By Jeffrey Bowen
As a general rule, the older you get, the more difficult it becomes for relatives to come up with a unique present for your birthday. To give me a grand entrance to my seventh decade, my wife and daughter blew this rule apart. The result squats in our backyard, grinning fiercely and looking like the devil. His name is Gondor. He weighs hundreds of pounds and isn’t going anywhere soon.
Ever since I saw the first “Ghostbusters” movie, where stony griffins on an apartment building suddenly break through their shells and turn into drooling dog monsters, I have been intrigued by gargoyles, grotesques and chimeras. There are differences among these terms, but most of us lump them together.
Last spring, a visit to our daughter in Albany took us to a downtown salvage yard. Standing alone amid a collection of 50 concrete RCA dogs, all strangely peering in the same direction, I spotted a large grisly creature crouched on a pedestal, with head-high wings sprouting from his back.
His deep-set eyes seemed to glow and follow me wherever I wandered. His ears were huge and hairy, and his gnarly teeth were fixed in an evil grin.
I casually remarked to my kin, “Gee, wouldn’t he look great in our yard?”
A few months later, my family remembered my wish and returned to rescue the creature from the salvage yard. They were told no one knew which Albany building he flew down from, but after purchasing the creature at a bargain price, they discovered he would not budge. After all, he was made of concrete and weighed some 600 pounds.
Ultimately, a forklift got the creature elevated. Eventually he was lashed onto the bed of our son-in-law’s pickup so that my daughter and her kids could transport the gargoyle to our country home.
He created a minor sensation on the Thruway as he stared menacingly back at anyone following too close. Many who passed the truck drew even and waved delightedly at our family. It took four grunting, sweating men to unload my present onto a concrete pad from which he can grimace at cornfields and startle traffic.
Based on books that came along with him as presents, it seems that these creatures originated as the works of stonemasons and sculptors during the Gothic period in the 12th and 13th centuries, especially in France. Gracing cathedrals, with holes in their mouths or elsewhere, their purpose was mainly to drain water off the steep roofs. Hence, the term “gargoyle” which means drain or gutter. I suspect the term is also related to gargling and gurgling as well.
Grotesques or chimeras actually have no holes but are also featured on European roof lines and doorways. They are taken usually to mean fantastic combinations of human and animal figures. Historians of this offspring suggest that stonemasons may have built them into roof lines of churches either to scare off or provoke evil spirits or to snub noses at the rich donors who funded cathedrals.
Today, hundreds of these eccentric sculptures perch unnoticed on city facades and peer down at the traffic. Novelist Stephen King, who prefaced a book on the subject, firmly believes they are alive.
Inspired by my unique present, I conducted a Facebook contest to give him a name. Gondor, the middle kingdom in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” won the moniker.
We decorated Gondor with a red ribbon at Christmas. He stared at us balefully, but never uttered a word. I surely hope he never does.