Buy Grendel by John Gardner

Grendel by John Gardner

The first and most terrifying monster in English literature, from the great early epic Beowulf, tells his own side of the story in this frequently banned book. This classic and much lauded retelling of Beowulf follows the monster Grendel as he learns about humans and fights the war at the center of the Anglo Saxon classic epic. This is the book William Gass called “one of the finest of our contemporary fictions.”


Review from the archives of The New York Times (9/19/1971)

Grendel John Gardener.jpg

“Beowulf from the monster’s viewpoint”

By D. Keith Mano / Sept.19, 1971

The Beowulf legend retold from Grendel’s point of view. That one sentence treatment of “Grendel” suggests some unsustainable satire, valid for perhaps three pages of a college humor magazine. But John Gardner’s “Grendel” is myth itself: permeated with revelation, with dark instincts, with swimming, riotous universals. The special profundity of Gardner’s vision or visions is so thought‐fertile that it shunts even his fine poet’s prose to a second importance. As is often the case with profundity, Gardner’s brand is consistently unpleasant—except in its sturdy, structured, inevitable working out. But unpleasantness is a characteristic of myth. “Grendel” is another fierce blow struck against the realistic novel, the dead novel. Good, I say: let’s hold no more mirrors up to nature. Make nature approach the artist; make nature grovel. Gardner The damn it.

Grendel is a sophisticated sort of monster: Hamlet, man from underground, scholastic philosopher, beast. He is Pico’s man: lower than the angels, higher than the animals, partaking helplessly of both. He is also, for Gardner’s purposes, the ontogeny that recapitulates, in small, the phylogeny of the species Homo sapiens. He is as complex as the 14 apt Emil Antonucci drawings that illustrate him—a labyrinth of small, slivery lines that trick the eye, iron filings urged into shape by some ineluctable, magnetic force.

All men are mulattoes of a sort. Grendel has the mulatto’s syndrome. He is introduced in the act of cursing a mindless ram, “Why can’t these creatures discover a little dignity?” A hundred pages later, though more knowledgeable, he will curse and kill his animal self by proxy in a goat, for all intents a scapegoat. He despises the ram because he can perceive his own nature in it. He despises his intellect because it allows him to perceive. But for his near insensate mass of a mother, Grendel is man alone. He cannot mitigate his ugliness, his heinous instincts by diluting them in a community of ugly and bestial brothers. And he is unable to communicate with men.

Men fascinate and pique Grendel. He knows that human violence, human selfishness do not differ qualitatively from his own. His terrible roars are as intimidating to Grendel himself as they are to his victims. Yet two annoying aspects of man’s nature—the artistic‐religious and the grace‐filled‐gentle—as symbolized by the Shaper and the Queen, dumbfound and agonize him. He attacks these illusions continuously with a monstrous, self‐injuring spite.

Grendel is an uncompromising atheist. He recognizes pattern in the universe but it is mindless pattern: of the stars, of Euclidean geometry. These things operate but they are not ordained. He repeats, religion is lunacy: linking madness and the heavens in one word. Grendel suffers from that uniquely human malaise, boredom. Yet, when the Shaper, greatest of poet‐singers, comes to Hrothgar’s hall to celebrate heroism and the great Creator, Grendel is wrestled into doubt by the Shaper’s artistic prowess.

As an antidote, he methodically confutes men’s virtuous and supernal aspirations. He mocks Hrothgar’s heroes, refusing to kill them. He masquerades as one of their gods, confounding Hrothgar’s priests. He will deny man spiritual comforts if he, himself, can find no comfort in them. Grendel is uncreated; he insists upon it. An accident in the boring universe of accidents.

The Queen, too, distresses Grendel. Barbarous, drunken, cruel heroes of Hrothgar’s mead hall are ‘soothed by the presence of her beauty and grace. The Shaper is persuaded to sing even more ecstatically. With immense disgust, Grendel suspects that the Queen is capable even of forgiving him, the monster. He is tempted to kill her; the crime’s very enormity is attractive. Probably, though, he senses that death would perpetuate rather than diminish her influence; Grendel is vulnerable to this sort of thing, for he has known something of a crude mother’s love. Instead he enters the mead hall, surprises the Queen asleep, then shows the Queen to her rescuers with naked legs splayed. This ugly evidence of a bestial functioning devalues her—at least, intellectually. The indignity is more than murder.

Meanwhile Grendel has had a crucial interview with the Dragon. In the presence of passionate, yearning men Grendel’s cynicism provokes petulant and savage acts; in the cynical, pragmatic Dragon’s presence his human heredity is elicited. Grendel can judge himself only by contrasts, for he is cursed by uniqueness. The Dragon’s final word is, more or less, cultivate your own treasure trove: noninvolvement, acceptance. He cackles in a peculiar way over his gold. (I mention this because there is a certain goldsmith of Hrothgar’s who cackles in an exactly similar way: one example in many of the way in which Gardner prefigures and balances the terms of his equation.) God, for the Dragon—who can see past, present and future—is, at best, the history of chance. Grendel who has, up until this moment, maintained that position anyway is frustrated: he discovers no solace in the Dragon’s nihilism; and he has already learned that man delights him not.

The Dragon says, “You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? 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.” This is Gardner’s most penetrating insight. The force of it stuns Grendel. No matter what he does or does not do, he can manage only to objectify the animal nature of man in himself. He teaches mortality and guilt, while cleansing those concepts of their enervating personal weight.

Grendel is sin personified: evil in a Manichean war he cannot avoid. It is true, I think, of all primitive religions that evil is placed outside in nature, in unknown spirits. The extraordinary aspect of the world’s great religions, a sign of their virility, has been that they can dare to subjectify evil. The force of such a faith as Christianity must be terrific if it can successfully counter the natural tendency in man to shift guilt outwards. It would appear that modern ethics tend again to the primitive: sin is a nonword; blame is seated in environment, in the state or in mental quirks before which the will is conveniently helpless. Men no longer have the self‐assurance or the God‐assurance to wrestle with sin. Grendel realizes that he is serving as a sort of natural therapy for mankind. It devastates him.

But this slices both ways. Grendel chants,

“Balance is everything, tiding out rhyme…

Pity poor Grengar,

Hrothdel’s foe! Down goes the whirlpool Eek! No, no!”

He cannot kill indiscriminately in Hrothdel’s mead hall. Without mankind, Grendel is a rung without a ladder. Men define him: the contrast, he suspects, is defamatory. He cringes before its unfairness. Yet this is preferable to being without any identity at all.

Gardner can be faulted only in Grendel’s enthusiasm, in his many styles. There are occasional cutenesses, self‐indulgences that even this extraordinary beast would never commit. “I toy with shouting some tidbit more—some terifying, unthinkable threat, some blackly fuliginous riddling hex—but my heart’s not in it. ‘Missed me!’ I say with a coy little jerk and a leer to keep my spirits up.”

At times, the dialogue (especially the obscenities) seems too flatly contemporary and poised. But this is an editor’s oversight—details that might have been picked up and deleted by a fresh ear. Gardner’s metaphorical power is otherwise considerable, particularly in the simplest descriptions of nature. It adds sanction to the mass of original thought that underlies the book, as New Testament parables and style are a secondary proof of inspiration.

Grendel must die, of course. Beowulf arrives. Gardner calls him only the Stranger. The band of his followers is described in terms of metals, gloss, precision, geometry. Beowulf has, in fact, become the Dragon—or, at least, a surrogate for the Dragon’s cold and impersonal materialism. Grendel is held by the arm and Beowulf whispers words already spoken by the Dragon. “A swirl in the stream of time. A temporary gathering of bits, a few random dust specks.” As the blood seeps out, Grendel wonders, “Is it joy I feel?” He closes with “Poor Grendel’s had an accident… so may you all.”

Does knowledge of the future imply a kind of causality? Are men and monsters part only of a senseless pattern? As accident is defined, as joy is defined, the last four of Grendel’s words may be taken as a blessing or a curse. Of the novel, though, I have no doubts. It is wholly a blessing.


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