I’ve just had an idea. An awful idea. I’ve just had a wonderful, awful idea.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a Beowulf retelling.
I should be posting this in December. June is hardly the month for thinking about the mythic origins of the Grinch. But I can’t wait for winter. This notion must be expressed immediately. If I delay, then I might have time to notice how ridiculous this idea is, and that must not be. Onward!
We begin with the most obvious parallels. Grinch and Grendel live in caves, well outside of town. Both of them are driven mad by joyous noise from this neighboring settlement.
“Oh the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!” the Grinch complains. John Gardner’s version of the monster Grendel is horrified by a Shaper (bard, scop) and this entertainer’s ability to remake history with beautiful words and a harp. The recently animated Grendel just gets a headache whenever there’s a party in the mead hall. These antisocial monsters do not enjoy singing.
Both of them sneak into town at night, bringing mischief. The Grinch does so by masquerading as Santy Claus and stealing Christmas. Grendel does so by dismembering people while they sleep. Here the two tellings diverge a bit, it’s true. And while I could probably make a case for Cindy Lou Who as Beowulf himself, let’s move on to more serious scholarship.
(Here they are, both animated, both bewildered.)
The definitive lecture on Beowulf, the one that completely transformed how and why we read the thing, is “The Monsters and the Critics” by J.R.R. Tolkien. He gave it in 1936. He had written The Hobbit by then, but was only just getting around to publishing it.
Before Tolkien’s lecture, scholars thought of Beowulf as a Christian transcription of an oral, pagan saga, resulting in a fragmentary and unreadable mess. Filled with old monsters and new prayers, the story properly belonged to neither world. But Tolkien argued that this blend of worlds and world-views isn’t a mistake, that the bards who sang and the monks who wrote down those songs didn’t fail to “keep Scandinavian bogies and Scriptures separate in their puzzled brains… I think we may observe not confusion, a half hearted or muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion.” More recently, Seamus Heaney translated the saga and agreed with Tolkien in the introduction: “Beowulf perfectly answers the early modern conception of a work of creative imagination as one in which conflicting realities find accommodation within a new order.”
Both the Beowulf poem and the one penned by Dr. Seuss have a strange and strained relationship to Christianity. Christmas is a Christian holiday, after all. It insists very loudly that it’s a Christian holiday, with “Christ” right there in the name. But decorating trees with lights and celebrating community in the depths of midwinter is a much older tradition. Santa Claus is said to be All-Father Odin in a new costume. Odin was the one who convinced the sun to come back after its long winter retreat, so he was the one all the good little Norse children appealed to at solstice time. Christmas itself is a confusion of old and new traditions.
When the Grinch learns what Christmas means, he doesn’t get a Charlie Brown sermon.
Instead the Grinch gets a song sung by all the Whos in Whoville, and learns about community in the face of a harsh winter morning without gifts. And then his heart grows three sizes. Conflicting realities find accommodation within a new order. He carves the roast beast.
So the Grinch does dismember something in the mead hall. See? See? It all fits…
I leave you with the following quote:
The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. – J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics”