‘Twixt shaper and sheep

Years ago, in a damp and dirty basement beneath a ramshackle Halifax house, I found a ragged, coverless paperback book. It was called Grendel. I wolfed it down then, but I’ve been gnawing on its bones ever since.

Grendel is written from the point of view of the dragonish beast in the saga Beowulf. But Grendel’s internal monologue is deeply human: he’s as brilliant and self-absorbed and confused by his own condition as Hamlet.

Grendel has no patience for the local sheep, whose lack of consciousness and instinctive behaviour he finds irritating. But he saves his real rage for the mead-swilling, meat-gorging, medieval men and women who live in nearby Hrothgar’s hall. Drinking, rutting, feasting and fighting from cradle to grave, these are apparently conscious creatures who nevertheless live like vermin, and die without dignity in a world without meaning. Grendel delights in decimating their ranks. He can’t help himself. People are pathetic.

But there’s one man among them whom Grendel lets live: The Shaper. The Shaper is an old, blind poet-musician who lulls both the locals, and Grendel, into momentarily believing in beauty. The Shaper adds sweetness to the suffering, glory to the gore, and meaning to the meaningless of existstence. Grendel loathes him and loves him at the same time. He lets him live, he thinks, as punishment for being stupid enough to sing of these things that cannot possibly be: freedom, beauty, truth, love… even Grendel, despite himself, weeps at the words of The Shaper.

I’ve identified with The Shaper for years now. I understand the need of his fingers to find the strings, his voice to find the words to say it all matters and means something. I called myself a Shaper of Songs, knowing that my craft was a blind effort in a dark world.

But the more I learn about myself, the more I find myself seeing things from Grendel’s point of view: stuck between The Shaper and the sheep. I hear the music alright, and it’s nearly enough to convince me that there’s something greater out there… yet everywhere the dull creatures of earth still batter their thick skulls together, and the halls of glory are full of rotten, cowardly self-styled warriors. What’s a dragon to do?

I’ve read a lot of history lately, and page after page after page shows the same damned scenes, all of them just like the sorry spectacles of Hrothgar’s hall. Humanity, your treachery is ageless, your gluttony is endless, your stupidity is legendary and your arrogance offends the world.

And yet… in your art and music, in the brief fictions of your pretty pictures, your sweet sounds and your wondrous words, there is some awesome trickery, or divinity, that would make even a dragon hang its hateful head and weep

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