review

Reasons to Stay Alive | Matt Haig

25733573I will do a full author spotlight on Matt Haig, particularly regarding his fictional works, where I will get into further details about my strange connection to this author, and my fascination with his work. I did want to tackle his non-fiction/memoir/self-help book independently. I will say that this blog entry is less a book review and more of a personal interaction with this work. I mostly jotted down notes of the portions of this book I enjoyed, and found striking in a way. It’s more of a ‘personal reading log.’ I would recommend this book for times when you are in a depressive state, but I think the first time you read it, I would ideally recommend this at a time when you are out of a depressive episode, and then use it as a guide to return to when it hits. I also saw this image often on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, and I always found it wonderful, but I had no idea it was taken out of this book.IMG_20180412_104121

This work is Haig’s account of his lowest point in life when he was brought down by a mixture of Anxiety, Depression, and all other physical and psychological effects they bring.

He writes:

“We humans love to compartmentalize things. We love to divide our education system into separate subjects, just as we love to divide our shared planet into nations, and our books into separate genres. But the reality is that things are blurred. Just as being good at mathematics often means someone is good at physics, so having depression means it probably comes with other things. Anxieties, maybe some phobias, a pinch of OCD…”

Haig’s lowest point happened in Spain where he wanted to kill himself and he describes in detail the pressures and negative thoughts enveloping his days for months to follow, and the ways in which his parents and girlfriend supported him through this. He writes about the ways our awareness of death can often be both an anxiety-inducer and a life ‘activator’ and the paradoxical relationship between depression and happiness:

“It is a hard thing to accept, that death and decay and everything bad leads to everything good, but I for one believe it…that’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.”

What I particularly enjoyed about this work was the way Haig introduces us to his relationship to books, literature, authors (both dead and alive, both depressed and not) and often quotes another writer associating it with his immediate feeling or concern. The way he talks about books made me highlight uncontrollably:

“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping…So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered…most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest…. the plot of every book can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something.’”

Haig also urges us (or challenges us in order to be happy) to:

“Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end.”

A secondary point of focus of Haig is the observation on how we view the mind as separate from the body, and how in reality the two are highly connected. He looks at the psychological symptoms and physical symptoms of a mental illness and notes that there are much more on the physical side. He describes his relationship to running, meditation, and yoga and throughout this work returns to how important physical movement, physical nourishment, and physical forms of self-care influence the mental state.

Haig examines our relationship to ‘greats’ in literary and artistic history who have killed themselves. I know I am certainly one of those. But Haig takes a different approach. He urges us to admire and look up to people who certainly have depression but get out, putting aside Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Wallace, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and look at a much longer list of people who made it out. He even mentions the great long list that he keeps on hand of depressed celebrities who did make it out. There are also greats like Linocln and Churchill who overcame great depression and thrived on the lessons learned from the experience. Haig writes that maybe biographies of Lincoln and Churchill shouldn’t say that they thrived “despite” having depression, rather that they should say they thrived “because” of it.

There are moments in the book where Haig will mention something a famous writer says and in a way responds back to it with his own take. Here are two examples:

“Anais Nin called anxiety ‘love’s greatest killer,’ but fortunately, the reverse is also true. Love is anxiety’s greatest killer…forcing yourself to see the world through love’s gaze can be healthy. Love is an attitude to life. It can save us.

As Schopenhauer said, ‘we forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people,’ then love—at its best—is a way to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves.”

I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on time and time anxiety. This has certainly been a fixation of mine in the past I found some of his lines on time to be quite powerful. He writes:

“I was as obsessed with time as some people are about money. It was the only weapon I had…We feel an urgency to get on because time is short. Pain lengthens time…pain forces us to be aware of it…turning life into a desperate race for more stuff is only going to shorten it…in terms of how it feels.”

The whole book is also filled with advice from Haig and reminders that happiness will return, even when you are in a depressive state feeling shrouded in hopelessness:

Hate is a pointless emotion. Hate is the lack of imagination

Be around trees

we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.

The key thing about life on Earth is Change. Cars rust, paper yellows, caterpillars become butterflies, depression lifts.

Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.

You will one day experience joy that matches this pain…you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap…you will eat delicious foods…there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversation and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you…hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.

Lastly, as I was reading this book I took note of every quotation by other writers that Haig brought into this work that I enjoyed and each gave me pause. I jotted most of them down here to look at from time to time.

Quotations from other people scattered through the book that I really enjoyed:

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” –Rumi

“is there no way out of the mind”- Plath

“The object of art is to give life a shape” – Shakespeare

“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickinson

“I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.”-Winston Churchill

“it did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”- David Foster Wallace (on Advertising).

“Time crumbles things”- Aristotle

“The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.” – Jules Verne

“The lotus flower…grows in mud at the bottom of a pool but rises above the murky water and blooms in the clear air, pure, and beautiful.” – Buddhist Teaching

Dead Mountain | The Dyatlov Pass

17557470 (1) “an unknown compelling force should be considered the cause of the hikers’ deaths” – Lev Ivanov

On January 23, 1959 nine young, experienced hikers who loved adventure went on a passage near the elevations of what was named “Dead Mountain” in the Ural Mountains. The team actually had 10 hikers, one who happened to be forced to return due to his health on February 2nd. On the 12th of February when the team did not return as expected, a rescue team was sent out to retrieve them. When the rescue team found all 9 corpses, they found the bodies in a very odd situation. Some of the bodies were completely stripped down, one of the young women was missing her tongue, and one body was highly radioactive. The team leader’s name was Igor Dyatlov (1936-1959) and so the name “The Dyatlov Pass” was used when referring to the mystery surrounding the young hikers. I watched a mini-documentary on YouTube as well as one of Caitlin Doughty’s Morbid Mystery videos on this topic, and I wanted to learn more. I picked up this book by Donnie Eichar published in 2013 by First Chronicle Books and I was quite delighted in the amount of passion and research that Eichar conducted on this topic. He left the United States to not only investigate what tangible information can be pieced together about this mystery, but he also wanted to speak to the one ‘survivor’ Yuri Yudin, as well as family and friends of the nine deceased hikers. Eichar pieces together this mystery and almost allows readers to figure it out alone, by presenting the facts.

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Rescue Team finds the tent

Eichar interviews everyone possible, he reads the hikers’ diary which was logged by one of the young women to track their journey, he looks at the forensic analysis, and tries to give as well-rounded a character analysis of each of the hikers from what could have been known about them. Keeping in mind that this was in pre-social media and pre-internet era, and these hikers were only university students, it truly is impressive how much information Eichar was able to piece together. He also had a Russian-English translator with him to help with each one of the interviews, and tangible information. At the end of the book he offers two timelines: the hikers’ timeline as he understands it day by day, and the rescue team’s timeline. He also offers a re-imagining  or “recreation” of February 1, and the early morning hours of February 2nd, using the diary entries, weather reports, and expert scientific opinion on what he believes really happened that night.

There is a lot to unpack from this mystery and I think Eichar does a wonderful job. I think telling too much of what I learned would be, in a way, spoiling the book, if you are interested in reading it. I personally found it scarier than most fictional horror books. Some of the siblings describe the state of the corpses when they saw them, and four corpses were so mutilated they had to be in a closed casket for the funeral procession. If description of such things make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps just watch one of the two videos I mentioned and linked above.

If you like reading Jon Kakauer’s books you would probably enjoy this one (both scared me a lot). It’s journalistic and research-based, but it’s also surrounding a real story with adventure, and nature in it. I thought it was well-written and it kept my attention the whole time. I also appreciated all the attached images, and maps, and the way it was structured. I think as of right now, this is perhaps the most we can ever know about the Dyatlov Pass.

In 2013 an adaptation loosely based on this tragedy (Devil’s Pass) came out featuring a very “science fiction meets horror” take on the story. It really helps to have so many perspectives on this hike and be able to appreciate the horrors of a true story.

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Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz

35721160Ever since I started reading this book I want to grab every stranger on the street by the collar and yell at them: “We’re going to Mars!”

This book has been with me for the last two weeks and it has left me completely mesmerized by the unquenchable fires of human innovation and by how much can be achieved through mass collaboration. Rocket Billionaires, written by Tim Fernholz, follows the narrative of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and the plan to create a colony on Mars in hopes that humans can become a multi-planetary civilization.

Fernholz focuses on the competition between Bezos and Musk to realize their visions of humanity as a multi-planetary civilization by building space companies focused on reusable technology. Fernholz spends some time examining the managerial differences between Bezos and Musk and looks at how these differences affect their relationship to this project. Aside from the clash between the two billionaires, there was also a tension between military-industrial space programs and these new, self-made, space companies. Fernholz describes how NASA policymakers stepped in to save SpaceX when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. The plan as we know it, is that in the next decade there will be an attempt to place the first colony on Mars. Over time, this colony’s goal will be to grow to one million citizens so that it can get started. Supplies sent on each individual mission will include a new batch of people as well as foods, plants, technologies etc. in order to create greenhouse farms, Martian villages with hospitals and schools, and a full-on functioning civilization.

This book is exemplary journalistic work. Fernholz relates the story of these two self-made companies to the public in a non-biased way. It is evident on every page how passionate Fernholz is about this project and it really shows, yet he maintains an academic, non-intrusive journalistic voice. The narrative flows smoothly and is by no means elitist or exclusive.

Reading this book made me jot down a lot of questions. For instance, I wonder if the women who embark on this mission be under insurmountable pressure to procreate. Will future generations look back and remember Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in a kind of Henry Ford/Thomas Edison way, or will people forget the financial struggles and remember the name of the first man/woman to step on Martian soil, the way we all know the name of Neil Armstrong? What technologies will be created as a result that could better life on Earth? After discussing this topic over the last two weeks with people at home, work, and public spaces, I was taken aback with how ‘civilians’ receive information about this project. For one, everyone ‘heard’ about this topic, and yet, they look at it both as ‘old news’ and as a ‘it’s probably not going to happen in our lifetime.’ For me, this book has been eye-opening. The project is not only on its way in a monumental way, but it will happen within the next decade.  The second comment I am met with when bringing up this topic is “what a waste of money, why not save the starving, struggling people here on Earth first?” While I agree that it is a fair point, this project is equally important. I am somewhat relieved that the people leading this project are very much focused on renewables, and reusable technologies.

Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That is to say, we don’t know what this undertaking will accomplish for humanity yet. This book makes me see the scientific intrigue to colonizing Mars. It will be monumental on an engineering, scientific, educational, and human level—no matter how the mission will go. It will make students want to study the sciences even more ardently than before, and as Fernholz narrowed it down in this book, one of the answers to the question of “why go to Mars?” really can be as simple as: “because it’s there.”

Fernholz relates often the reality of the project to the leading figures in science fiction literature particularly that of the big three: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, and of course Kim Stanley Robinson whose Red Mars trilogy is precisely this project (set in 2026 no less). The sprinkling of sci-fi references made this book exemplary. The sci-fi allusions act as a cohesive between the imagination found in the arts and what the great minds of scientists, programmers, engineers, and mathematicians can help bring to fruition—making readers see the beauty in humanity’s collective effort.

Would I recommend this book? YES!

Tim Fernholz is one of the leading journalists reporting on SpaceX and one of the best news commentary experts. Many of his articles have been featured in Quartz, and you may recognize him from the 2016 Quartz/Marketplace economics podcast: Actuality. Fernholz was both a Knight Journalism Fellow and at the New America Foundation in Washington D.C. He is a Georgetown University alumni with studies in Government, Theology, and Arabic, and one of the founding editors for the Tomorrow Magazine. If you’d like to learn more about his other fascinating projects, and previous journalistic work, you can find more information here.

The book is available as of Tuesday, March 20th, 2018 on Amazon, Audible, (read by Erin Moon) and The Book Depository, as well as your local bookstores (some links: Indigo, Barnes & Noble, Blackwell’s) and of course libraries.

Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt both for publishing this wonderful book and for sending me a review copy. The book design is completed by Graphic Artist Chloe Foster.

 

Feel Free by Zadie Smith | Review

imagesFeel Free is Zadie Smith’s most recent collection of essays published by Penguin Press. The collection as a whole feels as if Smith has poked her head out of her isolated writing chamber and is contributing to ongoing conversations. Because these essays have been written over the course of a few years, and previously published individually (for instance one is a film review of The Social Network) some come across as dated, but their essence is still ever-present and relevant. Almost every essay in here either reminded me of another essay I have read, or another speaker I heard, but of course, Smith has an elegant style, and contributes a new perspective. Some of the essays are reviews of books and movies, and her reaction to musicians like David Bowie, or Prince, or Billie Holiday. In all honesty, the musical bits were the least interesting to me. I think that if I had a chance to have a one-on-one conversation with one of my favourite authors, their musical tastes and opinions on musicians wouldn’t be of interest to me. However, Zadie Smith’s recent fictional work Swing Time is about music, and dance, and I can see that for her, this is a very important topic, so I understand why these essays are included. In others, she offers her opinion on topics that are ongoing debates like: do we need libraries? Is Facebook good for us? In the third and last category, if I had to group them, she offers answers to more personal questions relating to her own private experience when it comes to writing, journaling, ideas, and other Smith-specific details.

I would like to unpack a few of my favourite essays in this collection and record what was interesting (to me).

The first essay in the collection “Northwest London Blues” is on the importance of Willesden Library (1894) and Willesden Green Library Centre (1989), which is sprinkled with Smith’s opinions on libraries in general: whether they are still relevant, and what is their role in an individual’s life.

She writes that even though there is a kind of obsolescence to the library as we once knew it, due to the Internet’s all-encompassing information powers, she still sees a need for the space:

“Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact that every single student in here could be at home in front of their MacBook browsing Google Books.”

“Libraries are not failing ‘because they are libraries.’ Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.”

“It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three-dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.”

Perhaps I’ve read more on libraries than most people, but to me Zadie Smith is in conversation with Neil Gaiman’s essay “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming“ and Ray Oldenburg’s essay on “The Third Place” in his book The Great Good Place (All three essays worth your time).

The second essay in Feel Free that got my attention was “Life-Writing” in which Smith explores her relationship with journaling and keeping a personal diary.  Though the essay was quite brief, Smith explains her difficulties with keeping a journal. She writes about the ways in which intimate details of her romantic encounters feel far too personal and exposing, and how the Judy Blume character voice made her feel like she had homework, and never felt genuine. She writes:

“The dishonestly of diary-writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing. I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts.”

She then tried imitating authors like Virginia Woolf who recorded only literary happenings, which according to Smith lasted only one day because a single meeting with Jeffrey Eugenides took up twelve pages and half the night. She writes:

“Who is it for? What is this voice? Who am I trying to kid—myself? I realize that I don’t want any record of my days….when it comes to life-writing, the real, honest, diaristic, warts-and-all, the only thing I have to show for myself…is my email account.”

There’s something so honest in the way she wrote this piece that went far for me. I think we all try to do things because we’ve seen them done by others, or on T.V, or YouTube channels, and refuse to admit when something just didn’t work out for us—because it just didn’t.

Lastly, the third and by far my favourite essay in this collection was “Generation Why?” in which Zadie Smith tears apart our obsession with Facebook, reviews the film The Social Network, tries to find ‘the missing thing’ within us, and concludes with a harsh:

“It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”

I’m going to hold off on the Facebook discussion and write a different entry for it, because I think she is in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” (2011)– or at least he is in conversation with her, as her piece was written a year earlier.  I would like to write a proper opinion piece on it and link it HERE.

Overall I loved this collection. I think Zadie Smith is a brilliant, Wonder-Woman figure in my life, so I would 100% recommend her essay collection to you. If you doubt whether you should invest time in her long fictional works, or this collection, I strongly recommend listening to one of her commencement speeches, or her interviews—hearing her voice, and her real-life tone, helps in fully embracing her ideas and loving every minute you spend reading her works.

 

 

Kazuo Ishiguro | Nobel Lecture

36655283I’ve been accused in the past (particularly by my high school teachers) of “falling in love with the writer not their work.” This is true. I am who I am and I refuse to change this particular aspect of my reading experience. Authors need to come across as decent human beings, and people I want to spend time with because I AM spending time with them for hundreds of pages, and countless hours. If I can’t stand the way an author speaks, interacts with readers, or the way they answer public questions, and aspects of their life (i.e. finding out someone is extremely racist or sexist), I tend to find their fictional work reflects that and it bothers me for the same reasons. I was introduced to every single work (that I arrived to alone without recommendations) by finding the author first and falling in love with their personality. I watched countless Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, David Mitchell, Ray Bradbury, Zadie Smith, Anne Rice etc. videos first before attempting their actual fiction. For dead writers, there are biographies. My favourite writers of the past have been men and women I’ve particularly admired for the barriers they crossed, the lives they led, and the opinions they had, or letters they exchanged.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I have not read any of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction (yet) because I wasn’t sure what is the essence of his writing, and what I should expect; at first I mistakenly believed he wrote only romance novels. I needed to hear Kazuo Ishiguro first. I took this morning to listen and read along in this book My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture and my goals of the year just changed to: I must read as much Kazuo Ishiguro as I possibly can. This man is so poised, intelligent, and well-spoken. What I love about his Nobel Lecture is that he introduces himself, gives an overview of his life, and details about how he wrote each one of his novels: what inspired him to write each one of them, what changes happened in his life, what revelations he had, and how he grew as an artist.

It was so interesting to read and hear him describe the ways in which he was inspired by music, his roots and heritage, and how a single question from a reading made him change his writing away from the isolated individual reminiscing to the meaningful  relationships between people. I also enjoyed the way he sprinkles many literary references particularly of writers who have inspired him like Forester and Proust.

Near the end of the lecture Ishiguro looks forward, and respectfully acknowledges that we must allow “the younger generation to lead us” and that:

“if we are to get the best of the writers of today and tomorrow we must be more diverse…beyond our comfort zones of elite first world countries.”

If I had to highlight what stood out to me from this summarized life and writing overview,  it would be the way Ishiguro emphasizes that inspiration can come from various formats not necessarily only books but also media like music, film, and lectures. He also notes that he wanted his works to be something that can exist only on the page, which is very intriguing.

This book is very short, but packs in it the essence and craft of Ishiguro, and if like me you haven’t read any of his works but want an introduction to an exceptional individual then give this a try.

The Private Lives of the Tudors

27904523I’ve been fascinated by the Tudors for quite some time. Judging by the abundance of books I found online so are most people. Every time I look for a new book on the topic I find so many others. Often I find that books will either be historical fiction with too much invention and dialogue that doesn’t fit the character, or being overly academic, focusing on a specific aspect of the time period (only wardrobe, only children etc), or have a dry, pedantic explanation of the late 1500s explaining only pure politics and military details.

The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman tells the story of the Tudors from Henry VII to Elizabeth I and contextualizes them in a very humanizing way, as citizens of that time and place. Generalizations, superstitions of the time, rituals, things viewed as Royal-specific, daily and practical things like: how men viewed women at the time, practices around childbirth, etc. All these details are covered by Borman and made this book fascinating. If I could sum it up in one word it would be: details. Borman accumulated all of this information about the Tudors from accounts written by the people around them. I learned things that I won’t be able to unlearn for a long time. For instance, King Henry VIII gained so much weight in his later years and developed a leg ulcer which accumulated pus and had a wretched smell which made it very difficult for the people around him help him get dressed. He would wake up randomly and demand pudding at late hours in the night. Elizabeth I had a very problematic “relationship” with Thomas Seymour who used to be with her a lot in her early teens. Henry VIII was fixated on clothing and spent a fortune on his wardrobe. Anne Boleyn demanded that Catherine (of Aragon) give her the birthing shroud she was going to use before she (Catherine) found out she wouldn’t be able to have children–an insolent demand which was denied. The last point kind of gave me a clue as to what kind of person Anne Boleyn was without any dialogue in the ways she tried to rub salt in the wounds of others so publicly. Listing them right now, from what is memorable to me, it sounds a lot like what today would be a form of gossip, or tabloid news, but these little details bring the Tudors to life. For once I got an idea of the kind of person each of them was based on what they asked of and said to the people immediately around them.

Having been reading this book in the last week, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with today’s bestselling book: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. We “know” a lot about Donald Trump because we see him on T.V, we read his Tweets, etc, but the fascination with Michael Wolff’s book surrounds the details of Trump’s daily activities. For the last few nights, all the trending tidbits were things like: ‘Donald Trump eats cheeseburgers alone at night in fear of getting poisoned,’ ‘he eats them alone in his bed while watching T.V,’ ‘he has three television screens in his room,’ ‘he didn’t think he was going to win,’ ‘Melania cried upon victory and they weren’t tears of joy’ etc. Although they are small, insignificant details, they matter, and they help us characterize him.

I think Borman’s book is very important because it tells us how the people around the Tudors viewed them, and the circulating gossip of the time around them. Drawing parallels between the ways our current leaders and the details of their private lives leak into our collective psyche has helped me empathize with the people of England from that time period. I think more historians should extract minutiae because it brings history to life. What is that saying:? “The devil is in the details!” I strongly recommend this book if the Tudors interest you.

 

Beowulf: Grendel’s Mother

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Incipit page for Beowulf section in MS Cotton Vitellius A XV

After watching a few adaptations of Beowulf, I couldn’t help but wonder if it made sense for Angelina Jolie to play Grendel’s mother in the latest interpretation. It didn’t seem right. I went back to the Old English text to see if it makes any sense. Turns out I was wrong.

Beowulf has been fully translated by sixty-five (and counting) translators, has been adapted into four films (including an animated and a post-apocalyptic version), two shorter animated films, a rock-opera with music by Dave Malloy, it has been incorporated in various comic books and graphic novels and has made its way into smaller independent short clips on YouTube (and children’s shows) in addition to being referenced and parodied within contemporary comedy. With all the representations and adaptations, despite some characters being omitted (such as Wiglaf in Gunnarsson’s 2005 film) Beowulf has remained portrayed as a strong, muscular male, Grendel as a hideous monster and King Hrothgar and his wife as a middle aged couple worn by time and troubles. Grendel’s mother however, differs from the rest due to her shape-shifting portrayal throughout the adaptations. Her monstrosity and destructive powers are bent; yet from a demonic beast, to an Amazon-like figure, to a sexually appealing seductress, Grendel’s mother remains successful in destroying Hrothgar’s peace and bringing Beowulf to her cave. In the original text we are told that:

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Grendel’s mother in online depiction

“widcuþ werum   þætte wreccend þa gyt

Lifde æfter laþum       lange þrage

Æfter guðceare    Grendles modor

Ides aglaecwif   yrmþe gemunde

se þe wæteregesan   wunian scolde”

[widely known by men / that an avenger still / lived after the misfortunes, for a long time / after the hostile one, Grendel’s mother / lad troll-wife, remembered misery / she who had to inhabit the dreadful water] (Beowulf, 1253-1261a)

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Second online depiction

The word “wrecend” resonates as a masculine quality, one highly valued by the Anglo-Saxons, yet pertaining to male warriors thus making Grendel’s mother an Amazon-like figure. The idea of avenging the murder of a dead one is a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon literature, but the poet of Beowulf adds a few lines emphasizing the “troll’s” motherly role:

“…ond his modor þa gyt

Gifre ond galgmond   gegan wolde

Sorhfulne sið      sunnu deað wrecan”

[and his mother even now / greedy and gloomy-hearted / wished to go forth / on a sorrowful journey to avenge her son’s death] (Beowulf 1276-8)

Burton Raffel adds more sensitivity in his translation of this passage translating it as “His mother’s sad heart, and her greed, drove her from her den on the dangerous pathway of revenge” creating a dynamic to this character. A monster who first appears repulsive and masculine in her heroic return to avenge her son (the act of avenge as one commendable by Anglo-Saxon standards) is now presented to us in feminine form, as a mother. This alone makes her action of kidnapping and killing Hrothgar’s kinsman Æschere completely justified. Though as readers we may not be on her side, we understand her actions.

Grendel’s mother is perhaps one of the first females in Anglo-Saxon literature with feminist qualities. She is not only like an Amazon in her warrior nature, but also like the Greek Goddess Athena, seeker of justice (in her quest to settle an equal ransom for her son’s death by taking only one victim) and strong in battle searing for equality based on merit in a man-dominated society. The poet writes:

“                            waes se gryre laessaraffel

Efne swa micle      swa bið mæg þa cræft

Wiggryre wifes      bewaepned men

Þonne heoru bunden    hamere geþuren

Sweord swate fah   swin over helme

Ecgum dyhttig      andweard scireð”

[The horror was less / by even so much as is maid’s strength / the war-violence of woman from an armed man / when adorned blade by hammer forged / sword stained with blood the boar-crest / by edges firm the opposing is sheared] (Beowulf, 1282-5)

Interestingly enough, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of this same passage he writes “her onslaught was less only by as much as an Amazon warrior’s strength.” The key word being “Amazon” since it is absent in the Old English text, yet Heaney too detects that Grendel’s mother’s characteristics resonate with previously encountered female warriors in Greek epic poetry.

What sets Grendel’s mother apart from an Amazon-figure in a somewhat strange way is the fact that she has a son. Between lines 1354 and 1356 Hrothgar says “if he [Grendel] had a father no one knew him” suggesting Grendel’s mother could have been sexually involved with a man, since Grendel resembles men in his physical characteristics (only with more strength). This raises the question of Grendel’s mother’s appearance and it is with this detail that her portrayal becomes diverse as one may wonder if a man was attracted to this woman or if she truly is an anthropomorphic beast. When it comes to description this monster is left to the mercy of the translators and adapters.51cofDOKunL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

For instance, when describing her kidnapping to Æschere in line 1295 which in Old English appears to be “fæste befangen,” Burton Raffel uses words like “dripping claws” where Heaney simply writes “tight hold” with no mention of “claw.” “Claw” implies a hideous beast with animal features whereas “tight hold” simply emphasizes strength.

Even upon explaining the mother and son Raffel only says that “one of the devils was a female creature…they named the huge one Grendel: if he had a father no one knew him” whereas Heaney writes “one…looks like a woman; the other…an unnatural birth called Grendel…they are fatherless creatures…and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts.” The difference between the two is huge as one implies Grendel was from his mother’s womb and may have had a father, whereas the other implies they are demonic, fatherless creatures.

In his book Beowulf and Grendel, John Grigsby writes:

“since the poet makes it clear that Grendel and his mother are amongst such fiends [descendants of Cain] it can be deduced that this pair of monsters were originally divinities too—namely the fertility God and his lover/mother of ancient Denmark. She’s referred to as ‘cursed spirits,’ ‘demons,’ ‘monster of the deep,’ and ‘water-witch.’”

Simply by working with text and translation, Grendel’s mother obtains a dynamic through her actions as feminist, warrior, avenger, and mother. In description we do not know if she is as hideous as Grendel or not. Stepping aside from the text for a moment we can observe how modern artists have envisioned Grendel’s mother.

In Graham Baker’s post-apocalyptic film in 1999, various comic books, and Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel, she takes the form of an alien-like figure. Face and body, she does not resemble humans in any characteristics and her role is miniscule, having no impact on the rest of the plot. Her interference is minor as the main focus is on the Dragon and Grendel, thus diminishing the female warrior presence.

51TCWCPKJFL._SY445_       In Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film, some choices were made in this regard, though not plot-altering. We first see Grendel’s mother as an arm grabbing for the warriors on a boat from beneath the waters, where she becomes a mysterious faceless figure, until she finally has her revenge where she has a human body (though bluish in colour) and a beast-like face with sharp teeth. What makes this portrayal interesting is that, at the beginning of the film the audience sees Grendel’s “father” who we do not encounter in the original text. Though in the fil he appears a strong, tall man, he is a man nonetheless and Grendel then becomes a product of the copulation between the tall nameless man and the monstrous nameless woman. In this movie, Grendel himself is avenging his father’s death (which as the director interprets he was killed by Hrothgar) giving him the role his mother has in the text (that of the avenger).

Lastly, and perhaps the boldest interpretation of Grendel’s mother was carried out by Robert Zemeckis in 2007 (written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery). Using the motion-capture process, Zemeckis models Grendel’s mother after Angelina Jolie, famous for her beauty (the simulation replicating the actress’s looks onto the animation panel). This adaptation makes Grendel’s mother a main character and Grendel a mere pawn in her larger game. Her power is not warrior-like; rather she use her sexuality as a weapon—a female weapon. The movie implies that Grendel’s mother seduced Hrothgar years before, and Grendel was not only his son, but the curse she set upon Hrothgar for being weak and giving in to her seductive powers. This, putting a strain on Hrothgar’s marriage, made him want to rid of Grendel and ultimately Grendel’s mother. She is in fact portrayed as Hrothgar’s burden. When Beowulf descends to her lair, Zemeckis’s film implies that Beowulf too gives in to the siren’s seductive powers and the moment he does so, the burden is no longer on Hrothgar but it is transferred to Beowulf. Hrothgar’s ‘freedom’ is portrayed by him committing suicide and Beowulf replacing him on the throne.p-beowulf-grendels-mother

What is interesting of this sexual siren representation of Grendel’s mother, is that the original text allows it to exist. Her description in the text, as previously examined, allows for her looks to be charming and only her character to be beastly and vengeful, as Zemeckis showed her in his film. Interestingly enough, after Beowulf’s burial, the ending of the film is Grendel’s mother waking up from the waters looking in the eyes of her next victim. Although in the original text Beowulf successfully kills her, this film makes Grendel’s mother appear immortal. Her cyclical seducing, torturous and murderous activity can perhaps symbolize the way Beowulf as a text has charmed audiences in Anglo-Saxon England and continues to do so each generation, making us all its slaves, unable to resist the charm that lies in the Old English poetry.

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I still have to read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf — recently published by his son, and I’m a bit hesitant because Tolkien himself didn’t release it in his lifetime which makes me believe it wasn’t a finished product, or something he was comfortable publishing. We do owe Tolkien a lot for bringing Beowulf out of the darkness. Perhaps I will write a post sometime soon on the history of the Beowulf portion of the MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, and how its popularity increased after Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf the Monsters and the Critics” which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.