The first bedtime story I remember? Hmm. It’s a bit silly and not particularly mythic, but it’s probably the classic Sesame Street book called The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone, starring none other than that lovable blue dude Grover. The entire story is built around ever-mounting, meta-tastic suspense. There’s a monster at the end of the book, of course. And on each page, Grover tries to stop you in between frantic calls of warning. He directly addresses the reader and interacts with the book, trying his utmost to protect you from the monster. On one page, he’s attempting to secure the pages with rope, then he’s hammering planks into the pages. As you progress through the book, his work is destroyed and he’s left sitting in the rubble. His efforts mount with each page turn and eventually he’s building a brick wall in one final, desperate bid to stop you from turning the page. And then of course you do. And on the last page there is only Grover, and he comes to the realization that it was only himself. He was that was the monster at the end of the book. It terrified me as a pre-literate toddler — even after several re-reads. Because sure, maybe it was harmless old Grover the time before, and the time before that, and all times that I could remember. Because maybe this time it would be different, and the monster would be real and dangerous and unstoppable. And then poor Grover would just shake his head sadly — he did try to warn us, after all. It’s a pretty existential entry for a television tie-in picture book! And as I typed this up, I totally heard the voice of Werner Herzog in my head.
This one’s a part of my history. My mother used a splendid Grover-voice while reading it. Attention Werner Herzog: can you best my mother’s reading? I bet you can’t. I challenge you to try.
Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, and said this about it: “Readers will greatly enjoy this exploration of our world’s foremost and ascendant speculative authors.”
Nice to feel ascendant for a bit.
The second story appeared in a “live anthology” created by the Unsettled Foundation and performed at a semi-abandoned movie theater alongside several other local authors. It was great fun.
My contribution, “Nicholas Went Looking for the Mayor’s Right Hand,” was first published by the late, great lit mag Zahir. You can still read it on their website. Warning: This is a kid’s story in the sense that it has a very young protagonist, but it is not intended for young readers, and domestic violence occurs offstage. The fine folks at Fantasy Mattersreviewed the story, if that helps you decide whether or not to read it yourself. Or you could listen to me read it instead. (This is a .wav file. The .mp3 wouldn’t fit.)
My voice sounds over-enunciated to me, but nobody’s a good judge of their own recorded voice so maybe it’s actually fine. Note that this embarrassment is no reflection on the Unsettled techies, who somehow captured quality audio in a cavernous space.
Many thanks to all Unsettlers for creating such a spectacularly creepy event. Many more to John Joseph Adams, editor of Other Worlds Than These.
China Miéville said this about Joan Aiken: “If that kind of writing hits you at the right time when you’re a child, the impact is like nothing else ever. Maybe it’s pure ego, but there’s something incredibly intoxicating about the idea of trying to do that.” *
This is true. Writing for kids is as intoxicating as it is wildly ambitious. It’s like shooting the moon in a card game, or deciding to land on the moon as a career choice. It’s the same kind of mad ambition that kids themselves have when they expect to become astronauts.
My agent Joe Monti once asked me the age of my inner child, and I said “Probably eleven.” Ten is double-digits, and therefore huge and important. Twelve is a number of great folkloric significance. Eleven is stuck in between, unsure, just figuring things out—but still ambitious enough to want to be an astronaut. And I have never loved books more than I did then.
Maybe it’s pure ego to mention this, to jump up and down shouting that Ursula K. Le Guin approves of my book. Probably. I have, um, mentioned it on Twitter a couple of times (and also announced it in public places while running around in circles, arms flailing like a happy muppet). But there’s something else here, something I find overwhelming and intoxicating. She said eleven. She wished she had read my book at exactly the same age that I first read hers.
I usually devote this blog to earlier bedtime stories, but right now I want everyone to remember the books they read at eleven. Some of you will immediately think of Aiken and Le Guin. Now go pick up a copy of Wolves, or Earthsea, or whatever it was, and give that book to a kid of your acquaintance.
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”