I have no idea how I missed this for 44 consecutive years, but as I was working on lesson plans for my children’s-lit students — who presented How the Grinch Stole Christmas to the K-2 students during a special holiday story hour last month in lieu of a traditional final exam — I noticed something that delighted my little English-teacher heart:
The Grinch is basically Grendel.
I don’t mean the Dr. Seuss children’s classic is a completely faithful retelling of Beowulf, because it is not. But it bears a striking resemblance to the first part of Beowulf, in the same way that Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory resembles Dante’s Inferno, and The Lion King resembles Hamlet.
Check it out:
In the Anglo-Saxon epic, King Hrothgar builds a big mead hall called Heorot, where he and his subjects feast, sing, and party like rock stars every night, inciting the rage of the monster who lives in a nearby cave.
In the Seussian epic, (OK, maybe not quite an epic, but by picture-book standards … look, just go with it) the Whos down in Who-ville feast, sing, and party every Christmas, inciting the rage of the monster who lives in a nearby cave.
In both stories, the monsters decide to solve their problems by breaking and entering with the intent of committing further crimes.
The poems diverge after this point — the Grinch sticks to larceny in his attempt to quiet his raucous neighbors, while Grendel goes for homicide and cannibalism — but the premises are too similar for me to believe they’re a coincidence.
After all, Dr. Seuss employed iambic tetrameter in Green Eggs and Ham (Sam-I-Am is a pun, as I explain here), so why wouldn’t he draw inspiration from Beowulf?
I’m kind of disappointed I didn’t notice this last year, when my seniors were having so much fun delving into John Gardner’s Grendel. I’d love to hear them debate whether the Grinch is a nihilist or an existentialist.