November 21st, 2012


Links I found interesting for 21-11-2012


November Books 11) Grendel, by John Gardner

This is an attempt to tell the story of Beowulf from the side of the monster, an experimental early 70s novel (with super illustrations by Emil Antonucci), which obviously ends with Grendel's death, though his mother and the dragon are there in the background.

It's always tricky to think through the motivation of the villain (especially when the villain is an inhuman monster), The original poem introduces Grendel thus (using Seamus Heaney's not-quite-literal translation):

Ðá se ellengaést earfoðlíce Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
þráge geþolode sé þe in þýstrum bád nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
þæt hé dógora gehwám dréam gehýrde to hear the din of the loud banquet
hlúdne in healle þaér wæs hearpan swég every day in the hall, the harp being struck
swutol sang scopes and the clear song of a skilled poet

The original Grendel is evil by nature, but is driven to homicide by sounds of revelry. The 2007 Robert Zemeckis animated version actually stuck fairly closely to this motivation, though there is the extra wrinkle that Hrothgar turns out to be Grendel's father; the 2005 Beowulf and Grendel, starring Gerard Butler, has Hrothgar killing the young Grendel's father and thus providing a motive. John Gardner reimagines Grendel as a philosophical monster both attracted and repelled by the world of humans; he reminded me very much of Meursault in L’Étranger, except that I think he would have made a more entertaining dinner companion (as long as you weren't on the menu yourself).

I didn't spot the astrological references at the start of each chapter until tipped off by Wikipedia. Indeed, in general I felt this novel was too clever for me, but it is mercifully short with some passages done in interesting styles; and Grendel himself comes off as a believable character.

November Books 12) The Light That Failed, by Rudyard Kipling

I had been looking forward to reaching this for some time, under the impression that it was an interesting step away from Kipling's usual writing. Not sure if that is really true - it was his first novel, so not sure if it can really be characterised as a step away. And it is interesting only in places; the hero's failure to get anywhere with the girl he loves is apparently painfully autobiographical, and the casual brutality is not very pleasant to read. However, I was really grabbed by Kipling's sympathetic portrayal of his hero as an artist, not a protagonist I had expected from this author (which shows how little I knew), and of course the central drama of his going blind is then very effective. (I guess that Florence Barclay's The Rosary may have been in part a response to The Light That Failed; well, Kipling's version is actually better and mercifully shorter.)

The other point of interest for me (and a few other people) is that quite a lot of the novel revolves around British attitudes to Sudan, and the final chapter is set there (indeed the referencs are specifically to "Southern Sudan", though a glance at the map indicates that they did not actually get very far south). It's interesting to read about a place which I know for quite different reasons through the rather shortsighted and blurred imperialist lens.