Grendel by John Gardner
A Recommended Book of the Month
Analysis of the 1971 novel by the late American John Gardner often goes hand in hand with an literary need to shape his anthropomorphizing of the monster, Grendel, to the philosophy of Icelandic sagas, Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and any other codex of human thought on the nature of duality where the latter is a battle between good and evil, savage and civilised. With such weight of erudite Anglo-Saxon and medieval literary study pressing firmly down on this novella (such as Caliban upon Setebos by Robert Browning; The Sea and the Mirror, Part III, by W H Auden) it is easy to get caught up in the need to label each chapter of Gardner’s mellifluous prose with statements like: “Gardener’s guiding light in this novel is not sword and sorcery, but Sartre and existentialism” (Adam Brown’s Introduction to the 2004 reprint).
With such prestige, such solemnity of analysis, the novel becomes a weighty tome before the casual reader can commence with the opening paragraphs. It is enough to make us pause and see if we can devote the necessary time for both reading and consideration that is apparently demanded of us.
It is true that “Grendel” is a Gordian knot of a novel; there are so many intricate coils in an unfathomable contortion that it is easy to devote an entire P. H. D. on it - testament to the complexity and erudition of the author - but, is this what he really intended for his reader? Or, as Newsweek would claim on the jacket, is it merely “witty, delightful, intelligent.”?
It’s hard to say in a review precisely what this novel is… and therein lies its brilliance. It is a novel that precedes great fantasy, follows marvellous mythology; a novel that reworks something that Europeans are fleetingly aware of in our literary culture - the story of Beowulf. Its depths, its layers, permit the reader to choose how to perceive the narrative in accordance with personal belief or philosophy. As such, it gleams in a multi-faceted manner that means each of us understands it against a backdrop of personal knowledge. We are not led through the story to the author’s conclusion, rather we are invited to end up where we will.
The novel is a retelling of Beowulf, this time, told from Grendel’s perplexed, curious, opining viewpoint. Far more than any human, the monster demonstrates the core of what drives humans forward – curiosity. His dialogue with the dragon demonstrates the vast confusion and exasperation of sage elder meeting guileless youth; despite an attempt to confuse through semantic trickery and the riddle-like prophetic hyperbaton of one with great understanding, the final snort is one of “my advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.” Sounds reasonable.
We follow the clueless Beast as his nature lets him act with base instinct, follow as he seeks to understand his place in the Cosmos, to discern the difference between a life where “I can’t breathe, and I claw to get free. She struggles. I smell my mama’s blood and, alarmed, I hear from the walls and floor of the cave the booming, booming, of her heart.” and one where he leaves the harp of the Shaper, “crept away, my mind aswim in ringing phrases, magnificent, golden, and all of them, incredibly, lies.”
The novel finds a natural divide at the point Grendel begins to communicate directly with Hrothgar’s thanes whom he initially kills with careless abandon. His comedic engagement with Unferth, firstly with apples, then with a burgeoning vocabulary that finds him condemning what he has heard of Men, claiming that “Poetry’s trash, mere cloud of words, comfort to the hopeless” espousing an understanding that everything is “a glorious ideal” crushed when one “struggles toward it and seized it, and come to understand it, and was disappointed.” It is a turning point, much as in Shakespeare, when Nature begins to converse with Civilization, when the savage interacts directly with the cultured; progression is swiftly made with Grendel’s confused relationship with the queenly beauty and stoic presence of Wealtheow, a woman who confounds and confuses his desires. The great observation here is that the carbon lifeform’s need to reproduce transcends civility, confuses bestiality, stops the philosophical growth of Grendel until, in a bellowing fit or rage he is drawn to try murder, fails at the last instant by the helplessness of his intended victim. Grendel does not need to conquer, just to understand; though he constantly ignores cause and effect, disparages empathy and loathes sympathy.
Eventually, Gardner has Beowulf arrive (though he be unnamed) and concludes Grendel’s life in bellowing confusion, adamant in the unfortunate chance of it all. His killer will live on in the Shaper’s dead words as a hero, Grendel himself is consigned to the pointless narrative or Time, his final astute observation of ‘nihil ex nihilo’. He has moved from the youthful passion whereby “the uproar is only my own shriek, and chasms are, like all things vast, inanimate. They will not snatch me in a thousand years, unless, in a lunatic fit of religion, I jump.”, to, in the end, a tired shadow of what he might have been “standing baffled, quaking with fear, three feet from the edge of a nightmare cliff.”. It is a fitting end, to fall into the void.
Adam Brown claims that “mostly though, the novel is just Grendel himself, encountering the rainy, stony earth, the indifferent vastness of the sky, the cold of winter… Grendel setting his will against the inevitability of history.” the reality is that the ‘truth’ of Grendel, the only proof, evidenced in so much literature, is that he is a monster that encourages imagination and rationalisation of humanity’s endless struggle to rise above Nature. No matter what lies within his breost-hord his meaning is “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… You are mankind, or man’s condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain”.
Indeed. Read this novella for it will make you think and define yourself again.
This Grendel book review was written by travelswithacanadian
Have you read Grendel?
We've found that while readers like to know what we think of a book they find additional reader reviews a massive help in deciding if it is the right book for them. So if you have a spare moment, please tell us your thoughts by writing a reader's review. Thank you.
Grendel reader reviews
9.1/10 from 1 reviews
There are currently no reader reviews for this book. Why not be the first?
Write a reader review
Thank you for taking the time to write a review on this book, it really makes a difference and helps readers to find their perfect book.
More recommended reading in this genre
Chatwin has visions of a parallel world where a couple are fleeing some terrible event pursued by an enemy and are seeking a gate to freedom. Chatwin is the gate, and when ...
Deep within the wildwood lies a place of myth and mystery, from which few return, and none remain unchanged. Ryhope Wood may look like a three-mile-square fenced-in wood in...
Catherynne M Valente
Sei, November, Ludov, and Oleg -- four people unknown to each other but united by grief and their obsession with the city of Palimpsest. Located beyond the human realm, Pal...
On the day the world ends... Mau is on his way home from the Boys' Island. Soon he will be a man. And then the wave comes - a huge wave, dragging black night behind it ...
The Rabbit Back Literature Society
Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen
Only very special people are chosen by children's author Laura White to join 'The Society', an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a te...
While honeymooning in the Tower of Babel, Thomas Senlin loses his wife, Marya. The Tower of Babel is the greatest marvel of the Silk Age. Immense as a mountain, the ancient...
The Silmarillion provides the background to Middle-earth, the setting of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. It is an account of the Elder Days; the First Age when Morgot...
In the depths of Broceliande - an ancient French woodland - Merlin and the enchantress Vivien play out their deadly feud. Meanwhile, a child is born deaf, dumb and blind. H...
Maria and the Devil
The Devil has ridden out. Montana’s most feared outlaw has left his secret lover, Maria, alone in their secluded house deep in the wilds. If he had known that she was...
Fifteen-year-old Wulliam is dreading taking up his family's mantle of Riverkeep, tending the river and fishing corpses from its treacherous waters. But then everything ...
The House of the Stag
It begins with a tragedy. Before the Riders came to their remote valley, the Yendri led a tranquil pastoral life. When the Riders conquered and enslaved them, only a few es...
Charm is a beautifully illustrated re-telling of the Cinderella story which takes all the much-loved elements of the classic fairytale (the handsome prince, the fairy godmo...
The Last Quarrel
Gaelland is a nation gripped by fear. In the country, fishing boats return with their crews mysteriously vanished, while farms are left empty, their owners gone into the ni...
Trojan War Trilogy
Three lives will change the destiny of nations. Helikaon, the young prince of Dardania, haunted by a scarred and traumatic childhood. The priestess Andromache, whose fiery ...
The Immortals Trilogy
Imagine a place where women dominate, where beauty is both physical and internal and where the imagination is allowed to run wild. Where flowers transport you into another ...
Looking for more suggestions? Try these pages:
- Recommended historical fantasy / alternate history books/series
- Recommended books/series featuring lore, legend and mythology
Best of 2016
Downfall of the Gods
If you visit the Temple and ask nicely for forgiveness, you might get it - assuming you aren't Lord Archias and you haven't killed the Goddess's favorite musician,...
Huginn and Muninn, the Eyes of Thought and Mind; Freyr the Blade that stands alone; Mjolnir, Thunder, strength and devastator. Gods bloodied and wounded, that live and die. Ta...
Long before she was the Queen of Hearts, Catherine Pinkerton was just a girl who wanted to fall in love. Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland, and a fa...
Books of the Month
A selection of books - old and new alike - that were a joy to read.
The Pirate Isles are united under Drake Morrass’ flag, but the war has only just begun. There’s still a long way to go before he’s able to call himself King, and traitors at every turn. The Five Kingdoms and Sarth have assembled a fleet of ships unlike any the world has ever seen and they intend to purge the Pirate Isles once a...
Ian C Esslemont
After the disappointments of Li Heng, Dancer and Kellanved wash up on a small insignificant island named Malaz. Immediately, of course, Kellanved plans to take it over. To ...
Age of Swords
Michael J Sullivan
Raithe, the God Killer, may have started the rebellion by killing a Fhrey, but long-standing enmities dividing the Rhunes make it all but impossible to unite against the co...
A Time of Dread
The Ben-Elim, a race of warrior angels, once vanquished a mighty demon horde. Now they rule the Banished lands. But their dominion is brutally enforced and their ancient en...
The Last Dog on Earth
Adrian J Walker
Every dog has its day... And for Lineker, a happy go lucky mongrel from Peckham, the day the world ends is his: finally a chance to prove to his owner just how loyal he can...
The Shadow Crucible
Taking humanity back to their primordial beliefs and fears, Estella confronts Mikhail’s faith by revealing the true horror of the lucrative trade in human souls. All ...
The Dog Stars
Hig, bereaved and traumatised after global disaster, has three things to live for - his dog Jasper, his aggressive but helpful neighbour, and his Cessna aeroplane. He's...