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Grendel and the Grinch

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.

Grendel Illustration by Chris Rahn


“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”

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury died this morning.

He knew that words can dance in prose as well as poetry, and his words expanded the size of the world. He gave heartbreaking tours through October Country. He made a whole new batch of kids point telescopes at Mars.

Just a few days ago the New Yorker published his essay “Take Me Home.” His death adds a new harmony underneath the tune of his words, one that was not there when he was still alive–which was yesterday. He is saying goodbye.

Here’s a quote:

The creative beast in me grew when Buck Rogers appeared, in 1928, and I think I went a trifle mad that autumn. It’s the only way to describe the intensity with which I devoured the stories. You rarely have such fevers later in life that fill your entire day with emotion.

When I look back now, I realize what a trial I must have been to my friends and relatives. It was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another. I was always yelling and running somewhere, because I was afraid life was going to be over that very afternoon.

Go read the rest of his goodbye.

An Entirely True Ghost Story

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I have met a few—most of them in Scotland. The most unquiet bunch waited on a hilltop in the middle of the Midlands. 

“Hilltop” sounds impressive, like Weathertop, like some majestic lookout crowned by ruins dignified in their decay, but this place was just a little hill surrounded by trees and sheep, barely visible unless you stood on it already. A ruined castle did crumble on that hilltop, but it was not crumbling in a graceful or tragic manner. There’s a difference between swooning dramatically and simply smacking your face on the floor after you pass out. 

Even if the set designer of my little ghost story chose to scorn the classics of gothic literature, somebody backstage knew the proper cues: a fog rose up among the tree, and surrounded the hill. Hardly remarkable, for Scotland—but, then again, most of the hauntings I encountered were hardly remarked on by the locals. “Oh, right, sorry. The ghost in that room hates men with beards. No wonder you didn’t get any sleep. Here, switch rooms. No bother, no bother, try the one across the hall tonight.”

I digress. Back to the hilltop. 

While walking across those unimpressive castle grounds, I noticed that I was angry. I had no reason to be, but that didn’t seem to matter. Old grudges and petty bits of unfinished business came bubbling up into memory, as though my brain were searching for reasons why I felt the way I already did.

This isn’t right, I thought (angrily). I don’t think this anger is actually mine.

In that instant a whirlwind took shape and surrounded the spot where I stood. Dried leaves spun in a perfect circle, twelve feet or so in diameter, and that circle began to contract. So I picked up a stick and drew a smaller circle in the dirt, around myself. It seemed like the obvious thing to do.

The whirlwind contracted only as far as that line. Outside my little barrier it continued to howl. Inside I continued to stand. The wind did not abate, and I had nowhere else to go. 

These circumstances went on for a bit. It’s strange to feel simultaneously terrified and bored. (The anger was gone. No, that isn’t true, but I no longer felt it. I watched it surround me instead.)

“I’ll leave,” I said aloud, “but you’re going to have to let me go.”

The whirlwind vanished. Leaves fell, hit the ground, and stayed there.

I stepped slowly outside my circle. Then I left, and got lost. Sheep can be surprisingly sinister looking when you run into them in dense fog. Eventually I found the town, and my room, and my bed. 

The next morning I glanced at an old map in the hostel lobby. The precise spot where I had been standing the day before, the place that expressed rage with wind and leaves, belonged to the executioner. His ax severed hundreds of heads on that spot. It’s possible that the heads are still unhappy about this. Frustrated by a lack of lungs, they all make do with the world’s wind.
I wonder if the local executioner had worn a beard like mine. Might shave before traveling next time.