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Grendel’s Den

Back in the days of the early Cretaceous, when we lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my husband and I used to have Saturday lunch in a place called Grendel’s Den.  The food was very good and not overly expensive for a graduate student and a teacher.

I remembered vaguely who Grendel was (the foe of Beowulf ) from my AP English class.  I’m sure my Classics graduate student friends (Old English and Hittite and Sanskrit, oh, my!) could have told me a good deal more about him, much more than I really needed to know.

Grendel, for those of you who didn’t do Anglo-Saxon literature, is the first antagonist slain by Beowulf in the epic poem that bears the latter’s name.  Grendel has been attacking and killing (and drinking the blood of) the warriors of King Hrothgar’s hall, for reasons that are not entirely clear.  Beowulf, an outsider from Geatland (southern part of present-day Sweden) mortally wounds Grendel by ripping off his arm, after which Grendel staggers back to the den he shares with his mother beneath the marshes near the king’s hall.  And dies.

The second antagonist is Grendel’s mother, who comes to the hall to avenge her son’s death.  Because we don’t know what many words in the Anglo-Saxon lexicon mean, it’s not clear whether she is a hideous monster or a woman warrior.

Beowulf is dragged into her home under the marshes and almost killed, until he finds a sword there and cuts off her head, and then Grendel’s, to take back to the hall as trophies.

Late in his life, Beowulf, now the king of the Geats, fights his third antagonist, a dragon who burns everything in sight because a gold cup has been stolen from his hoard.  He and Beowulf fight, and both are killed.

Isn’t this a nice story to complement a peaceful Saturday lunch?  I’m glad my Classics colleagues kept their mouths shut.

Anyway…  good tales full of blood and gore and clanging swords never go out of style.  If you are the academic type, there’s Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf – English and Old English on facing pages (don’t even try the Old English, it’s unintelligible unless you’ve been trained to read it).  If you want to know all kinds of fascinating details of this epic, look at the Greene Hamlet website  – it won a prize for being the Best of the Web for Students.

Meanwhile, if you just want to read for fun, here are a couple of suggestions.  I saw a new book entitled The Coming of the Dragon, in which an orphan tries to protect his adopted land from a dragon and finds out he’s related to Beowulf.  I skimmed the review too fast and ended up thinking that he was related to Grendel!!  But what a great hook for a story – the good guy related to the bad guy – like Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father!  In any case, it’s a good read; a coming-of-age story about a boy who sees himself as a coward but learns what courage is.

For those who like graphic novels, and the old epics are perfect for them, try Gareth Hinds’ adaptation of  Beowulf.  Much “glorious and gruesome detail;”  Hinds is an excellent graphic artist for teens who like the ripped heroes and the deluge of blood and guts.

And one more thing.  There is a series of graphic novels for younger kids, entitled Kid Beowulf, by Alexis Fajardo, in which Beowulf and Grendel are BROTHERS – and they face off against Roland (of the Song of Roland, totally fictitious) and Ruy Díaz de Vivar in the Song of the Cid  (largely factual, from the 11th century).  And let’s not forget Gilgamesh, older than the Old Testament (and with a global flood).   What a hilarious idea – just mix up the heroes and the villains, and throw in a few thousand years of epic tales!

The library doesn’t have these Kid Beowulf  books (yet), but we can get some of them from other libraries.  Stop by the Children’s Desk and ask us about them, or about any other epic stories.  And by the way, all medieval tales are not as gory as the original Beowulf.  Try Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady, for a lovely Arthurian story about breaking enchantments by giving people what they want.

Many of the tales about El Cid, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Merlin, Roland, the Round Table, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are wonderful too.  After all, there’s a reason why all these stories have lasted so long.

Good luck on your quest!   

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Once Upon a Time


What do you do when you’re in the land of the Brothers Grimm?  You hike through the Black Forest.  You walk through cobblestone streets lined with half-timbered cottages.  You wind your way up up up narrow steps into castle turrets.  These are exactly the things I found myself doing in Germany last week.  In that fantasy setting, Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel, and Snow White seemed like they might be just around the next corner.  These are among the most familiar of the Grimms’ characters, but there are so many others.

Jakob and Willhelm Grimm collected and published over 200 folk tales and legends in the early 1800s.  Passed down through generations of central Europeans before the Grimms set them in print, the stories have their roots in the Middle Ages and reflect the rugged conditions of that time.  The Grimms softened some of the stories to make them more appropriate for children.  Still, as originally published by the brothers, the tales are… well, a bit grim.  For those who’d rather avoid endings involving a huntsman’s knife or a red-hot oven, there are adaptations in which villains do not meet such gory ends.  For some kids (and kids-at-heart) however, the original tales of the Brothers’ Grimm are exciting and hold great appeal.  Whatever your preference, there is a volume of Grimms’ tales waiting for you at the library.


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O Odyssey, Where Art Thou?

In a Jorge Luis Borges story, a character muses that “throughout history, humankind has repeatedly told two stories: one of a lost ship sailing the Mediterranean seas in search of a beloved isle, and one of a god who allows himself to be crucified on Golgotha.”  Now the Golgotha story is only about 2000 years old, but the ship sailing around the Mediterranean really is one that has been told throughout recorded history.  It’s one of the best collections of stories in the world:  the Odyssey.

Our Odyssey – that is, the one that was an epic song and survived in that form long enough to be written down and saved for us -  was originally in verse form.  The children’s versions I’ll be writing about here are in prose (story) form.  But if you’re interested, Richard Lattimore and Allen Mandelbaum have both translated the Odyssey into English verse, amazingly close to the ancient Greek.

We remember the episodes of the wanderings of Odysseus because they’re so exciting, but they don’t even start until until 5 chapters into the story!  The first part is devoted to Odysseus’ son Telemachus, a young man of 20 who leaves his mother Penelope surrounded by dozens of nasty suitors who want to marry her and take over Ithaka.  He goes to Sparta to see Menelaus and Helen and find out if they know anything about his missing father’s whereabouts.  This story of Telemachus was probably a separate song that singers attached to the song of Odysseus back 3000 years ago.  Not nearly as exciting as  Odysseus’ adventures, though the tale of Menelaus fighting with Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea who changes himself into all kinds of beasts, is pretty good.

And suddenly we switch focus:  Odysseus appears in the magical kingdom of the Phaiakians, a stranger who will not tell who he is until the epic singer Demodokos begins singing the songs of the Trojan War – and then Odysseus begins to weep and tells the court of King Alkinoos and Queen Arete and Princess Nausikaa who he is and what has brought him alone to their island.

The stories of his wanderings are tremendously exciting:  for example, a monstrous one-eyed giant who eats some of Odysseus’s  sailors, the terrifying Laestrygonians who destroy all the ships but one, and an enchantress with tame wolves and lions who turns the sailors into swine (when my daughter read this in the fourth grade, she was so enthralled by the idea of turning boys into pigs that she used the story as a class presentation).  And later a trip to the Land of the Dead across the world-encircling river Oceanus, where Odysseus speaks to the dead seer Tiresias and finds out which of the gods he has offended and why his voyage home will be such a long, hard one.

In all stories of this kind, the gods play out their quarrels with one another through their human children and favorites (does it sound like Percy Jackson in The Lightning Thief?)   It turns out that Odysseus has angered Poseidon, the sea god, by blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus, Poseidon’s son (the fact that the Cyclops was eating Odysseus’ sailors was an unimportant detail to the sea god!).  And so bad luck and bad choices mean it will take him another ten years to get home.

After they have left Circe’s island (as humans, not pigs!) and sailed past the deadly Sirens, Odysseus and his men must sail between Scylla and Charybdis.  Scylla is a hideous sea monster with six long necks and terrifying heads.  An arrow’s shot away is a huge whirlpool caused by another sea monster, Charybdis, who sucks the sea down three times a day and then vomits it back up.  Charybdis is able to destroy an entire ship, while Scylla can only snatch six men at a time.  The choices are bad, but there is no other way forward.  Because Circe has warned Odysseus about the monsters, only he knows that he must either sacrifice the ship and the entire crew (including himself), or let a random six men be taken by Scylla -  more, if she gets another shot at them; everything depends on the men rowing as fast as possible.  I’ll leave you to finish the story in one of the many wonderful retellings:

Padraic Colum, The Children’s Homer.  The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy.  A true classic which includes both the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Colum was honored for many of his children’s books, including The Golden Fleece, a Newbery Honor Book.

Gareth Hinds, The Odyssey:  A Graphic Novel.  Written in classic graphic novel form, it has readers standing in line to take it out.  He’s also written a graphic novel about Beowulf, another adventure tale full of blood and monsters.

Bimba Landmann, The Incredible Voyage of Ulysses.  An Italian writer and illustrator who can tell a whole episode in a two-page spread!  We also have this graphic novel in Spanish,  El increíble viaje de Ulises.  If you hadn’t already guessed, Odysseus=Ulysses.

Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden, The Adventures of Odysseus.  This retelling has Odysseus telling his own story until he arrives back at Ithaka.

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Wanderings of Odysseus.  Illustrated by Alan Lee.  This is a brilliant edition – doubly brilliant because Alan Lee is such an outstanding illustrator.  Rosemary Sutcliff has written over the years about Roman Britain. the Grail Quest and the Trojan War.  Lee has illustrated many fantasy books, especially those of J.R.R. Tolkien; he and John Howe were the lead artists for the Lord of the Rings movies.

For some excellent backstory, try Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris, Odysseus in the Serpent Maze.  Odysseus, Penelope, Helen and Mentor end up as prisoners on the island of Crete and find that the monster in the labyrinth is not what they expected.

Or you can read the Adult book by Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

There are many more retellings, up to and including the Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?   Get started on the story of Odysseus, the “man of many turnings”!





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Slainte! Ireland and the Irish!

Saturday, March 17th, is St. Patrick’s Day, the day America celebrates all things Irish!

The library can help you celebrate. We have books about the culture, for example Ireland : the culture, or the literature like The Penguin book of Irish fiction. Traveling to Ireland can both be descriptive, as in this, Ireland, and fun like in this one, Round Ireland with a fridge.

The food of Ireland can be quite an experience, from Malachi McCormick’s Irish country cooking to inspiration from libations, The Irish spirit : recipes inspired by the legendary drinks of Ireland. Sometimes the recipes include a mystery, like here A catered St. Patrick’s Day : a mystery with recipes!

And what would a discussion of Ireland be without the music? Here you can see and hear The Chieftains [videorecording] an Irish evening : live at the Grand Opera House, or songs for children, So early in the morning [sound recording] : Irish children’s songs, rhymes & games.  Or more contemporary Irish sounds like Going out in style [sound recording], punk rock with an Irish flair! There are even movies about the music, as here:

The boys & girl from county Clare [videorecording]

This heartwarming comedy centers on two brothers, John Joe and Jimmy, who haven’t seen each other in twenty years. Having parted on bad terms, they meet at the All Ireland traditional music finals as leaders of rival Irish dance bands.


Or the dance! From books about the forms, The complete guide to Irish dance, the music for dancing, Come dance with me in Ireland [sound recording] : classic Irish dance music, to the personalities, Lord of the dance : my story / Michael Flatley,  that have made Irish dance so popular.

So let the library help you prepare for that day when everyone is Irish! And have a happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Storytelling is happening!

We have not forgotten about the art of storytelling at Sunnyvale Library!  For years there has been a Storytelling Festival, and this year will be no exception.  On Saturday, April 14 at 2 p.m.  we will be holding our 23rd Annual Storytelling Festival, at which you will hear stories of all kinds– traditional and modern, funny and adventurous.  Kids and adults  are invited to prepare a story to tell– just let us know ahead of time so we can put you on the calendar.

In preparation for this event, we are hosting wonderful storyteller John Weaver,  this Saturday, March 10 at 3 p.m. in our Program Room.  Come and listen to John as he puts his spin on classic tales.  He is one funny guy!

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