A Questionable Shore

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

In my post Interstice #1, I quoted naturalist and writer Tim Dee's account of Odin's mythic ravens, Hugin and Munin. So I was delighted to see Richard Alwyn's new and poetic film of the man himself as he walks off into the edgelands of the Wash, in search of a pure wind. Here is my review of the film, Into the Wind, which was shown on BBC Four on 12th April. You can catch it on BBC iPlayer, where it will be for the next couple of weeks.

In every direction, washed greens, browns and orange-browns stretch into the distance, flattened beneath skies of grey becoming blue. The camera seems to spend half its time on that view and half on the man’s face watching the view: pink from the cold wind, rounded and soft where the land and sky are flat and severe, it’s a face alive with questions of a place that seems without obvious answers. Tim Dee, naturalist, radio producer and writer, has eyes that seem to pierce the distances beyond the wide horizon. He’s trying to see the thing he’s come to listen to: an unmediated, uninterrupted, thousand-mile wind.

Dee spots his destination, a long mound in the distance. The only thing of height for miles around, “it’s the place I imagine capturing a pure Wash wind”. He strides off, satchel of recording equipment at his hip, covered microphone held aloft; he refers to it as his equivalent of a pilgrim’s staff or dowser’s rod, but it more resembles a giant, furry grey caterpillar on a stick, or an outsize candyfloss gone badly wrong. The large headphones suggest that his ears must be the only part of his head that might even remember warmth. As he walks, the camera following a little shakily, we see he’s moving along a bank through the flatlands, passing above deep channels of water that cut through the grasses. The only trees are bare and strung out in thin lines, parceling off squares of naked brown soil: fields where there had been sea.

Tim Dee, Into the Wind
Photograph: Richard Alwyn / Wingspan Productions © 2017

52.9167°N, 0.2500°E: The Wash, reclaimed sea-land between Lincolnshire and Norfolk. A “questionable shore,” as Dee names this place he first encountered as a teenager: “a great place to meet the sea, because the sea was permanently meeting the land and both seemed unresolved about the status of each.” It’s a constructed, “brokered edge, made by banks and reclamation.” The camera frames the curve of the bank and its watery ditch, the angle where it turns a sharp corner of yellowing grasses and heads off into the distance. On a mission to contain, to control.

Wild track

Walking in such a wide land, usually alone, he says that what draws him on “is a sort of oblivion … a kind of dissolve into a landscape. It takes the bigness of ‘self’ and dissolves it.” Now, he is silhouetted in the middle distance, facing down a soft slope into the emptiness, binoculars held up to his eyes, microphone slung behind him, pointing up to the sky.

Dee, used to striving for the near elimination of wind noise in the voice recordings he produces for radio – the “wild track” that distracts and subtracts from the desired audio focus – is now on a quest to capture the sound of the wind itself, on its own terms: “wind as wind might sound in its own ear.” But it’s hard to capture because, “in some ways, it doesn’t exist as a sound. What we think of as the wind is the sound that the wind is making as it rubs over the surface of the world”. We hear grasses, sea, trees, not the moving air itself.

He imagines a future life – his retirement life, but perhaps also one beyond that finite horizon? – of listening only to his tapes of the wind, the human voices all forgotten, when “it’s the turn of the really big voices to have their say.” Wild track is the thing.

Wind stories

Returning to the here and now and the visual, lying on the slope of the bank, he watches the infinite, uncontainable sky. “This is what the surface of the Earth sees. The wind is visible, the way the clouds are moving.”

And then, alarmingly, we’re into his memory of the time “when the wind first came to call on me.” Again, when he was a teenager, but this time cycling the Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon Gorge, delivering the evening newspapers. The only other person in sight, a stranger walking ahead of him through the dark November afternoon, looked back once to catch the approaching boy’s eye – and then stepped up onto the parapet and into the wind tunnel of the gorge, to be held up by nothing for just one instant. Dee catches our eye briefly too as he tells us this and, a moment later, we see a bird of prey hovering above the field behind him, hunting. “But because he wasn’t a bird, he didn’t stop.” We’re left to wonder what the approaching Earth saw then, looking up as a man proved to the air that he wasn’t a bird. It was a cruel sight to force onto a teenager on his afternoon paper round.

“But that was a wind story to me, because it proved to me in some ways that the air, as pushed through that gorge, was a place simply that we couldn’t go, that wasn’t ours for entering or mastering in any way. And yet the birds were falling and rising in that wind. It’s their place, not ours.”

There are deep furrows in the marsh as he progresses from the fresh to the salt, walking now beneath the level of the manmade bank, into mud and marshgrass and the footprints of geese. The mound is close, standing like an ancient long barrow, but Dee pierces the myth even as he makes it, revealing this as a failed freshwater reservoir. But perhaps, I think, that will stand just as long as our other relics have done – and then remember that the sea probably has other plans, even for a place that’s been taking land from it for centuries. A storm light hovers over the horizon.

Where everything is kept in motion

Now he is climbing at last onto the mound, the highest ground for as far as we can see. Coming up behind, the camera frames him against the reveal of a vast plain of mud. Brown and grey shoreland almost up to the horizon, broken by silver threads of water reaching out to a sea that is still impossibly far off. After the wind stories and the brokered edge, this is landscape from a Tarkovsky film: a zone of suspended reality, flickering back and forth between something clearly natural and something somehow other. A highly questionable shore.

“I feel closer to the wind than I’ve been before.” He’s holding his wind-dowser’s rod ahead of him. “You feel it coming straight at you, from who knows where, out to the north.”

Now we hear it too, what he came for: a pure wind, washed off the sea, fresh from its own creation and untouched by the vast distances it’s travelled already. “Like it hasn’t stopped for anything yet. I’m probably the first thing this wind has hit for about a thousand miles, and it’s telling me so.”

At this point he chuckles into the cold, fast air and I wonder what else he’s hearing in it. He looks like he’s left the ordinary world for a moment. “I don’t hear the sea and I don’t hear the grass, and the mud is quiet. It’s a bird wind; when you are in it and it’s blowing you around, but it’s not sounding like anything other than itself. Which is what you are, as well. I sometimes think if the dead go anywhere, they go into the wind. That’s where everything that was is kept in motion, blowing and going. All the birds and all the people.”

Tim Dee, Beyond the Mound
Photograph: Richard Alwyn / Wingspan Productions © 2017

The wind rumbles on. He stands there a moment longer, then descends to step a few footprints into the mud and kneel with his pilgrim’s staff before him. His clothes and headphone-headdress as dark as the mud, his hair as grey as the sky, he is an ancient seer, a discerner of wild track, reaching forward to hear beyond the horizons.

Find out more:

Into the wind – a film by Richard Alwyn and Tim Dee, was shown on BBC Four on 12th April 2017 and available on iPlayer until 10th May (and no doubt will become a staple repeat). It was made by Wingspan Productions.

You can refresh your memory of Tim Dee’s writing on Hugin and Munin at Interstice #1: An Excursion Between Culturing and Climate Change

The Polar Tombola

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

As the UK tour of The Polar Tombola draws to a close, ClimateCultures member Nancy Campbell reports on this Arts Council funded project, which aims to encourage awareness of endangered Arctic languages – and the environment recorded in their specialist vocabularies.

When we hear about change in the Arctic, it’s more often related to climate than culture. But globalized culture and business is causing rapid changes in the region. Since the 1800s, 21 indigenous Arctic languages have become extinct, and more are being added to the list year by year.

Kanungneq, letterpress-printed card and definition from The Greenlandic-English Dictionary, Copenhagen, 1927
Nancy Campbell © 2017

UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger charts languages at different levels of concern: vulnerable, endangered, and then extinct. West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), the official national language of Greenland, is one of those vulnerable languages, with 50,000 speakers. North Greenlandic (Avanersuaq, 1,000 speakers) and East Greenlandic (Tunumiit oraasiat, 3,000 speakers) are definitely endangered. Other Greenlandic dialects, such as Qavak, have already slipped out of use.

The importance of these languages is recognized by people across the Arctic region and the wider world.

Once, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relied on information from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and has largely excluded traditional knowledge (TK) as a source of information for its reports. But now there’s a growing recognition from scientists that traditional knowledge can provide insights – and indeed that it’s particularly useful in “remote” locations where there are no other means of observation. This knowledge, passed on down the generations, is enshrined in the language. As an environmentalist reading about these issues, I began to wonder how future scientists will study the Arctic ecosystem without access to specialist Arctic vocabularies. As a poet, I wondered what happens to an individual’s experience of words when their language begins to disappear.

My own experience in the Arctic was enriched by learning Kalaallisut, and many of my projects (books such as How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet) pay tribute to what the language has taught me.

A game of words

I decided to develop a way of spreading the word about endangered languages that took the issue outside the book into performance. Many Arctic nations have an oral rather than written tradition and the transmission of oral literature from one generation to the next lies at the heart of cultural practice. Performances of creative works of verbal art are increasingly endangered. It seemed an anomaly to address such issues on the printed page.

Hence The Polar Tombola – a game of chance, like the Italian Christmas raffle from which it draws it name. At events around the UK, from London’s Southbank Centre to the Polar Museum in Cambridge, from Liverpool’s World Museum to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, I invited passers-by to pick a card from a vast snowball containing word-cards letterpress-printed with West Greenlandic terms. I had chosen words that related to the environment, such as “kagdleq” (thunder), “karnalak” (reindeer which is shedding its hairs), and “ikiarôrpoq” (the sun or moon shines through the clouds).

To learn the meaning of the word on their card, the player has to consult a Greenlandic-English dictionary from 1926. Browsing a printed dictionary is a relatively rare experience these days, and most players seem to enjoy it, so I encourage them to take their time, stopping to consider any words that intrigue them before reaching their goal. In the process, they acquire at least one word of Greenlandic, and an appreciation of the wider culture too.

Then comes the twist: each player is encouraged to leave a word behind. “If you had to lose a word from your own language,” I ask, “what would it be?” The question brings home a sense of empathy for language loss, one word at a time.

“I hereby abandon this word”
Nancy Campbell © 2017

It’s a big commitment to vow never to use a word again and some people decide not to play along. One issue has come up again and again in conversations with players: censorship. “I’m not giving away a word,” some people say. “I don’t have enough as it is.” Others are only too glad to give up words that have negative connotations – whether these are commonly understood (in the case of “war” and “hate”) or distinctly personal (“compass”). Both reactions make it clear that the surrender of a word is a potent act. There is no going back: each renunciation is a binding contract, as the player’s signature on the card attests. One player, the artist Steve Perfect, receives the Greenlandic word “kaggsuk” (bits of ice drifting in the sea) and decides to give up “ice cube”. He later tells me he’s been introducing bartenders around London to Greenlandic.

While such an interpretation might suggest a light-hearted approach to the linguistic challenges facing the polar regions, I was glad to see such enthusiastic public engagement. Since many people don’t even know where Greenland is before they play The Polar Tombola, it was necessarily a crash course in culture and language. I found that players were captivated by their brief interaction with the Greenlandic dictionary, astonished by the detailed and perceptive vocabulary for environmental conditions, and eager to learn more.

Back to books

At the end of the final performance at the Arnolfini in Bristol I carefully gathered up all the cards on which words had been written: Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Icelandic, Korean and Spanish words, as well as many English ones. There were political epithets, meaningless verbal ticks and Latin scientific names. A selection of these words have been published as an anthology The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words, alongside new texts on language loss commissioned from contemporary writers including Vahni Capildeo, Will Eaves and Richard Price.

In A Book of Banished Words some writers use the commission to explore issues of linguistic politics closer to home: writer and musician Phil Owen chooses to ditch the word “dissever”, once used in an 1847 English report used to suppress the Welsh language in schools. Others take the commission into scientific territory: Nasim Marie Jafry eradicates the word “Coxsackie”, but not before exploring how this Algonquin term meaning “the hoot of an owl” mutated over time, becoming the name of a small US town, and then of a life-changing virus.

Language is important not only to the Arctic, but to all of us.

The Polar Tombola
Photograph: Caspar Evans © 2017

The Polar Tombola is funded by Arts Council England through Grants for the Arts.

Find out more:

At nancycampbell.co.uk,  you can read more about The Polar Tombola project and you can order a copy of the book (print or digital), published by Bird Editions.

You can find out more about Nancy’s previous book, How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet, at the website of Miel, which was established in 2011 “to promote and publish difficult, innovative, intelligent, and deeply felt writing and visual art.”

This recent article at Alaska Dispatch News is a report by Laureli Ivanoff from Unalakleet, on “Inupiaq, the language I can write and speak, but don’t understand.”

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is an online edition, where you can browse through the languages, using combinations of search criteria and/or zooming in on the map.

The World Oral Literature Project documents and makes accessible endangered oral literatures before they disappear without record.


The Coccolithophores Project

— approx reading time: 4 minutes

Our latest Members' Post comes from Julien Masson, a collage, sculpture and video artist who collaborates with other disciplines to expand the notions of what is art and participate in the very dynamic dialogue between digital technology, science and the arts.

This art installation, funded by Arts Council England, for the atrium of the Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium takes the form of a cascade of sculptures representing the micro plankton coccolithophores. This figurative work is constructed from carved opaque recycled milk bottles, a method we have used on previous projects. In interpreting the architecture of these microscopic creatures I hope to stimulate both scientific and artistic enquiry. Approximately 1,000 high density polyethylene (HDP) milk bottles will be used to create a series of scaled up Coccoliths. 

I partnered with local sculptor and recycling artist C. Cudlip on this project and we were very lucky to be able to work with Dr Samantha Gibbs, Royal Society University Research Fellow within Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton at the University of Southampton. Dr Gibbs provided us with invaluable information relating to the science of the coccolithophores, reference images and advice on how these unicellular phytoplankton are formed and worked with us on outreach events to present the subject to the wider public. 

Coccolithophores have an important role in the carbon cycle of our planet. We were very keen on a project that would not only have an artistic dimension but also have scientific and educational connotations.

We proposed to produce a cascade of coccolyths made of recycled milk bottles to recreate the shells of these creatures. In using this throw away material we wanted the public to be aware of the environmental and ecological impact we are submitting our planet to.

Bottle Coccolithophores, installation at The Winchester Science Centre (supported by Arts Council England)
Artists: Julien Masson & C Cudlip © 2016 jfmmasson.com

Coccolithophores are tiny marine lifeforms called micro-plankton. Measuring just a few microns across, they are made up of smaller sections called coccoliths. The living coccolithophores form into layers called blooms, spanning hundreds of miles of ocean.

These photosynthesise and act as one of the planet’s most important sources of oxygen production. The fossilised remains of these creatures create a vital form of carbon capture, locked into the calcium carbonate of their skeletons.

Coccolithophore microscopy images from Nannotax 1 Isochrysidales, 2 Ceratolithus cristatus HET nishidae type 3 Syracosphaera anthos HOL 4 Nanolith Family

Carbon and coccolithophores.

Next to the rainforests, coccolithophores are one of the biggest producers of oxygen on the planet. Coccolithophores also have an effect on the carbon cycle. The production of coccoliths requires the uptake of dissolved inorganic carbon and calcium. Calcium carbonate and carbon dioxide are then produced from calcium and bicarbonate by the following chemical reaction:

Ca2+ + 2HCO3− ←→ CaCO3 + CO2 + H2O [1]

Because coccolithophores are photosynthetic organisms, they are able to use some of the CO2 released in the calcification reaction for photosynthesis [2]. During calcification, two carbon atoms are taken up and one of them becomes trapped as calcium carbonate. This calcium carbonate sinks to the bottom of the ocean in the form of coccoliths and becomes part of the sediment; thus, coccolithophores provide a sink for emitted carbon, mediating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions [3].

Bottle Coccolithophores, installation at The Winchester Science Centre (supported by Arts Council England)
Artists: Julien Masson & C Cudlip © 2016 jfmmasson.com

Plastic pollution

In 2012, it was estimated that there was approximately 165 million tons of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Polystyrene pieces and nurdles (manufactured plastic pellets used in the creation of plastic products) are the most common types of plastic pollution in oceans and, combined with plastic bags and food containers, make up the majority of oceanic debris. The Marine Conservancy has predicted the decomposition rates of several plastic products. It is estimated that a foam plastic cup will take 50 years, a plastic beverage holder will take 400 years, disposable diaper will take 450 years, and fishing line will take 600 years to degrade [4]. The decomposition rate of plastic milk bottles is also estimated several hundred years in a landfill [5].


1. Mejia, R. (2011), “Will Ion Channels Help Coccolithophores Adapt to Ocean Acidification?”, PLoS Biology 9

2. Mackinder; Wheeler, Glen; Schroeder, Declan; Riebesell, Ulf; Brownlee, Colin; et al. (2010), “Molecular Mechanisms Underlying Calcification in Coccolithophores”, Geomicrobiology Journal 27 (6–7): 585–595

3. Marsh, M.E. (2003), “Regulation of CaCO3 formation in coccolithophores”, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part B 136 (4): 743–754,

4. Lytle, Claire Le Guern. “Plastic Pollution”, Coastal Care (see link below).

5. Brian Palmer Monday, February 28, 2011; Washington Post (see link below).

Find out more:

You can explore the sources Julien references in his piece:

Read about the coccolithophore project at Winchester Science Centre.

Visit the Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium near Winchester.

Find more information about the Palaeoceanography and Palaeoclimate Research Group at Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

Discover the biodiversity and taxonomy of coccolithophores at the Nannotax site.

Read about plastic pollution of the oceans at the Coastal Care site.

Compare the environmental impacts of different types of milk container in this article by Brian Palmer in the Washington Post.


The Ocean as Abject: Between Seduction and Defilement

— approx reading time: 4 minutes

In a return to ClimateCultures, Mary Eighteen - a Fine Artist working with ocean toxicity - produces our first joint Members' Post with Julien Masson, a Multimedia Artist working with the Anthropocene. The text, images and video explore their collaboration on a new work.

Collaboration: a visual encounter with abjection and the oceanic dilemma of our time

As well as researching Benthic Communities in the Shelf Sea, as mentioned in my last blog (have started the first painting, which I will include for discussion in another blog), I am working on a collaboration with the UK-based French artist, Julien Masson. Our project is called The Ocean as Abject. This collaboration seeks to explore the space between seduction and defilement in order to present an exhibition that is ‘A Visual Encounter with Abjection’. In essence, this is at the moment a research project and we hope that when an exhibition site is agreed and formulated, there will be an essay and accompanying information for visitors to take away with them. We would also like to hold a symposium, where a mix of backgrounds – from cultural and ecological, to visual and scientific – could ask questions and provoke a debate.

The proposal

The proposed exhibition, The Ocean as Abject, presents a world where meaning has broken down in relation to the ecological protection of our oceans. With rising C02, ocean Dead Zones and ocean suffocation, human existence is under threat; the sad reality is that we have done this to ourselves. The seduction of the ocean has reversed to defilement by our lack of thought and our own self-inflicted banality. The essence of The Ocean as Abject invites viewers to imagine a world where the ocean, as we know it, is on the trajectory to extinction. Both painting and video are presented together, to accentuate this experience.

Abjection and Julia Kristeva

The exhibition will re-evaluate the notion of abjection perpetuated by Julia Kristeva, the French/Bulgarian philosopher, literary critic and psychoanalyst, who is Professor Emeritus at the University of Paris Diderot. In 1980 she published Powers of Horror [1]. In this essay, Kristeva refers to the abject in relation to mankind and the body. This could be migration, the humanitarian disaster that is the present famine in Somalia, or individual human trauma of any nature. However, our exhibition places the ocean as central to the notion of abjection. We take the stance that it is the ocean that is in trauma, and humanity has created this by a lack of human responsibility regarding our seas. In short, we have done this to ourselves and there is a reversal of roles as the abject is transferred from the person to the ecology of the ocean. It is human nature that is at fault and the environment that is in trauma. It could be argued that human nature also causes suffering to other humans. But that is not the argument in question here; it is the oceanic trauma that is central to the debate, and it threatens human existence. An ocean finally depleted of oxygen will survive on the planet in another form, but we as a race cannot.

Abjection 1 (Acrylic, ink and pigment on canvas: 230cm x 190cm) – part of The Ocean as Abject, ongoing.
Artist: Mary Eighteen © 2017

Painting, video, and the frame

The essence of the frame has always been a commonality between painting, video and film [2]. The construction of composition, light and movement within a frame has fundamental similarities [3]. But of note is the relationship between the artwork and the architectural space within which it is exhibited. Julien Masson has produced a video called The Ocean as Abject, inspired by Acidification. The video is compartmentalised into three sections and, depending on the gallery space provided, can be projected in varied ways. To this end, the projection of the video is determined by the architectural space surrounding it. This clearly brings into force the extended relationship between painting, video and architecture.

Similarly, I have produced a large painting, Abjection 1, which is 230cm high by 190cm wide. Supporting this painting are three further paintings which are narrow (70 cm wide), and are in two vertical sections. With a nod towards installation, the paintings will each sit on a set of steps that will be in line with the canvas and flush with the wall. A gallery space will again determine how these are presented alongside the video. This further examines future possibilities wherein the steps are installed on the wall space and the canvas is on the floor. The steps alluded to are the steps we as a race are taking to our own ecological annihilation. But equally it could be video projected onto the floor! The possibilities are in profusion. Video’s transference qualities are endless. A video can be projected onto the outside of a building, or used as a light installation. The subject of ‘process’ is present in both video and painting. The end product of painting is static, although the process has much movement, while a video is a moving image that involves a different kind of process.

In summary, The Ocean as Abject is an installation of painting and video destined to be curated in relation to the architectural space provided. The collaboration brings together a multimedia artist with an interest in the Anthropocene, and a painter with ecological interests who would also like to extend painting into installation work. Central to The Ocean as Abject is the need to accelerate public awareness of the seriousness of the problem regarding our oceans. To support this notion, the writings of Julia Kristeva’s abjection have been explored and appropriated, placing the abject firmly within the realms of the oceanic cultural dilemma of our time. Our planned exhibition directly confronts the problem, and we want talks and discussions to bring the debate to as many of the public as possible.


1. Kristeva, Julia: Powers of Horror, Columbia University Press 1982

2. Elwes, Catherine: Worrying the Edges of the Frame, in Installation and the Moving Image, Columbia University Press 2015

3. Elwes, Catherine: Architectural Space, in Installation and the Moving Image, Columbia University Press 2015


Find out more:

Mary Eighteen

Julien Masson

Julia Kristeva

Julia Kristeva – “Jackson Pollock’s Milky Way”, Journal of Philosophy and the Visual Arts, Academy Group 1989


Bringing Our Monsters Back Home

— approx reading time: 7 minutes

Returning to a theme of 'Wicked Cultures' for 'Wicked Problems', I give my personal review of John Gardner's Grendel, a 1971 novel that speaks to us about 'Othering' the natural world, and how our monsters insist on coming back in.

“The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire. ‘Ah, Grendel!’ he said. He seemed at that instant almost to rise to pity. ‘You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for a long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.’ … I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure.” – John Gardner, Grendel

John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel, reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Grendel lives in a cave beneath the mere, beyond the settlement of warrior king, Hrothgar. He visits terror and death on Hrothgar’s people: “I burst in when they were all asleep, snatched seven from their beds, and slit them open and devoured them on the spot”.

Border dweller, walker of the world’s weird wall

This beast is an “I”, not an “It,” and his discovery of self, humanity and the world that mankind is making blurs the boundaries between human and monster. Boundaries are important. In Old English, Grendel is mearc-stapa, ‘border dweller’. In the novel he’s the same: “shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall”.

The story takes Grendel from his late childhood, knowing only the cave he shares with his speechless, unfathomable mother and the questions he can’t answer about what and why he is, and out into the world of nature and humans. He observes the growing society of warriors as they settle and transform the world he comes to know, and watches their wars, art and religion. Terrible to confront, he’s rejected by humans and rejects them in return, but is unable to deny his fascination with their determination to make meaning of their own existence. And he encounters the know-it-all dragon, who sees all space and time and the apocalypse at the end of the universe, and subjects Grendel to its nihilistic cynicism. Struggling with the animal, human and dragon-like aspects of his own nature, Grendel ravages Hrothgar’s meadhall time and again and eventually meets his own, inevitable death at the hand of Beowulf. The dragon has seen that too, of course, and so have we; we know the story, but nobody told Grendel.

Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1973

The novel provokes the question: who is it that is speaking? Grendel is the ‘I’, John Gardner his author. Gardner uses the creature he found in Beowulf, a text handed down from unknown Anglo-Saxons writing in a Christianising England before the 10th century; who took their sources from oral traditions we can’t know fully; which told of another country, another time, another (pagan) worldview. Many versions have come between Beowulf and Grendel (including a 1957 prose translation by David Wright – I’m fortunate to have an edition with cover illustration by Michael Leonard, who also illustrated my copy of Grendel), and more since, including films, books, cartoons, songs; each one pouring other texts into their own work, as Gardner did with his novel.

Creating realities

Of course fiction is creative – but in the reading as well as the writing. Reading is not so much about uncovering what lies beneath: the author’s intent. We cannot go beneath the text in the way Grendel dives under the mere to reach his hidden cave. But we bring to this text the others we’ve read, heard about or imagined, and make something out of our particular constellation of them all. Our reading cannot fail to include and use all we’ve read, seen and heard before; and so, creatively, we understand each ‘new’ text through past experiences, and our anticipation of more to come. This is the sort of sense-making that mystifies and torments Grendel.

Reality, however, is always in ‘excess’ of our perceptions, texts and sense-making. Our senses are limited in what they can detect, and they filter out what we do not ‘need’ to know. They can’t bring everything inside; if they could, reality would overwhelm us, crippling our ability to do anything about it. As biology, we reduce our environment to things we can discriminate, then rebuild it into something we can use: something always incomplete. The dragon sees this:

“Counters, measurers, theory-makers … They only think they think. No total vision … They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories … They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense … That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality – puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me … He knows no more of total reality than they do – less, if anything.”

Gardner saw his novel as a defence of human values – of life, love, art, home, knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, hope, friendship, and faith – against the ironic alternatives represented, not by Grendel but by the dragon who lectures him on the bleak universe.

When Grendel first emerges from his dark, womb-like cave, he encounters humans as they also first discover the land they will settle. Shocked by their violent rejection, disillusioned in his repeated attempts to learn meaning from them, he becomes alien, the ‘Other’. A self-reflexive Other:

“I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes.’ … No thread, no frailest hair between me and the universal clutter.”

He witnesses the humans’ systematic destruction of their environment. Unlike the dragon, Grendel is not so much supernatural as a force of nature attempting to understand humanity even as it seeks to control, expel or destroy him.

Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1970

(B)ordering the world

This monstrous protagonist-narrator foregrounds questions of how we order the world, border it, make sense of it. How does this (b)ordering privilege some ‘things’ and marginalise or exclude others? How do the marginal and excluded parts of the world respond? What becomes of us in the process of creating our world this way?

Grendel lives on our borders. Hrothgar’s meadhall is ours, created to keep out the cold and dark wilderness and contain the telling of tales by the fire. The meadhall is the new centre of a human world that’s set on expanding forever. Hrothgar subjects and absorbs other tribes, demands tribute, pushes back the world around him. Nature is to be managed, defended against. And, where its threats are too great to be directly comprehended, they’re ‘contained’ in the words of Hrothgar’s poet, Shaper, or the religion of his priest, Ork. ‘Others’ managed as stories: darkest fears hidden in plain sight. But the monster keeps reappearing, whatever words Shaper conjures up. As humans centre the world on themselves, Grendel is increasingly decentred in his, forced onto the margins, but always ready to slip back in.

In that gap between excess reality and incomplete perceptions is space for ambiguity: room for manoeuvre, for creativity – or denial. When we use culture and politics to continue the job of biology, filtering out aspects of the world that we deem unimportant, inconvenient or fearful, we’re pretending something doesn’t exist even though we know it does. We grant it power: the agency to intervene, Grendel-like. Excluding what would overcomplicate our lives, we find it overflowing our frame, pouring back into what we wanted to simplify and manage. Our lives recomplicate, our meadhall doors thrown down again.

Monster culture

In Monster Culture: Seven Theses, English and Medieval Studies scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “We live in a time of monsters”: from global terror to global warming, WMD proliferation to technological acceleration, and ecological collapse to industrial pollution. (Or, as the future-seeing, nihilistic dragon says to Grendel: “Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things”). That this has led to a state of generalised anxiety is revealed in

“a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desires to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.” – Jeffery Jerome Cohen

Cohen proposes seven ways to read cultures through the monsters they engender:

  • Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body

As construct and projection of fears, “the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns’ … Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”.

  • Thesis II: The monster always escapes

Whether ‘defeated’ or not in any telling, the monster escapes classification and slips back beyond our re-secured borders, ready to return in another guise: “its threat is its propensity to shift”.

  • Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis

Monsters refuse to participate in the order we seek to impose, reappearing at “times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematises the clash of extremes”, of binaries. Grendel: “All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal – a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world – two snakepits.”

  • Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference

As “difference made flesh, come to live among us” the monstrously embodied ‘Other’ “justifies its displacement or extermination by rendering the act as heroic”. Differences multiply and “slide together like the imbricated circles of a Venn diagram, abjecting from the centre that which becomes the monster”.

  • Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible

Once we’ve created our multiplying and shifting Others, this uncategorisable assemblage takes a “position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes … borders that cannot – must not – be crossed”.

  • Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire

What is forbidden is also appealing and the fact that it is beyond control only enhances this attraction. “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time as we envy its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair”.

  • Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold of becoming

Although we push them back, they always return. “And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge”.

Fiction offers safer encounters with our monsters, but an encounter nonetheless. Grendel invites you to explore your boundaries and beyond. And when you come back, a returnee to what you regard as a human-centred world, you maybe find your self-knowledge a little changed. Perhaps you ask yourself ‘How am I human? How am I monster?’

Look your monsters in the eye
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Find out more

The British Museum – Beowulf. You can view their digitised copy of the manuscript in their collection, and Electronic Beowulf, a collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Kentucky

Jeffery Jerome Cohen – Monster culture (seven theses), in Cohen J (ed), Monster Theory: Reading Culture, 1996, University of Minnesota Press

John Gardner –  Grendel, 1971, Gollancz

David Wright –  Beowulf (a prose translation), 1957, out of print