You’re a mean one, Mr Grendel

Let’s face it: there’s nothing new.  We create only by standing on the shoulders of giants.  What came before is a blueprint for our every effort.  The legacy of Western culture is a valuable gift because without it, there’s hardly anything for us creatives to draw from.  The classics of literature, for instance, can become a set of toys for a talented genius to play with.

Take the epic poem Beowulf—in which ‘there lived a monster in a cave. He was a hideous beast with green fur and yellow teeth. The townspeople feared him and would never approach his cave, he in turn would never venture out to the town for he knew he was not wanted and didn’t like the people much anyhow. There was one particular day of the year that he couldn’t stand, and on this day he vowed to ruin the towsnfolk’s fun, for if he could not have any, why should they.’

It must have occurred to Dr Seuss to bend this ancient story to his own use; to retell it as a picture book.  I was thinking about the similarities between Grendel, the monster from Beowulf, and the Grinch—even down to their names.  What really struck me was the bit about how neither one could stand the sounds of civilization.

“It harrowed him / to hear the din of the loud banquet / every day in the hall, the harp being struck / and the clear song of a skilled poet / telling with mastery of a man’s beginnings, / how the Almighty had made the earth . . .” (Beowulf 34).

And:

If there’s one thing I hate…oh the noise, noise, noise, noise! …They’ll blow their flu-flubas.  They’ll bang their tartinkas.  They’ll blow their who-hubas.  They’ll bang their gardinkas!”

A quick search on Google revealed a couple of essays written about Grendel/Grinch. Here‘s one by Courtney Shay. She brings up other similarities I hadn’t thought of:  both monsters are miserable—without joy, and wreak their havoc on society in the darkness of night.

To compare Grendel to the Grinch is to appreciate how a master of the picturebook can distill an assortment of ideas down to one clear and simple storyline.

As we descend into the chaos of the season, spare a thought for the anonymous Anglo-Saxon scribbler whose poetry lives on in How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

3 responses to “You’re a mean one, Mr Grendel

  1. Wonderful essay, John. I love how illustration is such an evolutionary process; it’s only by looking backward can we see how far we have traveled…

    • You said it, Ilene! And what makes Dr Seuss a titan is that Beowulf informs the Grinch, but Seuss didn’t simply update the story—he created something new. How I would love to hear the process by which he got the Grinch from Grendel.

  2. Pingback: 2010 in review | John Manders' Blog

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