Monday, March 27, 2017

"Grendel" by John Gardner: A Review

"The world resists me and I resist the world," I said. "That's all there is. The mountains are what I define them as." Ah, monstrous stupidity of childhood, unreasonable hope! . . . "The world is all pointless accident," I say. (Chapter 2)

A cursory search of this website will reveal a real passion for the old English tale Beowulf. It is, by far, my favorite story and I have read several versions of the narrative over the years. The story is rich and its themes even richer (see my theology of Beowulf in the links below). One of the books that continues to appear as a must-read in my continuing research of the book is John Gardner's novel Grendel. The book is named after the first and most famous monster Beowulf battles.

The story is literally told through Grendel's eyes utilizing the first person style. Gardner doesn't tell Grendel's story. Rather, the novel is from the perspective of Grendel telling his own story. Doing so makes Grendel a more sympathetic character whose motives are more complicated than one may presume purely in Beowulf and that, in my opinion, is part of the problem.

I would agree that any serious student of Beowulf should read Gardner's work I would also contend it is also a deeply flawed volume. First, though Gardner clearly knows his Beowulf history along with a number of its themes (like fraticide), characters (like Scyld Shefing), and historical background (I enjoyed the exploration of the rise of Hrothgar), Gardner turns the story of Beowulf into something it is not. The author utilizes the Grendel character, a demonic monster who embodies murderous envy and is literally a direct descendant of Cain, as a means of exploring the philosophy of Jean-Paul Satre. Beowulf, I believe, is a theological work making an apologetic point about Christianity. It is not a philosophical one. Through the eyes of this monster, we explore the world of fatalism from the greedy dragon and the futility of religion from three priests.

Yet this is not the Grendel of the original tale. Grendel is introduced thus:
Thus Hrothgar's thanes
reveled in joys,
feasting and drinking
until their foe started
his persecutions,
a creature of hell.
Grendel, they called him,
this grimspoiler,
a demon who prowled
the dark borderlands,
moors and marshes,
a man-eating giant
who had lied in a lair
in the land of monsters
ever since God
had outlawed him
along with the rest
of the line of Cain. (8, source)
Later we see Grendel morbidly laughing while the Danes are mourning the slaughter of their own. Grendel is a demonic and animalistic monster who feeds, not because he is hungry or lonely, but because he is jealous and wicked. Yet this is not the depiction of Grendel in Gardner's take. To him, Grendel becomes a monster whereas to the anonymous writers of the ancient tale, Grendel is a monster and the difference is very significant. Thus Grendel turns to fatalism - a monster will do monstrous things. Yet the original tale was very different. The story opens and closes with a funeral and thus on the surface, the reality of death and the cycle of violence makes fatalism attractive. Yet in the narrative we discover the opposite: hope. Something (and someone) greater than Beowulf is coming.

In the end I would again say that Gardner has written a story that every Beowulf reader should tole lege but not for keen insight into the original tale. A philosophical take on Beowulf is certainly worth exploring so long as it reflects the philosophy of the original writers. That is what makes Beowulf so rich.Gardner fails o reflect that original worldview in his exploration of the hero's most famous foe.


For more:
"Beowulf" Translated by Dick Ringler: A Review
"Beowulf": A Review
A Shrewd Apologetic: Doug Wilson's Take on Beowulf
Beowulf: Resources and Links
Clash of the Gods: Tolkien's Monsters Documentary


Theology Series:
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf - Introduction
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf - Why Beowulf Matters
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf - The Story, Part 1
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf - The Story, Part 2
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf - The Story, Part 3
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf -  The Theology Part 1
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf -  The Theology Part 2
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf -  The Theology Part 3
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf -  The Theology Part 4
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf -  The Theology Part 5
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf -  The Theology Part 6
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf -  The Theology Part 7
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf -  Conclusion
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