Grendel by John Gardner

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Who doesn’t have a little bit of the monstrous in his or her personality? Sure, we know that criminals, little siblings, and middle schoolers do… But psychology teaches that every person, no matter how genuinely good, still retains some amount of the bad, too. Artists and philosophers and writers and judges and psychologists and mechanics and dog groomers and vacuum cleaner sales people and waitresses (Shall I go on?) have pondered over this idea and reached all kinds of conclusions. Even Star Trek got in on the discussion in 1966 with the episode The Enemy Within, in which Captain Kirk is literally split into these two sides of himself – the good and the evil. All this pondering of good and evil leads to further philosophical ideas: Nihilism, Existentialism, and so on. Now, I’m no philosopher; but I do find this philosophical discourse in Grendel [Spock voice] …fascinating.

You’re probably familiar with Beowulf, in some form or another. (Like any good English teacher, I say, with all sincerity, that watching the 2007 movie version does not count… Not to be overly dramatic, but if that’s how you remember Beowulf, I weep for humanity.) Chances are, you read a version of it in your senior English class when you were in high school or maybe college. So you’ll probably know the basics when it comes to the character Grendel: a mindless killing machine terrorizes King Hrothgar and his men night after night for years until finally this Beowulf dude shows up; turns out, he’s the only one bad enough to put a stop to Grendel’s killing sprees, and he quickly puts Grendel in his place. Now, I realize my summary there was only slightly better than the movie, but it made my point: So you think you know Grendel? A thoughtless, reasonless killer? Wrong! Gardner gives readers an unexpected glimpse of Grendel that the epic poem does not. Gardner’s Grendel is a deep thinker. He seeks out answers to his many questions about his own behavior and the behavior of the humans from whom he first seeks acceptance but then comes to loathe.

Gardner’s Grendel becomes interested in the world beyond his cave, where he and his mother have lived his entire life. He is curious to know what else exists beyond this dark, soggy home of his. So he ventures out. He endures dangers, both at nature’s hands and at humans’. But he is intrigued with these humans and their wars, their seemingly illogical behavior, and most of all, the songs of their Shaper – a writer and singer who gives the people songs of hope and bravery. Grendel finds little truth in the songs; he sees the way that the Shaper spins certain stories and even blatantly lies in his songs just to give the people a vision of the hope and beauty in life. Grendel finds that he wants badly to believe the songs. And while listening to the Shaper one night, in one of the scenes in which I feel an acute pity for Grendel, he makes an attempt to be accepted by the men. Being moved by the song, Grendel picks up the corpse of a dead man (murdered at someone else’s hands, not Grendel’s) to return it to the men:

I staggered out into the open and up toward the hall with my burden, groaning out, “Mercy! Peace!” The harper broke off, the people screamed. (They have their own versions, but this is the truth.) Drunken men rushed me with battle-axes. I sank to my knees, crying, “Friend! Friend!” They hacked at me, yipping like dogs… I understood, as shocked as I’d been the first time, that they could kill me – eventually would if I gave them a chance…. I… turned, and fled. They didn’t follow…. “O pity! pity!” I wept – strong monster with teeth like a shark’s – and I slammed the earth with such force that a seam split open twelve feet long.

Grendel goes on to ponder over the men and their condition: “‘The Shaper may yet improve men’s minds, bring peace to the miserable Danes.’” But after his experience, he feels uncertain. “‘I knew [both the men and I were doomed], and I was glad. No denying it. Let them wander the fogroads of Hell.’”

Grendel then follows a strange compulsion of his to find a dragon, who instructs him against the men’s philosophy and their Shaper’s songs. The dragon is the epitome of Nihilism; he tells Grendel that there is nothing genuine in the songs and that by trying to fill an unfillable void, the men are fooling themselves. The dragon advises Grendel that the best thing for him to do is gather gold and sit on it… Grendel, ever-reasoning and calculating Grendel, goes on to ponder more and more. His next actions seem to indicate that while he believes the dragon, he still finds something worth actually doing: his killing sprees on Hrothgar’s hall. He realizes that the dragon has put a charm upon him that makes him invulnerable to the men and their weapons, so he fearlessly rushes into the raids. He reasons that the men were nothing after all, but he still finds a certain value in the Shaper’s songs – the fact that he would certainly be the villain in most of them. If the men won’t accept him as a friend, they would glorify him by their songs as the accursed enemy.

Enter Beowulf… Fighting ensues, Grendel’s arm ripped off, the dragon’s charm fails, Beowulf is the boss, et cetera… And most striking are Grendel’s final thoughts and words before his death as he slinks off and animals surround him to watch his demise: “My heart booms terror. Will the last of my life slide out if I let out breath?… Is it joy I feel?… ‘Poor Grendel’s had an accident,’ I whisper. ‘So may you all.’

For your enjoyment and enlightenment… There is some mild profanity, but the entertaining video above provides an accurate summary and analysis for this novel. Funny, and spot on…

Now, to put it simply, this book surprised me. I expected just a sad story about a poor, stupid monster who was just a killer by nature. And yes, it is a sad story about a monster who is a killer; but he is hardly stupid, and whether killing is his nature is debatable. I was also surprised that I felt pity for Grendel. When we read the original Beowulf, what understanding can we offer Grendel? What empathy? He’s just a killer, a kinsman of Cain, cursed of God, remorseless and ruthless and mindless. But Gardner’s Grendel presents us with the idea that Grendel was a rational being, given to his circumstances, who acted accordingly as he reasoned through every situation. I did in fact pity Grendel throughout the novel; I felt inclined to cry with him when he wept in fear or pain and when he called for his mother in his distress. When he was killed, I wondered what could have been different that could have saved Grendel. Could he have ever believed in goodness if he had been shown true goodness? Or was the dragon’s Nihilistic influence too strong? Most frighteningly, is the dragon’s influence affecting me just by reading it and seeing the strength of his argument?

This work of art Gardner has crafted also presents us with the possibility that Grendel wasn’t the only monster. Grendel and the men are more alike than in the original poem. The men in Gardner’s book are given to murder and theft and rebellion, and they call it glory as they expand their leader’s kingdom. But Grendel kills and is labeled evil. They both engage in hatred and violence; the difference is the label that comes with the actions and from whom they come. Both Grendel and the men behave monstrously…

Most people I know have similar thoughts on the general ideas of good and evil: everybody has a touch of both, and what is nurtured within is the one that will be dominant. Of course this isn’t always the case – take for example mental illnesses and such. However, in general, I agree. If the conclusions of Star Trek’s The Enemy Within are to be believed, both good and evil are essential to our personalities, and so long as good is dominant over evil, we will be successful and productive people. Doctor McCoy tells Kirk’s “good” half, “We all have our darker side. We need it! It’s half of what we are. It’s not really ugly. It’s human.” So is Grendel, or the men, or anyone we might consider evil, really “ugly”? Or are they just misunderstood, or perhaps misguided? Commander Spock, ever logical and thorough, comments on this dual nature as well: “Being split in two halves is no theory with me, Doctor. I have a human half, you see, as well as an alien half, submerged, constantly at war with each other. Personal experience, Doctor. I survive it because my intelligence wins over both, makes them live together.” So it would seem that mental effort and assertion of one’s intelligence is the answer to controlling our dark sides. (Sure, there are lots of brilliant philosophers out there I could quote — even more philosophical quotes from the novel I could pull — but why would I, when I have the crew of the Enterprise? I think it’s safe to say that not only science and engineering improve by the 23rd century, but philosophy too…)

Grendel’s chilling last words seem a curse that haunts mankind: “‘Poor Grendel’s had an accident,’ I whisper. ‘So may you all.’” If I haven’t done this novel justice as the literary work of art that it is (Alas, even if that were my purpose here, I fear I would have still fallen quite short…), I at least hope that readers will see the intelligence within their own monsters. Not all evil is mindless; not all monsters are without reason. Quite often they are, but we should make the effort to discover the truth of each situation. Our own monsters or our own dark sides may fight us, curse us as Grendel did; but if we make an effort to understand it better, we’ll be better equipped to fight it. Not everybody has their own personal Beowulf to singlehandedly destroy every danger (or their own transporter pad to splice their good and evil sides together properly). I’m not trying to make a comment on Nihilism, but I just don’t believe we have to succumb to that curse. Decide it for yourself.

Pages: 174

Total Friends of Atticus pages: 38,827

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