When I explain, at length, to people why The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is a retelling of Beowulf, they always assume it’s some kind of insult to one of the iconic texts. This is just untrue. I know this because I’ve spent a generous amount of time over the last several holiday seasons thinking about the connection between the two books.
Beowulf is great because it’s old, it’s weird, and the language of the Anglo-Saxons is generally too removed from modern English for most teachers to force you to try and read it. Beowulf, the Dane with hyper-strong arms, comes to town to solve a horrible monster problem for the local king, Hrothgar. Not only does Beowulf just beat the living hell out of the monster Grendel, but then in the original “yo momma” dis, he takes off into the woods to find and kill Grendel’s mom too.
Beowulf becomes king, kills more things, and no one wants to talk about the rest of the book because watching the guy get too old and weak to fight any more is depressing. The first part, really, is what Dr Seuss was concerned with anyway:
There’s a monster who lives outside of a town of weird people with strange customs very different from his. When they get together and sing and make too much noise in their town gathering spot the noise causes the monster a great amount of pain and discomfort. Being a monster, his way of dealing with this is to charge into town and cause mayhem.
The Grinch is Grendel. Granted, when Grendel kicks down the door of Heroot he eats and rips apart a bunch of the warriors there, but in his defense they sound awful and gross. The Grinch, because this is a children’s book, is a bit sneakier but no less brutal in the eyes of a six-year-old. He steals Christmas and—for no discernible reason—he’s not nice to the dog that’s friends with him. Then, in the TV special, Darth Vader sings a song calling him a “seasick crocodile.” That’s seriously bad news.
What happens next? The hero conquers the monster.
To the Anglo-Saxons, Beowulf dropping Grendel in a vicious display of manliness was the height of power. These are people who had to fight all the time against everything and stick together so they wouldn’t be killed by any number of things in the wild. For the modern sensibility and the anti-war Seuss, to conquer the threat using reason, kindness, and non-violence is the greatest possible community leadership. That is how Cindy Lou Who defeats the Grinch: with kindness and generosity. She appeals to his better nature and he becomes a better more enlightened being as a result. Let’s give a little shout-out to Jesus too since the book is about Christmas: even the Bible says “and a child shall lead them.” Who? Cindy Lou.
There’s nothing wrong with Seuss taking Beowulf for building blocks: the idea of taking a pre-existing story and picking the bones for your own is more or less the foundation of all pop culture. It just means that at the end of The Grinch when all of the Whos are eating at one long table, sharing their roast beast, that you should remember that they’re probably eating the Grinch’s mom after Cindy Lou Who found and killed her.