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:
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 heorot.dk.
Next up, a recent graphic novel version of Beowulf.
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).
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:
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.
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: