John Gardner, 1971

the second book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Adam Whybray

So the system I used to order my reading list put this one right up near the top, which made me go "ulp" because the title suggested that it would be one of those books that takes some canonical work and recasts it from a subaltern character's point of view. Not that I necessarily have anything against such books, when they're done well; one of my favorite novels, Was, is on Wikipedia's rundown of the genre. It's just that Grendel is a character from Beowulf, and I, uh, hadn't actually read Beowulf. So I read some summaries online, watched the CGI movie, and talked to Lizzie (who has taught it) and my friend Julie from grad school (who is now a tenured professor of medieval literature). I didn't actually read Beowulf, though. C'mon, I have a life to lead.

Grendel is an exercise in the redemption of, if not the ludicrous, then at least the primitive. While I was immersed in it and the other Beowulf material, I kept falling into the trap of thinking I was dealing with an artifact from the dawn of human civilization. These guys are practically cavemen, huddling for protection from the scary outside world in their "meadhalls" (crude structures where northern European warlords and their entourages could stay warm and get drunk), and the story they have handed down to posterity is "once there was this really strong guy who killed several beasts." I had to keep reminding myself that this was centuries after the height of the Roman Empire, that at the same time the Danes of the poem were putting up the big barn they called Heorot, the Byzantines were building the third and current version of the Hagia Sophia on the same continent.

Anyway, Gardner takes this piece of barbarous proto-literature and uses it as a jumping-off point for... not a novel, exactly, but a series of short literary riffs. Quality is variable. At first I thought it would just be an exercise in dressing up an 8th-century story in 20th-century poetics — "Space hurls outward, falconswift, mounting like an irreversible injustice, a final disease," reads one early sentence — but each chapter is sort of its own deal. Chapter 5, for instance, is a philosophical dialogue between Grendel and the dragon: "This jug is an absolute democracy of atoms. It has importance, or thereness, so to speak, but no Expression, or, loosely, ah-ha!-ness. Importance is primarily monistic in its reference to the universe." If the entire book had been like this I probably would've given up. But for each chapter like this I'd find another one I liked. Take Chapter 3, for instance, about the role of the poets, or "scops," who terrify Grendel on a philosophical level with their ability to transform the truth of the region's conflicts — that they are a matter of violent brutes getting drunk and deciding to kill the guys over the next hill because that's what drunken violent brutes do — into lies about noble thanes in glorious battle... and make even Grendel remember things the false way. Or Chapter 6, the story of Unferth, desperately trying to embody the role of the hero in the face of a monster who finds him amusing. This is good stuff and made me glad I'd stuck it out.

unknown Anglo-Saxons, Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary, and Robert Zemeckis, 2007

As noted, I recently watched the motion-capture Beowulf movie from a few years back. The main thing that jumped out at me about it was the way the changes to the plot reflected the insistence I've encountered in Hollywood that everything in a movie be connected. The villain can't just be some guy out there doing misdeeds; it has to be the hero's father, or old mentor, or former business partner, or the guy who killed his parents, or something along those lines. Furthermore, if the movie has any fantasy elements to it, there can only be one "buy-in": you can have a monster, or you have a dragon, but if you have a monster and a dragon, you'd better have the same explanation for both. This adaptation of Beowulf takes these principles to extremes that would have given Carolus Linnaeus nightmares.

One more observation, even though I'm sure many have made it before me. Why has the action of Beowulf been moved to the uncanny valleys of Sim Denmark? Initially I assumed that there were two reasons: one, so that the monsters and humans would seem like part of the same world, and two, because Zemeckis just digs the technology. Then Beowulf started stripping in order to fight Grendel, and I thought, oh, I get it — this must be part of the poem, and (as the film version of Watchmen demonstrated) censors have more tolerance for rendered penises than filmed ones. But no! The movie goes on to pull a bunch of Austin Powers tricks to shield the audience from the sight of phallic polygon meshes. One of my evaluative patterns says that "movies shouldn't be coy," but this movie made me think that maybe I should retitle that one "goddammit, it's just a dick."

Park Eun-kyo and Bong Joon-ho, 2009
#5, 2010 Skandies

Here we have a movie about the strange investigation an older woman undertakes in a quest to to clear her son's name after he is charged with murder. Watching this had nothing to do with Beowulf — it was just the next movie on the 2010 Skandie list — but there are in fact some overlaps. One aspect of the original Beowulf story that's kind of interesting is that after Beowulf kills Grendel, the monster's mother comes seeking revenge — a bit of an odd wrinkle in what is otherwise a very testosterone-fueled narrative. But if Grendel is the sort of creature only a mother could love, the same is true of the son in this movie. He is awful: sullen, self-absorbed, prone to fits of rage, irritatingly obtuse at the best of times, basically a 1990s Adam Sandler character in a more realistic setting than a Saturday Night Live skit. And while other people can simply avoid him, his mother can't. Nor can she really do much to make him shape up, as he's far enough down the spectrum that he might qualify as mentally handicapped... a case study in the phenomenon I noted when I was writing up The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, that "as behavior becomes more and more dysfunctional, it becomes more and more imperative that the person exhibiting that behavior do something about it — until an invisible threshold is crossed and suddenly it becomes something we must merely understand and accept." He's a terrible burden on her, but her guilt about thinking so drives her to overcompensate and cross all sorts of boundaries on his behalf. Which I guess is an interesting premise, but I found both of these characters too irksome to like the movie much.

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 illustration by John Allison