Old English scholars of the past 200 years or so to create several dozen translations (a list of these can be found here). There are also films, spoofs, and John Gardner’s well-known retelling from the monster’s point of view.

In brief, the monster Grendel has been attacking (and eating) King Hrothgar’s men, women, children, and livestock for 12 years. Beowulf shows up and, completely unarmed, defeats the monster by tearing off his arm. Grendel’s mother then threatens trouble, so Beowulf dives into a snake-filled swamp to kill her. Many years later, he takes on a dragon but doesn’t survive the battle. Lots of bragging, blood, battle, glorification of battle, not to mention the usual gold and conquest. Here are 3 versions of this tale:

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, J. R. R. Tolkien (completed 1926, published 2014)

According to Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who edited his father’s manuscript and lecture notes to form this lengthy volume, Tolkien was “determined to make a translation as close as he could to the exact meaning in detail of the Old English poem”. Thus Tolkien’s choice to use prose rather than poetic form. Yet he manages to include alliteration (which is a major part of the original), as well as syntactic inversions that slowed down my reading but gave the flavor of old tales. For instance:

Never in days of life before nor later with harder fortune guards in hall he found.¹

In other words, Grendel never picked a worse time to attack the hall [because he doesn’t realize that Beowulf is waiting for him]. But Tolkien’s version sounds a lot grander than my straight-forward interpretation.

Tolkien’s commentary, more than twice as long as the poem itself, includes notes on his choices, explaining at length, for instance, how OE hronráde is best translated — emphatically not as “whale road”, but rather “dolphin’s riding” or “the watery fields where you can see dolphins and lesser members of the whale-tribe playing, or seeming to gallop like a line of riders on the plains” (p. 142). For his translation, Tolkien shortens this to “the sea where the whale rides”, and his explanation makes it clear that he knows Old English as well as he knows Modern English. When Tolkien was writing this translation, he had already started creating his tales of Middle Earth; in Beowulf, he is clearly honing his high-fantasy linguistic skills, and I couldn’t help picturing Smaug’s treasure horde and Aragorn so fearsome in battle.

¹Lines 718-719: naéfre hé on aldordagum aér ne siþðan / heardran haéle healðegnas fand. These translate as: “he never in the days of his life, ere nor after, / harder luck or [sic] hall-thanes found.” See

Next up, a recent graphic novel version of Beowulf.

Beowulf, Santiago García and David Rubín (2018, tr. Sam Stone and Joe Keatinge)

I feel lucky that I know the story fairly well, because it isn’t always easy to follow what’s happening through this graphic novel. The big picture — very big, since this volume is 8½” by 12″ (21½ by 31 cm) — is easy to follow, but it isn’t always clear who is doing what to whom. All of the Danes (Hrothgar’s clan) and the Geats (Beowulf et al) have broken noses, so it takes careful scanning to differentiate the characters. Words, in octagonal speech bubbles or splashed across the background during battle scenes, are used infrequently. Instead, García and Rubín give us complex pages, some with insets that provide close-up views of tiny motions or details — a frowning eye, long fingernails on an ancient hand, a cat observing from under a chair.

But, the horror, the horror. Rubín’s vision of this tale is not a pretty one. Gore is on every page; a blood-red stream flows almost non-stop from the cover to the final panel. Life in those days was neither pretty nor easy (those broken-nose vestiges of never ending wars).

Grendel killing one of Hrothgar’s thanes, before Beowulf tears off that arm

The story begins with a set of images that take us from an underground cave to a waterfall, ending with two blood-red eyes, which could also be a view up a well to a blood-red sky. Turn the page, and we find snow falling around wind-blown grass, bare tree branches, a startled dog, a diving crow — a pinkish sky in the background of each image. Sunrise? Sunset? Or just a bloody mist, because a murder of crows are feasting on something and filling the air with crimson droplets. That “something” turns out to be human remains. The monster has attacked again.

Despite the gore and confusing story line, this is a gorgeous book, colors gleaming and human bodies (especially male) idealized with strength and hardiness, even (or especially) those scarred from battle. The monsters — Grendel, his mother, the dragon — are truly terrifying, with teeth a shark would envy. The stuff of nightmares, indeed.

And finally, this nearly 50-year-old classic:

Grendel, John Gardner (1971, illus. Emil Antonucci)

After García’s and Rubín’s blood-soaked visual experience, it’s difficult to imagine how Grendel could be a sympathetic antihero, but Gardner works magic with this tale of a lonely monster driven to murderous mayhem. Told in Grendel’s voice, we learn about the beast’s childhood underground and gradual education in the open air: seasons, plants, animals, humans. As centuries pass, he watches Stone Age humans evolve into Iron Age warriors, is disgusted with the violence around him, and then joins it. Gardner also takes Grendel on a philosophical journey, exploring nihilism and free will in conversation with a dragon, who tells him:

Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things. No wind. No light. Nothing stirring, not even an ant, a spider. A silent universe. Such is the end of the flicker of time, the brief, hot fuse of events and ideas set off, accidentally, and snuffed out, accidentally, by man. Not a real ending of course, nor even a beginning. Mere ripple in Time’s stream.

Antonucci’s Grendel

Gardner, through Grendel’s actions and observations, punctures myth after myth. Justice? (“Why does the bread-thief die and the murdering thane/escape by a sleight by the costliest of advocates?”), democracy? (“… satisfy the greed of the majority, and the rest will do you no harm. That’s it. You’ve still got your fiction of consent.”), heroic bravery? (Of Beowulf, Grendel says, “I understood at last the look in his eyes. He was insane.”)

Is there a bit of insanity behind every brave act? It’s an interesting question, one I’m not prepared to discuss in depth at this point. But that so-human insanity must also be part of Grendel’s make-up, and begs the question of who is, finally, the monster here?

To end on a brighter note, here‘s a 1981 Australian animated version of Gardner’s Grendel (with Peter Ustinov voicing the monster), thanks to a recent post on YouTube:

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R.(eaders) I.(mbibing) P.(eril) XIV

Thanks to a new follower (that’s you, Juliana), I’ve discovered this perfect September-October reading project that makes a good run-up to WitchWeek2019: Readers Imbibing Peril XIV, aka RIP14, 2 months devoted to reading scary tales. Mystery, horror, dark fantasy, Gothic, suspense: any genre that raises the hairs on the back of my neck and makes me leave the lights on all night long will fit. See for details.

Since I’m feeling a bit over-committed, what with my year-long Melville’s 200th project and planning for Witch Week, I’m going to keep this simple and promise at least 2 reviews for RIP. And I’ll admit at this point that I’ll be double-dipping, using novels/novellas/stories/etc already slated for Melville or Witch Week.

My two definite reads are Poe’s dark seafaring tale, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and a new graphic novel version of Beowulf. We’ll see what happens after that.



Posted in Am reading, Fantasy, Mystery, RIP, Witch Week | 4 Comments

Witch Week is coming!

October 30 is only 2 months away, so here’s a gentle reminder to get out your cauldrons and your fright wigs: WITCH WEEK is coming!

The theme? VILLAINS!

Join us at Calmgrove’s blog for a look at those dastardly characters who make life so miserable for heroines and heroes.

This year’s Read-along novel is Diana Wynne Jones’ Cart and Cwidder, the first book in her Dalemark series. Dig out your old copy, or track one down at your local library or bookstore, and be ready to join us.

Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and caldron bubble.

Mount Fløyen hiking trail, Bergen, Norway

Posted in Fantasy, Villains, Witch Week | Tagged | 11 Comments

Everything is connected

Another post in my continuing salute to Herman Melville, on the occasion of his 200th birthday.

For today, I’ve selected an unlikely book, Julian Barnes’ 1989 novel, The History of the World in 10½ Chapters (Borzoi/Knopf). This was the book that shot Barnes to the top of my favorite authors list for some years, and for a while I even had a reader’s crush on him, thanks to the parenthetical half-chapter between Chs 8 and 9. More on this later. For now:

I’m a bit stunned I haven’t reviewed this novel already, as it’s a favorite of mine. Not actually a novel, with identifiable protagonist/antagonist following some kind of arc through the 300+ pages, nor an actual history in any recognizable way, History of the World is instead an exploration of humankind’s unfailing and never-ending ability to get ourselves into big trouble via an almost admirable desire to figure out what the heck this is for. “This”, of course, being our lives.

Barnes starts with retelling the story of Noah’s ark, but from the point of view of an insect stowaway who holds nothing back as it dishes gossip about Noah and his family. It isn’t a pretty tale, full of rainbows and doves and kindly Noah shepherding matched pairs of animals to safety. Nope. These people, according to the woodworm, are pretty despicable. For instance, any animal not meeting Noah’s criteria for “acceptable” got tossed overboard. His jealousy cost us the unicorn, and he keel-hauled the ass for trying to mate with a mare. (By the way, the offspring of this mating is a mule, so we’re lucky Noah didn’t kill the ass outright.) Noah took not just 2, but 7 of many animals, and it soon becomes clear that this is because the humans will need something to eat. Noah’s ark is essentially a “floating cafeteria.”

Saved from the flood, but intended for the fire. This would make a fitting epitaph for humanity, and subsequent chapters show that it could be justly deserved: A cruise boat’s lecturer finds himself in a quandary when hijackers come aboard and threaten to start killing passengers. A medieval religious court tries and excommunicates the beetle species responsible for rendering a bishop insensate by eating through the leg of a throne that collapsed when he sat on it. A woman and a pregnant cat survive nuclear holocaust (or perhaps this was just a fever dream). Two separate parties climb Mt. Ararat, looking for the remains of Noah and/or his ark. Director, actors and crew attempt to film a dangerous river rafting scene in a South American jungle. The Titanic. Jonah and the whale. Jewish refugees who, in 1939, float around the Caribbean in search of a country that will take them.

It gets better.

Théodore Géricault, Scene of Shipwreck, 1818-1819

One chapter first tells the story of the 1816 wreck of the French ship, the Medusa, and then provides the story behind Géricault’s painting inspired by that wreck. History and then art history/criticism. Barnes’ publisher (no doubt, at his request) includes a full-color fold-out insert of the painting, so that we can look at it as we read Barnes’ analysis.

The last chapter, called “The Dream”, begins

I dreamt that I woke up. It’s the oldest dream of all, and I’ve just had it. I dreamt that I woke up.

We quickly figure out that the narrator, most likely an Englishman, has landed in heaven, where he can eat the perfect breakfast for every meal, have sex with as many people as he likes in whatever way he wishes, play rounds of golf until he manages to score a perfect 18, meet famous people, and go shopping (no limit to cost or items available! you want it, we have it!). After a few hundred years (perhaps 950, the length of Noah’s life), he gets bored and asks to move on (we learn that only readers who like to argue about books at bookclub-like meetings can last several millennia in this heaven). Everyone goes to heaven (even Hitler, in his silly uniform, makes an appearance), everyone gets tired of it. Grim or comforting? I can’t decide.

And finally, that parenthesis. That half-chapter, which is about love, and which made me fall in love with Julian Barnes for about 3 weeks (don’t worry, this was 30 years ago, and I’ve been over him for a looooong time). He — or should I say “Julian Barnes” — is lying in bed next to his wife, middle of the night, and thinking about love. What is it? Why do we want it, especially since it’s guaranteed to cause us unhappiness, even if it turns out well.

He also considers “history”, that troublesome word in his title. “History isn’t what happened. History is just what historians tell us…. One good story leads to another.” And then a few lines later:

The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections.

He draws the connection between history and love — we love because “the history of the world, which only stops at the half-house of love to bulldoze it into rubble, is ridiculous without it. The history of the world becomes brutally self-important without love.”

And just one more long quote about love vs history:

Love won’t change the history of the world…, but it will do something much more important: teach us to stand up to history, to ignore its chin-out strut. I don’t accept your terms, love says; sorry, you don’t impress, and by the way what a silly uniform you’re wearing.

“Love and truth,” Barnes writes, “that’s the vital connection, love and truth.”

This could be one of the rare occasions where a parenthetical statement is perhaps the most important point of the larger work.

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Science fiction, Seafaring | Tagged | 2 Comments

Reading Robertson Davies

I’ve been away for a wee bit, so apologies for this delayed announcement about Robertson Davies Reading Week over at Lory Hess’s Emerald City Book Review (here). Lory introduced the event yesterday with a schedule of posts and some additional encouragement to go out and read something by this master writer. Today, she features an excellent review of Davies’ Deptford Trilogy by guest blogger Chris (Calmgrove).

Over the next week, Lory will feature other guest posts from Naomi (Consumed by Ink) and Marcie (Buried in Print). Additional Robertson Davies books to be discussed include The Merry HeartHigh Spirits, and Murther and Walking Spirits, and my own review of For Your Eye Alone will be included.

If you’ve ever been curious about Robertson Davies, here’s an easy opportunity to learn more about him and his work. Join us!

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Lost at sea

Morning view

Although I’ve been neither lost nor officially “at sea” since my last post, I’ve recently returned from a month away from city life, with 24/7 ocean views of sand, sea, sail, and sky. I watched the island-studded ocean, read, ate, read, walked, read, slept, read, ate, wrote a tiny bit, did touristy stuff, figured out a plot point for my WIP, and then read some more: 14 books in 29 days (not counting the 2 I abandoned).

Because I was at the shore, I didn’t do much reading for my year-long Melville project, choosing instead to race through 5 Agatha Christies, Jasper Fforde’s Last Dragonslayer trilogy, and a virtual stack of other fiction and non-fiction e-books via the NYPL.

However, I did manage to squeeze in a couple of short sea-faring books.

One: Margaret Wise Brown’s The Little Fisherman, illustrated by Dahlov Ipcar (1945/2016), is the story of two fishermen, one “great big” and the other “little” (in the illustrations, the little fisherman barely tops the big fisherman’s belt, and that’s with hat and sea boots on). Wise profiles their typical day — setting off in their big or little boats, using big or little nets, catching big or little fish — and so on. The story is perfect for reading aloud (and the repetition very much like Brown’s more famous Goodnight, Moon). Ipcar uses bold, bright colors, her illustrations full of ships, seabirds, fish, and all the paraphernalia of a fisherman’s life. There’s plenty to look at on every page.

Two: Sharon Creech’s The Wanderer (2000). I reviewed this book 5 years ago (you can find that review here), so I won’t say much about it now. But I do want to note that 13-year-old Sophie, the protagonist, is someone who would eat up every page of Moby-Dick. I suspect she’ll have her maiden voyage aboard the Pequod before her 15th birthday.

The first words of The Wanderer, from Sophie’s journal, are

The sea, the sea, the sea. It rolled and rolled and called to me. Come in, it said, come in.

Fogged in

I heard that call for a month, even (perhaps especially) when fogged in. I can’t explain what draws certain people to the sea, but I certainly am one of them. Whenever I imagine living someplace other than NYC (where seagulls vie with pigeons for the best rubbish-pickings), it’s always near the sea.

Let me always be near the sea, the sea, the sea.

Note: I also finished a hefty collection of Robertson Davies’ letters, my review of which will appear on Lory’s Emerald City Book Review blog. Guest bloggers will join Lory in a celebration of Davies’ life, in honor of his 106th birthday. If you’re curious about Robertson Davies — who he was, what he wrote — the week-long party runs 25-31 August, and I can guarantee you’ll be inspired to give one of his novels a try. So keep an eye on ECBR for updates.

Posted in Am reading, Seafaring | Tagged , | 9 Comments

I don’t mind unhappy endings

This week, Helen at a gaullimaufry is celebrating Sylvia Townsend Warner, a 20th century British novelist, poet, and short story writer.

Since Townsend Warner is one of my favorite authors, I’m joining Helen and others in trying to convince everyone to read more of this little-known author’s work — in my case, I’m pushing her short stories (although her novel, The Corner that Held Them, is really really good). In the past, I’ve posted reviews of Townsend Warner’s short stories here, here, and here. For this week’s celebration, I located a fourth collection, A Stranger with a Bag (1966/2011), and found myself back in familiar Townsend Warner territory: unsettling glimpses into the lives of people who, even half a century later, I feel I could probably meet on the next corner. In other words, no one particularly special — just everyday folks, facing everyday events.

But each with a slight twist. For instance, the middle-aged brother and sister in a small town passionately in love with each other. Or the 10-year-old boy who asks a traveling salesman to kill his father. Or the young wife who leaves her oppressive husband and mother stranded on a moor when she drives off in their car but runs out of gas just as she calms down enough to go back for them.

These stories all date from the early 1960s. Most are set in England, and only two feature  child characters. In the rest, adults, usually middle-aged, struggle through their daily lives, negotiating relationships with family members, lovers, acquaintances — and themselves. Townsend Warner doesn’t write cheerful stories (although there are funny moments), and few of her characters end up happy.* Yet the insights into why people do what they do are so powerful, that I find myself, story after story, drawn in.

Photo courtesy Donal at Find out what this photo is about at

“Swans on an Autumn River”, for instance, starts out on a sour note:

As he quitted the Aer Lingus plane from Liverpool and set foot for the first time in his life on Irish soil, he was already a disappointed man.

28 words in, and I dislike the protagonist. Who could be disappointed on first setting foot in Ireland? Townsend Warner explains:  Norman Repton, “aged sixty-nine, hearty as ever though overweight”, is disappointed that the Aer Lingus stewardess has become a block of ice in response to his uninvited caress along her leg. Then, with the ending of this same first paragraph, Townsend Warner arouses my sympathy for this despicable man:

At his age, such disappointments are serious. You are only young once. At the time it seems endless, and is gone in a flash; and then for a very long time you are old.

Ah, recognition. I know old age is no excuse for bad behavior (in fact, absolutely nothing excuses bad behavior), but I at least understand this man. He wants to be young again.

Later, Norman almost redeems himself when, from his hotel window, he spots several swans on the river and rushes down to see the beauties up close, grabbing bread for them from the hotel restaurant on his way out. Then seagulls horn in, crowding out the lovely swans, and Norman, in his attempt to shoo the marauders away, manages to knock himself unconscious on the pavement. The story ends as some locals run to the hotel to call for an ambulance.

Nope, no happy ending for Norman.

Twitter, @ReadingSylvia (19 October 2018)

The most beautiful story in this group, “A Love Match”, shows us what a good marriage should look like. In their small English village, Justin and Celia Tizard live publicly as proper brother and sister, but they’re actually involved in an incestuous relationship that began during WWI and will last for decades.

I can hear the questions: How can a story about a taboo relationship be “beautiful”? How can any writer make sympathetic characters out of such people?

Well, I can only say, we’re talking about Townsend Warner, who herself lived for decades with her lesbian lover. If anyone knows the beauty of a loving, devoted, loyal — yet forbidden — relationship, she does, and she’s a great writer who is willing to tackle topics that others generally avoid.

If you’re unfamiliar with Townsend Warner’s writing, do try to find something by her and read it. You can start with “A Love Match”, which is available here.  Go ahead. I dare you.

*See Lory’s discussion, Do I Have to Read Depressing Books, at The Emerald City Book Review for an exploration of this business of unhappy endings.

Posted in Am reading, short stories | Tagged | 17 Comments