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Grendel ()

I don't really know enough about John Gardner to be too confident in my analysis what he intended by this book, and the online reviews and essays are wildly contradictory.  But personally I read it as a tale of Western Christian triumphalism over existentialism.  Beowulf and the other humans, most importantly the Shaper, represent the idea that there is a purpose to life and order in the universe.  Grendel, influenced by the dragon, believes that existence is its own end, that life is meaningless.  But even Grendel is plagued by the realization that his world view is empty and unfulfilling, so when he hears the Shaper's song:

    He told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split the world between darkness and light.
    And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect. The terrible race God cursed. I believed him.
    Such was the power of the Shaper's harp!

The Shaper's implicit message--that human existence serves a purpose and that man, through the cultivation of art, science and religion, is realizing a destiny--is more than Grendel can take:

    Thus I fled, ridiculous hairy creature torn apart by poetry... I gnashed my teeth and clutched the
    sides of my head as if to heal the split, but I couldn't.

Unable to reconcile the beauty of the Shaper's vision and his own dark urge to deny existence any meaning, Grendel tries to destroy the humans.  But, of course, the humans in following the vision have developed the capacity to withstand his primal fury and Beowulf dispatches him--thus ever the confrontations between light and dark.  To this extent, except for giving the beast credit for a pretty well developed philosophical sense, the story is relatively traditional and follows the original (read Orrin's review).  Moreover, it confirms our understanding of human history, that great societies developed following the adoption of structured belief systems, and that they overwhelmed those necessarily primitive groups which failed to comprehend a general purpose to their own existence.

The great innovation here, and the malignancy within the novel, lies in its narrative form.  Gardner, by allowing the monster to narrate the story, implies that there are two equally valid sides to the story.  This device has, not surprisingly, become quite common, particularly as a way to let female and minority characters give their own angles on great literature or history.  Typically it is used to demonstrate that the generally white, male, and Christian authors of the classics have presented only a partial, perhaps propagandistic, and possibly simply dishonest, version of events that actually happened quite differently.  This trend is part of the broader modern tendency toward moral relativism, political correctness, and denial of absolute standards of morality, truth, and beauty.  In this instance, Gardner came down on the right side of the cultural divide, and merely used the device to flesh out the monster.  But as a general proposition, the idea that the Western Canon presents only a partisan view of the world, one that we need not assume is valid, is truly destructive of our shared cultural inheritance and is to be abhorred.  Stories do indeed have two sides; but at the point where we surrender our capacity to say that one side is right and one is simply wrong, we will have wrought catastrophic damage upon our own culture..

That said, the book, though far inferior to the original, is still entertaining.

David Sandberg's Review:

How to explain the work Grendel? It's not easy. In my opinion it is certainly one of the best works in English. But it is elusive to explain exactly why this is so. Grendel manages to capture something wonderfully, elegantly elusive in the human soul - something which does not even truly have a name. I could write whole paragraphs simply trying to elucidate on this ephemeral yet pervasive quality in the book - and never really hit on it exactly. Simpler blunter words come easily to mind. World angst. Existential futility. Ennui. None of these really do it for me though.

Grendel is art. The plot of the book is, as most everyone knows, the tale of Beowulf, which is habitually inflicted on High School students as some kind of literary puberty rite in towns all across America. I can't imagine how many millions of American school children have had to delve into Beowulf, as College Prep students do, beginning their obligatory peregrination into the origins of English. I will not discuss Beowulf. Having to read some of its passages in High School in Dedham Massachusetts I have tried very successfully to block it out. Like Algebra, Beowulf has been meaningless in my life. Grendel tells the same tale from the monster's point of view. Grendel has not been meaningless in my life. Just the opposite.

I first read Grendel fifteen or twenty years ago.  As anyone who reads history knows - kingdoms, satrapies, empires, commonwealths, archduchies, monarchies, nomates, ruled by kings, emperors, czars,  dauphins, viceroys, Grand Dukes et al come and go across the stage of human history. They have their exits and their entrances and each plays its little part in the progress of humanity. Marie Antoinette is interchangeable with the Empress Alexandra who is interchangeable with Catherine de Medici and so on. Kings and Queens come and go but the stories are chronically the same. In Grendel we are exposed to this endless cyclicality of human history. Grendel is only too aware of the futility of human progress. Times change but people do not. They are small frail frightened creatures of an hour. They live and die so easily. Ultimately they mean nothing. The whole pageant of history sweeps on to another time and another place - with  the same cast of characters. For Grendel, humanity is utterly boring - a dull thing.

He explores how the individual fits in the unfeeling insensitive universe. He questions and dismisses God - he embraces nihilism and greed. He is tutored in this by a Dragon. What is the individual? What is his place in the scheme of things? What is a monster and what is a hero? Grendel poses the questions. Grendel frames them for us with ease. But there are no answers because the questions themselves are totally and purely irrational. The universe, despite its fairy tale prettiness, is an empty directionless thing. Simply conceiving of these soul testing questions is madness, and Grendel is mad. How can a monster be anything else?

Dave rating A+++ "A Must Read"


Grade: (B)


John Gardner Links:
-ESSAY: Grendel at 50: How John Gardner’s Finest Novel Undermines His Ideas About Moral Fiction: “Grendel is funny, entertaining, troubling, and above all unruly; the novel refuses to behave.” (Andrew DeYoung, August 17, 2021, LitHub)

Book-related and General Links:
    -The Arch and the Abyss:  A John C. Gardner Resource
    -The Gardnerians: for those  who've crossed paths with John Gardner,oor any of his work
    -John Champlin Gardner Chronology
    -REVIEW: John Gardner: Big Deals, NY Review of Books
        JR by William Gaddis
    -ESSAY:    THE GARDNERS' HABITATS (Lore Segal, The Antioch Review, Winter 1999)
    -REVIEW:  F.W. Bateson: Grendel and Beowulf Were Two Pretty Boys, NY Review of Books
        Beowulf translated with an Introduction and Afterword by Burton Raffel
        Grendel by John Gardner and illustrated by Emil Antonucci
    -Beowulf to Lear: Text, Image and Hypertext
    -ESSAY: "Bad Faith: A Psychological Look at Grendel": (Tom Hall, Professor of English at Valparaiso University)
    -ESSAY: Grendel & Frankenstein an analysis of the two "monsters" and their superiority to mankind
    -ESSAY:  Grendel as a Member of Anglo-Saxon Society (Charles Nordstrom,   Advanced Placement English, 16 October 1996)
    -ESSAY: Grendel
    -ESSAY: The Rapture of Being Alive
    -ESSAY: Grendel By John Gardner (Rationale by Diana Haylock)
    -ESSAY: Grendel, by John Gardner (Wincent's Web Site)
    -REVIEWS: Grendel (Epinions)
    -DISCUSSION: November Book of the Month Discussion:  John Gardner's Grendel
    -DISCUSSION: Grendel by John Gardner:   Beowulfhall Lecture Hall
    -REVIEW: Michael Wood: New Fall Fiction, NY Review of Books
        House of All Nations by Christina Stead
        Chimera by John Barth
        The Sunlight Dialogues by John Gardner
    -REVIEW: D.S. Carne-Ross: Epic Overreach, NY Review of Books
        Jason and Medeia by John Gardner
    -REVIEW: Michael Wood: Flirting With Disintegration, NY Review of Books
        Loose Ends by Barbara Raskin
        Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
        Searches and Seizures by Stanley Elkin
        Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
        Nickel Mountain by John Gardner
    -REVIEW:  Thomas R. Edwards: Academic Vaudeville, NY Review of Books
        The King's Indian: Stories and Tales by John Gardner and illustrated by Herbert L. Fink
        The Shadow Knows by Diane Johnson
        The Odd Woman by Gail Godwin
        The Clockwork Testament or Enderby's End by Anthony Burgess
    -REVIEW: Michael Wood: The Not-So-Light Fantastic, NY Review of Books
        Falstaff by Robert Nye
        October Light by John Gardner
        Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes and translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
    -REVIEW: Gabriel Josipovici: The Temptations of Chaucer, NY Review of Books
        The Life and Times of Chaucer by John Gardner
        The Poetry of Chaucer by John Gardner
        The Strumpet Muse: Art and Morals in Chaucer's Poetry by Alfred David
        The Idea of The Canterbury Tales by Donald R. Howard
        England in the Age of Chaucer by William Woods
        Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds edited by Robert P. Miller
    -REVIEW:  Robert Towers: Good Grief!, NY Review of Books
        On Moral Fiction by John Gardner
    -REVIEW: Roger Sale: Stranger than Nonfiction, NY Review of Books
        Freddy's Book by John Gardner
        The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams
    -REVIEW: of ON BECOMING A NOVELIST. By John Gardner (Anatole Broyard, NY times)
    -REVIEW: Robert Towers: So Big, NY Review of Books
        Mickelsson's Ghosts by John Gardner
    -REVIEW: of MICKELSSON'S GHOSTS. By John Gardner  A Scrabbling in the Soul (ANATOLE BROYARD, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of MICKELSSON'S GHOSTS By John Gardner (Benjamin DeMott, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of STILLNESS and SHADOWS By John Gardner (Richard Gilman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE ART OF LIVING And Other Stories. By John Gardner (Julian Moynahan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of ON WRITERS AND WRITING By John Gardner. Edited by Stewart O'Nan (Brooke Allen, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of GILGAMESH Translated by John Gardner and John Maier with Richard A. Henshaw (William L. Moran, NY Times Book Review)

    -ESSAY: WRITING: CAN IT BE TAUGHT? (John Barth, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: The unknown master: Bernard O'Donoghue on the man who didn't get the Whitbread prize - Beowulf's original author (Saturday January 29, 2000, The Guardian)
    -ARTICLE: The Anglo-Saxon Who Took Hollywood: "Beowulf," in the words of Hollywood producer Larry Kasanoff, "is hot."  (ELIZABETH BUKOWSKI, Wall Street Journal)
    -ARTICLE: Julie Taymor as Puppet Artist (James M. Brandon, Sagecraft)