Grendel by John Gardner

Analysis of the 1971 novel by the late American John Gardner often goes hand in hand with an literary need to shape his anthropomorphizing of the monster, Grendel, to the philosophy of Icelandic sagas, Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and any other codex of human thought on the nature of duality where the latter is a battle between good and evil, savage and civilised. With such weight of erudite Anglo-Saxon and medieval literary study pressing firmly down on this novella (such as Caliban upon Setebos by Robert Browning; The Sea and the Mirror, Part III, by W H Auden) it is easy to get caught up in the need to label each chapter of Gardner’s mellifluous prose with statements like: “Gardener’s guiding light in this novel is not sword and sorcery, but Sartre and existentialism” (Adam Brown’s Introduction to the 2004 reprint).

With such prestige, such solemnity of analysis, the novel becomes a weighty tome before the casual reader can commence with the opening paragraphs. It is enough to make us pause and see if we can devote the necessary time for both reading and consideration that is apparently demanded of us.

It is true that “Grendel” is a Gordian knot of a novel; there are so many intricate coils in an unfathomable contortion that it is easy to devote an entire P. H. D. on it - testament to the complexity and erudition of the author - but, is this what he really intended for his reader? Or, as Newsweek would claim on the jacket, is it merely “witty, delightful, intelligent.”?

It’s hard to say in a review precisely what this novel is… and therein lies its brilliance. It is a novel that precedes great fantasy, follows marvellous mythology; a novel that reworks something that Europeans are fleetingly aware of in our literary culture - the story of Beowulf. Its depths, its layers, permit the reader to choose how to perceive the narrative in accordance with personal belief or philosophy. As such, it gleams in a multi-faceted manner that means each of us understands it against a backdrop of personal knowledge. We are not led through the story to the author’s conclusion, rather we are invited to end up where we will.

The novel is a retelling of Beowulf, this time, told from Grendel’s perplexed, curious, opining viewpoint. Far more than any human, the monster demonstrates the core of what drives humans forward – curiosity. His dialogue with the dragon demonstrates the vast confusion and exasperation of sage elder meeting guileless youth; despite an attempt to confuse through semantic trickery and the riddle-like prophetic hyperbaton of one with great understanding, the final snort is one of “my advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.” Sounds reasonable.

We follow the clueless Beast as his nature lets him act with base instinct, follow as he seeks to understand his place in the Cosmos, to discern the difference between a life where “I can’t breathe, and I claw to get free. She struggles. I smell my mama’s blood and, alarmed, I hear from the walls and floor of the cave the booming, booming, of her heart.” and one where he leaves the harp of the Shaper, “crept away, my mind aswim in ringing phrases, magnificent, golden, and all of them, incredibly, lies.”

The novel finds a natural divide at the point Grendel begins to communicate directly with Hrothgar’s thanes whom he initially kills with careless abandon. His comedic engagement with Unferth, firstly with apples, then with a burgeoning vocabulary that finds him condemning what he has heard of Men, claiming that “Poetry’s trash, mere cloud of words, comfort to the hopeless” espousing an understanding that everything is “a glorious ideal” crushed when one “struggles toward it and seized it, and come to understand it, and was disappointed.” It is a turning point, much as in Shakespeare, when Nature begins to converse with Civilization, when the savage interacts directly with the cultured; progression is swiftly made with Grendel’s confused relationship with the queenly beauty and stoic presence of Wealtheow, a woman who confounds and confuses his desires. The great observation here is that the carbon lifeform’s need to reproduce transcends civility, confuses bestiality, stops the philosophical growth of Grendel until, in a bellowing fit or rage he is drawn to try murder, fails at the last instant by the helplessness of his intended victim. Grendel does not need to conquer, just to understand; though he constantly ignores cause and effect, disparages empathy and loathes sympathy.

Eventually, Gardner has Beowulf arrive (though he be unnamed) and concludes Grendel’s life in bellowing confusion, adamant in the unfortunate chance of it all. His killer will live on in the Shaper’s dead words as a hero, Grendel himself is consigned to the pointless narrative or Time, his final astute observation of ‘nihil ex nihilo’. He has moved from the youthful passion whereby “the uproar is only my own shriek, and chasms are, like all things vast, inanimate. They will not snatch me in a thousand years, unless, in a lunatic fit of religion, I jump.”, to, in the end, a tired shadow of what he might have been “standing baffled, quaking with fear, three feet from the edge of a nightmare cliff.”. It is a fitting end, to fall into the void.

Adam Brown claims that “mostly though, the novel is just Grendel himself, encountering the rainy, stony earth, the indifferent vastness of the sky, the cold of winter… Grendel setting his will against the inevitability of history.” the reality is that the ‘truth’ of Grendel, the only proof, evidenced in so much literature, is that he is a monster that encourages imagination and rationalisation of humanity’s endless struggle to rise above Nature. No matter what lies within his breost-hord his meaning is “You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves… You are mankind, or man’s condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain”.

Indeed. Read this novella for it will make you think and define yourself again.

9/10 Read this novella for it will make you think and define yourself again.

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