The Beast In the Maze

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One of Narnia’s badass non-CGI Minotaurs.

I’ve been researching how to approach teaching about mythological monsters for a few months now, and I have some good ideas about introducing them–Grendel, Polyphemus, and Count Dracula all have a place in my reading list.

I’m still working out how to teach the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, though.  I’ve been working on a series of poems about these figures for a while now, so I definitely have a personal interest.  Once upon a time a friend of mine gave me his favorite writing exercise–write a poem that scares you. I guess I’ve been working on this Minotaur series ever since then, and it’s been a good long time.

Here’s a poem I wrote a few summers ago about the beast.  I’ve derived some of the ideas from mythological research (for example, his name–Asterion–is frequently cited by many storytellers) and some I’ve made up myself.

Son of the Stars

Those not in the know assume Pasiphae

had a natural sense of irony, god-warped,

hyperbolic, when they hear his name:

Asterion, son of the stars.  But it was in the ninth

midnight of the ninth month since he was

put inside her:  nine hours of pushing,

nine midwives in attendance, and one

who fainted when he finally emerged

and, running a white cloth over his forehead,

she felt the nubs that would become his horns–

it was a cold black midnight,

one where the Milky Way was a scattering

thick, almost, as Cretan sand, and each

particular star glimmered, a thousand

wet eyes watching.  A midnight where

anyone mortal and awake might look out

and say:  this is the true nature of things,

the world as it was meant to be–still,

unclouded, stark, with nothing in the air

to muffle her cries, or those first tentative

furious bleats of her newborn son.

Later, the queen’s breasts would swell

to the size of udders, and the last of the god’s

punishment would flow out of her.

Weighted, exhausted, she would feed him,

hours at a time, and when he slept

she would shift her enormity to the window,

draped in wet silk, breathe the cool air

and wait for the next cry.  What would wean

him, send Minos into the nursery, to step

over the splinters of the door, to tear the child

from her arms, to send him in a clumsy bundle

to the royal paddock, to drink from his herd:

her cry, thin, rasping, and defeated–

it’s my blood, my blood, there’s nothing else left.

But soon this, too, would be insufficient.

The teeth that poked through those flat bovine gums

were not the cud-grinding molars of his father,

but, almost human, an ape’s fangs,

outsized, meat-tearing, as if designed to slice

through his thick tongue again and again,

whetting his thirst for humiliated rage.

Minos would go to the stable nightly,

not knowing what to hope, and sit with him,

where he was sometimes tied,

dressed in princely finery as out of place

as the teeth in his mouth.

Speak, he would say.  Find words.

Father.  Fingers.  Hand.  Please.

But none ever came.  Only glances.

Stare-downs.  Deep flared breaths.

Nothing human about this monster,

Minos decided.  No son of mine.

But this is where he was wrong:

It was what was human about Asterion

That made him a monster at all.

His thumbs, his memory, his ability to imagine

The stars outside the stable walls

Tumbling, the voice of the constant sea

A sigh, a groan, the sound of his father laughing

Through a closed and unopenable door.

I’d never thought much about why exactly the Minotaur scares me.  Certainly, lurking in the darkness of an unsolvable maze is pretty scary, and a bull preying on human flesh is equally unnerving.  But in my gaming days the race of minotaurs always seemed kind of cool, almost noble, and never monstrous.  The Narnia films do a great job of capturing the D&D style minotaur, with their elaborate armor and Klingon-y sense of honor and whatnot.

Minoton

The Minoton–a bull-headed bronze golem from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.

I guess Ray Harryhausen’s only shot at a Minotaur was a little more frightening–the stop-motion Minoton from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger was pretty awesome in his robotic silence.  He could also row a boat like nobody’s bidness.  He didn’t do much in the way of action, and he certainly didn’t have any personality, but he was cool.  His death–plopping into the ocean–was ignominious at best.

time bandits minotaur

The Minotaur from Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, about to bash in Sean Connery’s Scots-Achaean head.

In Terry Gilliam’s awesome Time Bandits, though, the Minotaur kind of makes an appearance.  He’s named by Sean Connery’s Agamemnon only as “the enemy of the people,” and his bull head seems more mask than body part, but as scary monsters go, this one is pretty wicked.  He also makes some hideous screams and grunts before Sean finally does him in.

My last post detailed the images of Grendel in Brenda Ralph Lewis’ 1980 book Timeless Myths.  Again, illustrator Rob McCaig managed to create an image that burned permanently in my mind as the definitive Minotaur.

Timeless Myths Minotaur

Tell me this doesn’t scare the crap out of you. The best Minotaur, from Timeless Myths. Painting by Rob McCaig.

I mean, look at the horrible glowing yellow eyes, the smelly-looking hair, the predatory, slavering teeth, the horrible pasty skin, the multiple drool ropes–this thing is definitely what lurks under the bed or in the closet once the lights go out. I imagined it making some pretty horrible sounds as well, and had a hard time staying on this page when I read the book.

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As Theseus prepares to deal the fatal blow, ol’ Asterion doesn’t look so vicious. I guess it’s the view. Painting by Rob McCaig.

Of course, no monster myth is complete without a hero, and when Theseus finally makes his move, McCaig’s painting shows the Minotaur to be more helpless, more calf-faced, more King-Kongy than the previous image. The text doesn’t do the monster any credit, but the painting made the story a bit more ambiguous.  David D. Gilmore, whose book Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors I’m reading to prepare for my class, would approve.  “I have always believed,” he writes, “that the endless fascination with monsters derives from a complex mix of emotions and is not simply reducible to the standard Freudian twins of aggression and repression…the monster stands for both victim and victimizer.”  I think this children’s book shows Gilmore’s thesis in spades.

Grendel-icious

But that shadow slithered below, a jealous adversary,

hellborn Grendel, whose every heartbeat sounded

wet hate like a bloodsoaked wardrum.  He seethed

in bogs unnamed and lorded over by black leeches and rot,

having crept from the caves that housed his race,

once drowned, flooded, damned by God.

Big doin’s here at the Vistas. I know it’s been a thousand years since I’ve last posted anything, but it’s the end of the academic year at the school where I teach English, and it’s been a grind.

Next year, I’m going to be teaching a class on Myths and Monsters.  I know, living the dream, right?  I did design the course myself, and now that this past school year is put to bed, I’m thinking about this new course a lot.

One of my central texts is going to be Beowulf, along with John Gardner’s Grendel.  (I’m also working on a translation of the poem myself, which is my own audacious and never-ending hero’s quest.  The lines that open this post are my own.  More on this to come.)

As the main theme of the class is Monsters, I keep returning to my conception (and perception) of Beowulf’s main baddie, Grendel.  For those of you who saw Robert Zemeckis and Neil Gaiman’s cut-scene desecration a few years ago, let me take you back to my own childhood, where Grendel wasn’t some half-aborted Crispin Glover with an ear infection.

No, my Grendel came from one of my treasured childhood books, the 1980 edition of Brenda Ralph Lewis’ Timeless Myths, illustrated by Rob McCaig.  (There was a subsequent edition with different stories and a different illustrator which is startlingly inferior.)

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This is the wicked awesome, clash-of-the-titansy cover of Lewis’ Timeless Myths.

In these pages, I first encountered Polyphemus, a quadrupedal Medusa, a chimera and many more.  I got this book right before my best friend’s brother got a copy of blue-book Basic D&D, which fueled my monster madness to its present-day vastness. But this book was instrumental in making real the things I had only previously read and heard stories about.

Now, there’s not any precise description of Grendel in the poem Beowulf. Translators have described him as a monster, a giant, a demon, a shadow-stalker…but there are very few descriptions of his appearance in the text itself.  Rob McCaig’s awesome paintings made it clear just how much of a mead-hall-thrashing badass Grendel was.

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Grendel towering, menacing, brandishing, growling, etc. etc.

One of Grendel’s best tricks in the poem is eating one of Beowulf’s followers.  McCaig’s illustration is PG-rated, but for years I thought that he had shown Grendel actually wolfing the poor Geat down. (Actually, that’s the aforementioned Polyphemus, of which you will find out more later.)

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My second-favorite Grendel comes from the cover of Gardner’s novel. This illustration is discussed in detail on John Coultart’s blog on various Grendel renditions.

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Lurker in darkness.

Rounding out the top three, we have a 3-D 25mm scale version in lead, from Ral Partha’s old school miniatures:

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You put your left claw in, you put your left claw out…

A few inferior Grendels include Partha’s later incarnation, which is kind of Grendelicus genericus.

And just for scuzzes, here’s Zemeckis’ annoying piece of shit.

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Perhaps the less said of him, the better.

Mayzie Approved: Favorite Tales of Monsters and Trolls

It’s been a banner week here in the Vistas.  I got a shout-out and a link from one of my favorite new blogs, Kindertrauma, in their Traumafessions section, with a sweet video of the Toht melt-face from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And tonight, when my daughter Mayzie was in charge of picking books for bedtime, she chose one of our all-time favorites:  Favorite Tales of Monsters and Trolls, a fantastic little tome from 1977 written by George Jonsen.  But it’s not ol’ George’s storytelling that makes it immortal, though the wording is still fun and distinctive (e.g., “Never did anyone see such a scuffling and a flurry!”).  No, it’s John O’Brien’s fantastic illustrations that have stuck with me since my Mom bought the little Random House “Pictureback” lo these many decades ago.

There are three total “Favorite Tales,” “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” “The Enormous Pussy Cat,” and “The Stone Cheese.”

The cover here is taken from the center spread of the book, where the trolls in “The Enormous Pussy Cat” come down from the mountain to get their Christmas Dinner.  The cool thing about the illustrations here (aside from the nightmarish bug-eyes of the troll under the tree) is that in subsequent pages you can still identify each troll.  O’Brien took tremendous care to give each little monster his or her own personality.

This page shows the ugly critters feasting while a polar bear snoozes under Farmer Nels’ kitchen table.  The trolls assume it is a “pussy cat,” and when they try to feed it, it goes on a rampage.  As it’s a kids’ book, we don’t see any troll mauling.

Elsewhere, the two more familiar stories get a really cool retelling via the illustrations. The three goats, for example, seem to dwell in a world with its own strange fantasy ecosystem.  Everywhere around the main characters, little kiwi-like birds, people, and other strange critters cavort like insects on a summer day.  This made a huge impression on me (much like Mercer Mayer’s world of Professor Wormbog, which I’ll get into later), in that I came to love the idea of a fantasy world that was crawling with weird critters.

Another thing I like about this version is the same kind of continuity you saw in “The Enormous Pussy Cat:”  the little bird on the troll’s hat, for example, is with him in every picture.  We also see that his coat forms some kind of demonic face when he climbs onto the bridge.  I always wondered if the troll knew the bird or the face–did he speak to them?  Did they have a kind of parasitic relationship?

Finally, “The Stone Cheese,” the other story in the book, was one of my Dad’s favorites to read to us, because it gave him the chance to perform as the “meanest, ugliest troll” anyone has ever seen.  He has one red eye in the center of his forehead, and calls the three brothers in the story “Floppy Ears,” “Spindly Legs,” and “Flappy Fingers,” much to his and our delight.  Here’s that Cyclopean troll:

Note, too, all the little legless, wingless kiwi birds, and the hobbit-like dude chasing a bipedal apple.  Far out!

Kathleen Temean has a great feature on John O’Brien in her blog, Writing and Illustrating.  The dude is one busy guy, still at it after all these years.

You can still find this great book used everywhere on the web.  If you have kids who are into illustrations you can look at time and again, this one’s for them, and for you.

New Addition to the Library

Picked up a copy of this at Borders Singapore for the kids this weekend.  I am impressed by the art–all full color, and an illustration for almost every entry.  Some are the predictable artifacts and classical paintings, but most are original and very well done.  My son particularly likes the “Behemoth.”

It is organized not like a “Bible” but more like any other guide in the genre–chapters on “Creatures of the Air,” “Creatures of the Dark,” etc.  Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be an alphabetical or geographic organization.

The text is brief and readable, but does not contain much in the way of new information.  I do like the world myth flavor of it, and my kids have learned about new critters like the barometz and jackalope.   It does not contain a bibliography or references section, which is surprising given the length of the book overall.

The size of the book is a bit odd–this paperback edition being small and squarish, which will make it easy to take on a plane trip, but for a pretty reference edition I’d probably get a hardback.  It would be worth the price for the illustrations alone.

Amazon.com: Mythical Creatures Bible Godsfield Bible Series 9781841813981: Brenda Rosen: Books.