Acclaimed Retelling of Beowulf Legend Finds New Life in Music

"Poor Grendel's had an accident. So may you all."

In 1971, John Gardner published Grendel, a contemporary retelling of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, this time told from the perspective of the monster himself. As described in Seamus Heaney's translation of the thousand year-old poem, Grendel is the God-cursed, bone-lapping, blood-gorging terror-monger who terrorizes the Danish king Hrothgar and his people, before being defeated in hand-to-hand combat by the hulking pre-Schwarzenegger action hero, Beowulf.

In Gardner's novel, however, Grendel is no mindless brute, but rather a melancholy beast, prone to brooding philosophically between random acts of extreme violence. He understands that the myths and lore that surround him give the lives of his human enemies meaning and purpose, and he wages what he calls his "idiotic war" partly out of a sense of resignation, even as he is tormented by the universe's unfair, arbitrary nature in making him the intelligent monster that he is.

Grendel is a Romantic, albeit a nihilist as well, and he fights in part to keep his growing sense of meaninglessness at bay. He is a keen observer of the folly of men, even as he murders and eats them, and when he's not battling Danish warriors, he ponders his loneliness and even falls in love (or at the very least, in lust) with the beautiful young Queen Wealtheow. By the time he meets his doom at the hands of the barbarian Beowulf — the event to which his entire life has served as a prelude — the monster has come to welcome his end.

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Now Gardner's novel has been adapted in grand scale for the opera stage. Nearly two decades in the making, Elliot Goldenthal's Grendel: Transcendence of the Great Big Bad was premiered last week by the Los Angeles Opera. This much anticipated production features music by Goldenthal and production and design by his partner, acclaimed director Julie Taymor.

Taymor is most well-known for her innovative Broadway adaptation of Disney's The Lion King and for directing the film biography Frida. Goldenthal is best known as the composer of music for films like Alien3, Interview With the Vampire, several of the Batman films, and Julie Taymor's Frida, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Original Score.

The opera, Goldenthal's first, features extravagant and bizarre sets, Taymor's famous innovative puppetry and costume design, and above all Goldenthal's dark, percussive music, providing the perfect voice for the monster's internalized brooding.

The opera will run in Los Angeles through June 17 before moving to new York's Lincoln Center Festival beginning July 11.

 

Kids today don't know what they're missing.

When I was a kid, I loved a certain kind of book character, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are. When he bellows "I'll eat you up!" to his mother, I was always thinking "Aw, sweet…" I liked the delinquents, the punks, and it doesn't take an advanced degree to figure out the effect they had on me growing up, or on the adult I eventually became, sort of.

But my favorite had to be Curious George. And not the appropriate Curious George we see now, star of screen and t-shirt and plush doll. No, I have no use for that monkey.

I want the Curious George who smoked and sniffed either.

So what stories or characters do YOU remember from your childhood that wouldn't pass the muster of appropriate role model behavior today?

(Incidentally, it's not just literary characters, either. Ernie and Bert don't live together anymore, and Cookie Monster not only talks about vegetables now, but he RAPS about them. Big gold chains and all. He even says "Word!" at one point. It is to weep.)

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Spell It, Sister!

I really enjoyed this article by Marjorie Cortez on the recent Scripps National Spelling Bee.

As someone who loves words, it's heartening to me that spelling bees have received such positive attention in recent years. Kids who win these bees have practiced spelling words for months on end. They are every bit as dedicated as elite athletes.

That's right; good spelling deserves major street cred!

Marjorie makes an excellent point about the speed at which we type these days having a direct influence on how careful we are about grammar. Like the author, I also learned to type on a manual typewriter with NO CORRECTOR RIBBON, and thus was a stickler about careful typing and proper grammar. There was none of today's IM-frenzied style of HowRU? OMG ME2!

And congratulations to the brilliant and adorable Katharine Close, this year's winner. Finally, a girl won! Hooray! (No doubt all those boys who won before her were just cheating, anyway.)

 

Literary Loves

My first love was not a young swain of flesh and blood; oh no, my first, and second, and third, and fourth loves were bound in print, but knew no boundaries in my heart.

I wager every reader has had at least one: a literary crush, when a character in a book is so wonderful, so perfect, that we yearn to leave our cold, dusty world behind and leap into their ephemeral arms.

I clearly remember my first: Tom Sawyer. Oh, how I loved his mischievous ways! And I was so jealous of that whore, Becky Thatcher, stealing from Tom what should have been my kiss.

I dumped Tom soon after that for Huck Finn, who cut a much more dashing figure.

I fell in love so so so many times, and acquired several 'girl crushes' besides, on Jo March and other girls and women who strode through life with muscle and might. Who did I love the most?

I suppose it would have to be Gilbert Blythe, the charming, brilliant, sensitive Gilbert Blythe, he of the raven hair and smoke-gray eyes, the boy (and man) so under-appreciated by Miss Anne Shirley, until it was almost too late. I don't deny I still, to this day, sometimes long to jump 100 years into the past, to land in the sumptuous Avonlea and run into Gilbert's arms in a frenzy of kisses and crushed crinolines.

We never forget our first loves, do we?

Who were your literary loves?