|Synopsis||In the decades before the great warrior Beowulf sailed south to Denmark, the world was filled with demons like Grendel. For the monsters, life was hard and unforgiving. For young Grendel, life is a burden. He alone must find a way to come to terms with his destiny as a monster.|
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
A few weeks ago, I took a look at the classic Old English poem Beowulf. I discussed its implicit themes and how its framing as a Christian, post-pagan tragedy adds melancholy and meaning to an otherwise oddly structured and archaic narrative.
This week, I’m looking into a fascinating counter-thesis to that poem that came out well over a millennium afterward.
Spiritual Content: Themes of atheism and the belief that religious stories are empty stories to peddle to the masses. The main character is implied to be a Satanic antihero.
Violence: Significant carnage as men and animals are ripped apart and eaten by beasts
Language/Crude Humor: Several languages throughout
Sexual Content: Some references to sexuality and procreation
Drug/Alcohol Use: Much casual drinking of mead and partying. Characters become so drunk that they murder each other.
Other Negative Themes: Themes of meaninglessness, emptiness and moral relativism
Positive Content: Intensely well written and philosophical explorations of humanism and the meaning of life in a post-religious world
When we meet the titular Grendel at the start of the book, he’s very similar to the way he was initially portrayed in the poem Beowulf. He’s a cannibalistic and brutal monster who stalks the halls of Hrothgar at night, killing humans and whisking their bodies away at night to consume them. At the start of the novel, he’s been doing it for twelve years and he’s on the cusp of his final inevitable duel with the Geatish warrior who is destined to slay him.
From here though, the story switches gears. The novel shifts from the upcoming battle to Grendel’s earliest memories. From this point on, the novel becomes his perspective. We’re told the story in first-person from his point of view, and all of the events of the story up until his death become reflections of Grendel’s life and anxieties.
Grendel, by John Gardner, is an absolutely wonderful addition to the “canon” of Beowulf literature, insofar as it’s an incredibly intelligent deconstruction of the original. Unlike Tolkien’s Monsters and the Critics which recontextualized the poem, this book exists to rearrange the story and themes to come to new conclusions. Instead of being the morally binary villain, a descendent of Cain from the Bible no less, he’s presented as a misunderstood antihero. He’s an isolated, emotionally stunted yet fully sentient individual with a sense of identity and self-justification for his actions.
Because of what Grendel is, the author can use that justification to reexamine the themes of Beowulf from a new perspective. In a 1973 interview, Gardner said:
In Grendel, I wanted to go through the main ideas of Western civilization – which seemed to me to be about … twelve? – and go through them in the voice of the monster, with the story already taken care of, with the various philosophical attitudes (though with Sartre in particular), and see what I could do, see if I could break out.
In many ways, the story reminds me of the classic post-modern stageplay Rosencrantz and Guilderstein are Dead. Whereas that play is about tracing the lives of two irrelevant extras from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it comes to many of the same philosophical conclusions as its progenitor does.
Grendel, like Beowulf, is also a story about despair, doom and the meaning of life in a world run by Pagan religious systems. It just so happens to be seen from the perspective of someone that lives outside them. Seen through the eyes of the antihero-like Grendel, though, the events take new meanings.
For another fun analysis on this book, check out the Thug Notes YouTube channel. (Be aware: the video does have some mild language.)
Grendel begins life as an adolescent Ogre in a cave of beasts. His unnamed mother lives with him. However, there are also unnamed and unseen beasts roaming the caverns that he doesn’t interact with. The world of this time is seemingly littered with demons and ogres. The young monster is confused by life, and his mind swirls with mischievous and misanthropic thoughts.
I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly suppose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against blindly – as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink – an ugly god pitifully dying in a tree (21-22).
If Grendel has any subtextual motivation in the book, it’s the desire to connect with others. He wants something positive and external to make his life better. That’s something that his life circumstances have robbed from him. When he meets humankind for the first time, he’s attacked and regarded as a monster by the young king Hrothgar. The local Pagan priests even begin to claim he’s the manifestation of their devil.
When he returns to the safety of his mother in the cave, he feels unable to connect with her. She doesn’t understand his anxieties and the society that sees him as an abomination. She can’t even speak. She’s more of a beast than him.
Grendel doesn’t start to resolve his loneliness and solipsism when he stumbles upon the cavern of the great dragon, Beowulf’s Bane (somehow transplanted from Sweden to Denmark… Wait where was the final duel in the original poem?!?).
Grendel and the dragon aren’t immediately on the same page. In fact, the only reason the dragon doesn’t burn him to a crisp is that Grendel is alike to himself: a creature whose sole purpose is to find joy in the destruction of humanity. The dragon becomes something of a mentor to the young ogre and cement ideas into the young Grendel that forms across the duration of his adult life.
The dragon is a nihilist. He’s a radical atheist, and anti-humanist, who laughs at the notion of the human’s gods and religion as mere stories that make them feel better in the face of their doom. He collects gold and treasure from the humans because he enjoys having something humans value.
A certain man will absurdly kill me. A terrible pity – loss of a remarkable form of life… Meaningless, however. These jugs and pebbles, everything, these too will go. Poof… A swirl in the stream of time. A temporary gathering of bits, a few random dust specks, so to speak – pure metaphor, you understand – then by chance a vast floating cloud of dust specks, an expanding universe… Sensitive dust copulating dust, worshipful dust (70).
The dragon cements in Grendel a notion that life’s only purpose is to find meaning within the nothingness. In his case, he ought to be the devil of humanity. That way, they might find meaning in him, and he find meaning in their unfair rejection.
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 existence by which they learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shrink from – the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment – that’s what you make them recognize, embrace! You are mankind, or man’s condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain… It’s all the same in the end, matter and motion, simple or complex. No difference, finally. Death, transfiguration. Ashes to ashes and slime to slime. Amen (72-73).
Such a sentiment speaks to the novel’s ultimate point about stories and storytelling in general. They exist to edify us and bring meaning to the madness of life. For Grendel though, such meaning is only a story. He denies existence itself and considers everything around him to be an illusion. There is no true morality beyond his illusions.
The author, John Gardner, borrowed this philosophy from Jean-Paul Satre and his book Being and Nothingness. It shows in Grendel’s internal monologue where he self-justifies all of his actions. The novel, however, doesn’t seem to totally agree with Satre’s ideas. Gardner himself admitted in one of his interviews to having a complicated relationship to Satre’s ideas:
He’s a horror intellectually, figuratively, and morally, but he’s a wonderful writer and anything he says you believe, at least for the moment, because of the way he says it… What happened in Grendel was that I got the idea of presenting the Beowulf monster as Jean-Paul Sartre, and everything that Grendel says Sartre in one mood or another has said.
The world of Grendel is wonderful and solipsistic until it stops being so. The novel expects that the reader is already familiar with the poem Beowulf and does periodically reminds the reader that the events of that book are inevitable. At one point, a thane in the Danish court even starts reciting the opening lyrics to the Beowulf poem.
This speaks to the novel as a deconstruction. The words of the original poem are inspirational within the universe. They edify the Sword-Danes to the point where they feel confident in their leaders and their ability to protect the land against foreign invaders and monsters.
Such pride is nonsense to the misanthropic Grendel, but it stops being so when Beowulf arrives and rips his arm off. After decades of unrequited violence and hedonistic joy, the inevitability of death finally does take him. He’s left only with the solace of being able to swear into the void as death consumes him and to wish harm upon his brethren.
Animals gather around me, enemies of old, to watch me die. I give them what I hope will appear a sheepish smile… They watch on, evil, incredibly stupid, enjoying my destruction. “Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper, “So may you all” (173-174).
Grendel is an absolutely brilliant novel. It’s written with the confident bleak prose of a Cormac McCarthy novel and manages to channel the themes and characters of the original narrative into an original story. It’s surprisingly diegetic to the original novel, and that proximity gives weight to its philosophical wailing.
At times though, the themes come across as quite adolescent. The concepts of alienation, meaning, and existential suffering echo the complaints of a million college philosophy majors struggling with their first glances of atheism and existentialism (see also, the Rick and Morty fandom).
Grendel is a brutal murderer who finds meaning in the desolation of humanity. Insofar as the novel edifies his violence and hatred, it’s merely a work of hedonism and evil. Thankfully, it does seem to have the honesty to know that such wailings are uncomfortable and immoral enough that it won’t encourage the reader to hurt other people.
Such emotions, as in the case of young men who struggle with meaninglessness, are quite common. As secularism continues to gain traction, the value of “stories” and religion loses power. In some ways, a novel like Grendel is a prophecy of the post-Christian world and what the world outside of modernity looks like if nihilism overtakes humanism.
By itself, Grendel is a work of incredible emotional honesty that lays out the appeal of nihilism and evil in simple terms. It’s merely up to the reader whether they want to embrace the emptiness of Grendel or the blindness of Beowulf, within the novel’s eyes.
+ Beautiful Language
+ Incredibly Well-Written Themes
- Extremely Dark Themes
- Some Excessive Gore, Swearing and Death
The Bottom Line
Grendel is a must-read for fans of the classic Beowulf! It's a work of incredible talent and emotion that puts you in the driver's seat with some very dark ideas and asks you to work through them!