Poor Grendel’s had an accident.

About a thousand years ago, an anonymous scribe wrote down an Old English epic that had been kicking around for about three hundred years. This manuscript would manage to survive until the modern age, becoming one of the oldest major works of Old English. No title is given in the manuscript; we commonly call it Beowulf, after the name of the story’s hero. Beowulf kills a couple of monsters, becomes a king, and goes out to kill a dragon, who mortally wounds him.

Forty-seven years ago, an American man named John Gardner wrote a novel, which explores the history of the first monster Beowulf killed. Grendel hangs out watching a minor Danish tribe settle into domestication, explores nihilistic philosophy, talks to the dragon, and gets killed by Beowulf.

Thirty-seven years ago, an Australian man named Alexander Stitt adapted Grendel into an animated cartoon. There are songs.

Grendel, Grendel, Grendel stars none other than Peter Ustinov as the titular monster. Who is a goofy-looking, spotted, green beast with a long, long nose.

The whole film is drawn in a flat-color aesthetic similar to the one I work in a lot; lines are practically nonexistent, and everything is charming and goofy.

It’s really kind of fascinating to watch. Especially when it turns more and more serious as the end approaches: watching two of King Hrothgar’s thanes plot treachery against him, with super-moody lighting, is constantly contrasted by the fact that one of them looks like a Muppet.

There’s gorgeous lighting throughout the film – sometimes stark black shadows, sometimes deep blue ones, sometimes really crazy colors just for the sake of design.

And all of it is told in fairly contemporary English. Mostly with Australian accents. It’s a hell of a thing.

At the end, Grendel dies. And then a merry song begins and all the characters start dancing around cheerily as the names of their voice actors show up above them. This moment really sums up the contradiction at the heart of this movie: a brightly colored adaptation of a book wherein a monster wanders around exploring existentialist philosophy, and then gets killed by the hero. It’s a pretty amazing thing.

Things to watch for, if you decide to brave the ten chunks of overcompressed VHS transfer on Youtube that’s all I can find of this:

  • moments when they take advantage of the fact that the backgrounds are drawn as simply as the foreground, and circle the whole camera around one character – I think there may be a definite narrative point being made here about how both Grendel and Unferth’s fates are entwined.
  • the way Hrothgar and his court move from swearing by “the Great Bogey” (Grendel) to saying things like “Sweet Christmas!”; one of the subtle narratives running through Beowulf is of the Christianization of Northern Europe and it’s pretty neat to see this coming up in here (as well as much less subtly, given that one of the turning points of the movie is a bard telling the story of Cain and Abel while Grendel lurks outside listening). It’s worth noting that apparently the film’s director also did a series of commercials for the “Christian Television Association” over the course of the 60s, 70s, and 80s; I would be very curious to find out what his personal beliefs were. There is not much about Stitt online; that nugget comes from the site for a book that’s a retrospective of his career.

The amazing video store I live a block away from has this in their catalog. On VHS. I’m very tempted to rent it along with one of the VHS decks they have for rental; I’d really like to see a crisper copy of this than what Youtube did to it.

It’s still kicking aound the back of my head the next day. Specifically, some choices around the casting and color design.

The same person plays the voice of both the Dragon and Beowulf. On the one hand, it’s simple economy – both are important roles, but brief ones compared to Grendel or the core members of the tribe of Danes that Grendel watched. On the other hand, it’s very tidy. The Dragon sees all of Time at once; he knows how Grendel will end and dances coyly around it. And Beowulf is, of course, that ending.

Outside the scope of Grendel’s tale, they’re even more tightly linked. They are each other’s endings, as well; decades later, Beowulf’s last heroic act will be to slay him.

(There’s also comic effect; Dignam uses a very posh voice for both roles. Having a far-off, legendary warrior speak in a British-flavored accent is both kind of goofy (especially when contrasted against the band of brutes and cutthroats he leads), and an interesting choice for an Australian film…)

This relation is carried through to the visuals, too: the Dragon is nothing but bright reds, the colors bleeding into each other as the combination of VHS and Youtube compression reduce him to little more than a silhouette. Beowulf’s cape is a bright red rectangle fluttering behind him; together, they are the most vividly red things in the whole film, except perhaps for the fire-snakes that populate the pool that hides the entrance to Grendel’s cave.

I would have to watch the film again to check but I am petty sure those are the *only* bright red things in the entire film. I’m pretty sure Stitt and his crew were clueful enough that this is by design, if so. (Oh, hey, look, up in those screenshots. Who’s the only Dane wearing red? Unfirth. Who tries and fails to kill Grendel multiple times; who Beowulf slays – at King Hrothgar’s suggestion – as part of his plan to lure Grendel into Hrothgar’s hall – just before he kills Grendel. Yep. Very nicely done, Stitt. The red ties them all together in a complex knot around Grendel’s ending.)

Addendum 2: oh man we just checked and while DVDs don’t seem to be available in the US, they’re still in stock on the site of the Australian company that is distributing it. Total cost, including shipping to the US? AU$19, which works out to about US$15.50. Hell yes. I just bought a copy and will maybe offer to donate it to Scarecrow Video to keep next to their VHS copy when I’ve watched it, because I want to make it easier for more folks to see this treasure.

  1. I had trouble appreciating the cartoon Grendel when it first came out, it was so jarringly different in tone from the book. Though I liked silly in general, it seemed an inappropriate treatment for such a nihilistic story. I can now understand better what they were trying to achieve, although I can’t say I would take anything like the same approach were I given command of the vessel.

    As an aside, I left my copy of Gardner’s Grendel in a classroom once and never saw it again. It’s high time for a reread.

    • I think my copy of Grendel is long-gone, too. I should find it again.

      I don’t think I’d make the same choices, either, were I charged to direct an animated adaptation of the book. I dunno. I’d have to go off and be very stoned with the text for a few weeks before I really knew where to take it.

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