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.

Beware the Jabberwocky (sic), My Son

All right, so my son got Tim Burton’s half-baked Alice In Wonderland for his birthday. He loves it, which isn’t surprising (he loved Bee Movie and The Smurfs  too).  What I can’t believe that this movie actually got made–it seems to have one line of dialogue per page of script.  It’s a lot of actors kind of prancing around in front of green screens, and not saying anything (at one point, for example, I wanted to leap into the 3-D screen and throttle Anne Hathaway, just to get her to stop doing all that fancy “I’m a ballet china doll” shit with her hands).

I am more baffled that it was “based” on the work Lewis Carroll.  I mean, the Alice books are almost all dialogue, no? And very little Lord of the Rings-style medieval combat.  The Mad Hatter as Alice’s wartime consigliere really sucked. Even worse was Burton’s “women’s lib” take on Alice herself; she has to realize that Wonderland is a “real place,” so she can take her new-found vorpal-sword-based confidence and take her dead father’s place at the helm of the British Empire’s exploitation of the Far East?  You’d think postcolonial theory had never happened.  I guess Tim Burton’s never seen Dances With Wolves. 

But this blog about monsters, and I do want to address the Wonderland critters…

First off, the Jabberwock.  Tim, really–it’s Jabberwock.  Not Jabberwocky.  Get it straight.  “Jabberwocky” is the name of the poem; the titular creature is a Jabberwock.  Here’s the poem if you don’t believe me.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wade;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree.
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came wiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Here ’tis.

 Now, don’t get me wrong–I kind of dig the thing having the voice of Christopher Lee, walking like the t-rex from Jurassic Park, and being all kinds of badass.  But in this terrible movie, which made Carroll’s poem literal (e.g., “Frabjous Day” becomes a calendar date–wha?), I just thought the execution was lame.


I guess Tim had to make the Jabberwock more frightening than the Frumious Bandersnatch, considering that giant snot-dripping pussycat just seemed to have escaped from the virtual set of Avatar–it crashes through the giant mushrooms like one of those inside-out flower-faced tiger critters from Pandora.

Tim Burton Gets All Frumious On Your Ass.

Again, design-wise, it’s awesome–all mouth and rheumy eyeballs.  But as it appeared in the movie (a steed for Alice-of-Arc at the end), I was kind of over it.

The JubJub Bird, too, was straight out of Jurassic Park–it walked and stalked just like a mean ol’ velociraptor, only fully feathered and able to take to the air.

Burton's Jurassic Jubjub.

One thing you’ll notice is that none of these creatures is particularly absurd; in the poem, why we should beware and shun these creatures is left to our imaginations, which at this point have been considerably vexed by Carroll’s endless non sequiturs and mathematical language games.  For Burton to literalize the silly conflict of the poem (although it does contain a beheading, to be fair) is just, well, so Hollywood that I can’t stand it.

Tim needs to hang up his Edward Scissorhands wig and little curlicue trees and take a break.  He already polluted my Planet of the Apes, so it shouldn’t have surprised me that his eyeliner-stained fingers smudged up my Wonderland.

For my money, I like the more faithful–that is, absurd–adaptations of Carroll’s creatures.  Trust Ral Partha’s mini sculptors in the ’70s, for example, to capture the essence of the Jabberwock, not to mention the truly bizarre two-headed flightless Jubjub and Fizzgig-on-stilts Bandersnatch. GreyBeardGamer has some great pics of these minis on his blog:

GreyBeardGamer’s Frabjous Day

And, of course, I much prefer Tenniel’s great illustration of the Jabberwock:

Maybe it’s the little buttoned vest it’s wearing, combined with some killer googly eyes.  It’s wiffling through the tulgey wood, right?  And burbling.  The one in the movie did no such thing.