on March 11, 2000
Of all the novels on my bookshelf, John Gardner's Grendel is the most dog-eared, highlighted, and thorougly enjoyed book of the lot. After reading Beowulf for a high school british literature class, we read Grendel and I fell in love. Haunting, beautiful, captivating and at all times mysterious, Grendel is able to capture the essence of our collective struggle to understand - to understand our reason, purpose, and meaning (if we indeed have any). Life is Grendel's great burden and he draws the reader into his world of confusion and hypocracy. At times utterly heartbreaking, at others sublimely beautiful, Grendel should be read over and over and over again.
on October 1, 2001
I recently read Grendel for a high school course and found myself shocked from the beginning at the quality. The normally distasteful nature of reading assignments aside, Grendel was a stunning book. Though Grendel is always physically described as a monster, I know people whose mental state is very nearly the same as his. Reading the pain of such a despicable creature that hits so close to home was stomach-wrenching and breathtaking-- unlike the epic poem, Beowulf, Grendel made it difficult not to see the characters as real. Despite Grendel's purportedly evil and inhuman nature, I couldn't help but see him as someone I knew, feeling what he went through. By the end of the book I loved and hated him, and was given a good bit to think about with the Danes and Geats, and especially the dragon. A definite must-read for would-be philosophers (no, not that annoying high talk you may have been forced to read while "studying philosophy") and anyone intrigued by the darker side of human nature.
on April 22, 2003
What if you could see into the mind of Grendel, the terrifying creature of the night from Beowulf? Well, with this book by John Gardner, you can. Brutal at times, irreverent at others, and very cynical at others, Grendel wanders around for many years watching the development of the various human tribes and the emergence of Hrothgar as a sort of king among them. He spends twelve years in a unique relationship with the king, trying first to make friends with the Danes (he is attacked) and later making raids and killing the most drunken of Hrothgar�s thanes. The notorious coward Unferth (the one who later insults Beowulf) is also developed here--Grendel has such contempt and pity for Unferth that he will not kill him (thus giving him a hero�s death) despite Unferth�s repeated attempts to fight him.
In the poem Beowulf, Grendel is a very flat character. He is, in fact, the epitome of evil, unfeeling and cruel. He comes, he kills and eats people, he leaves. Then he comes back. This book gives Grendel a personality. He knows he is a member of the fallen (Cain�s) race, and accepts that fact. He is lonely, and cannot even get companionship from his mother, who has long ceased to communicate. In fact, his only real �friends� are the Danes he kills. Still, he knows he is dependent on Hrothgar�s survival. �If I murdered the last of the Scyldings,� he muses, �what would I live for?�
This book gives excellent insight into the character of Grendel, and will definitely change the way you look at the poem Beowulf. Gardner�s Grendel is a creature who determines to kill Beowulf for the honor of Hrothgar, so that his thanes will not have been outdone by a newcomer. I highly recommend this short work for anyone interested in the great old English epic.
on November 10, 2003
John Gardner's "Grendel" shines an odd spotlight on English literature's earliest antihero. When reading "Beowulf," who really ponders the character of the monster Grendel, who after all is not so much a literary character as an object for Beowulf to defeat as an exhibition of his heroism? Gardner sees the shaggy, anthropomorphous monster as a painfully self-conscious creature bellowing in rage at the forces of nature in agonistic protest against his miserable existence as a descendant of the cursed race of Cain.
Grendel is sad, lonely, and bored. His only friend (besides his mother, who offers little conversational companionship) is a wise ancient dragon who sits on a massive treasure hoard and mentors the young beast in the significance of being a monster, that having the power to terrify and brutalize is just as much an affirmation of life as killing to eat. And killing is Grendel's forte: He repeatedly targets the thanes of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, who, as descendants of the blessed race of Abel, intrigue him; voyeuristically he spies on them in their meadhalls, sardonically observing their folly, believing that he provides for them a healthy challenge to their complacency. He particularly enjoys the ineffectual assaults of a warrior named Unferth who seeks hero status by trying to slay Grendel numerous times and whom Grendel always spares out of spite, to dishonor him and amplify his ineptitude.
If Grendel were human, he'd be called a sociopath. He hates himself, men, and the world, but he turns his extreme negativity into a strange attitude of superiority -- he likes to show his enemies that he can always beat them, that they're defenseless against his aggression and foolish as well. Of course, he finally realizes his limits when one fateful day an unnamed Geat prince arrives on Hrothgar's shores, ready to claim his own superiority.
A few weeks ago I read Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea," which invents a background story for a mysteriously obscure but important character from "Jane Eyre." Gardner employs the same concept in "Grendel" and even uses a similar postmodern prose style, but he succeeds where Rhys failed because he gives Grendel a personality, a reason to exist as a character, and doesn't just make him a mute symbol of victimization. Grendel is a powerhouse and doesn't need anybody to feel sorry or make excuses for him.
on June 7, 2001
I was required to read Beowulf in school, but not Grendel; I found it in a bookstore and picked it because I was intrigued by an alternate Beowulf, especially since the villian is a monster with nothing but bloodlust and brute strength, and I wanted to see what Gardener would do.
Grendel is interesting in many ways: the style, which is very modern and of course a great contrast with Beowulf's epic poetry; the way the characters are remade; and the way the theme and message of the book depends largely on your outlook while reading it (as you can tell from these reviews). And even though it does spring from that epic Anglo-Saxon poem which students have come to love and hate, you can love Grendel even if you're more in that "hate" area. I actually liked Beowulf while I was studying it, even though I was a little put off by the theme of heroism (in other words, fighting and killing) as the great aspiration. This just made me enjoy Grendel, with its nihilistic musings and criticism of the Dane's beliefs, a little more.
I can't really describe all the different themes and nuances of this book, but the thing that impressed me most was that Grendel, despite being a monster who lives for the kill, is more human than anything else. His ultimate quest is to define himself, and a meaning to life, and this stays with him until the surreal scene in which he dies. His voice is also a very young one; like a teenager, as someone pointed out. He feels like the only thinking being in the universe, and that it it in fact revolves around him and is only an illusion created by his mind. Not new thoughts, but it's the context that makes this book interesting.
The best review I can give is just: read it for yourself.
on February 27, 2000
Grendel, a historical literary figure. John Gardner has created a powerful human piece from the monster's point of view. Grendel is the evil monster slayed by Beowulf. But in John Gardner's book, Grendel is the protagonist and the reader sees the story from his eyes. The monster is tormented by what he does to the people, but at the same time loves the delicious killing. It's what he has to do. He watches the Danes, speculates, kills and mames, but I think at the same time, he loves them. They give him purpose. Of course Grendel is a story about the powerful forces of light and dark within ourselves and finding meaning in life. Is there a higher power protecting the world? The monster endures great lonliness. He is an outcast. That is his role. He inflicts great pain and suffers pain. Grendel is more poetry than prose. The language captures the senses. Even when one is not always clear on the meaning, it is worth the read (and more than once).
on February 6, 2003
Last fall, I read Beowulf; ever since then, I've wanted to read John Gardner's Grendel as well in order to get "the other side of the story." This book served as my introduction to nihilism, which proved to be interesting; expectedly, Grendel's life revolves around the destruction of things and people around him. I enjoyed the portrayal of Grendel's mother because Gardner showed her as desolate and nearly dependent on her son. This was an interesting departure from the despair-ridden, revenge-seeking character in Beowulf.
The book's climax comes in the last ten pages when Beowulf appears, and ironically enough, I read these pages as an excerpt last year. However, having read Beowulf, the ending was already "spoiled," so to speak. (Still, it seems good triumphs over evil more often in early literature than during another time period.)
Overall, if one reads Beowulf, I recommend they also read Grendel. Without Beowulf, however, this book would be confusing and difficult to follow.
Grendel is unlike any other novel I have ever read. I was drawn to it largely because of its controversy--I have a special spot in my heart for banned books--and found a justly famous novel that was, nonetheless, deeply disturbing.
The novel works--and is so disturbing--because it thrusts the reader into a completely alien mind. Gardner's Grendel is a self-absorbed devil, as in Beowulf, but he has psychological depth, which is the book's greatest strength. He sees human foibles with an unforgiving eye and hates humanity for its perfection. He hates himself for being himself.
I found myself really unnerved when I began to understand what Grendel was thinking. And after the feeling of shock wore off, I felt awe at the novelist's ability. Gardner gives us an absolute monster and makes us understand him, and that is what makes this a great book.
on December 11, 2003
Grendel has a sarcastic and cynical mind, which serves to entertain both him and the reader. Through his expositions of situations, we see humor where others would simply see violence, and irony where others only fact. These others are the humans, the Danes, unwitting neighbors of Grendel, forced to stand night after night of slaughter. What is a traumatic and terrifying experience for them, is simply a game to Grendel, and the reader. Grendel bursts in on the Danes, ready to kill, and they squeak. They are funny in their fear, laughable in their drunken fighting. The reader is focused on Grendel's perception of the Danes. The deaths go by easily, because of the humor involved. It does not cross the reader's mind that these are people Grendle is killing. The humor allows the reader to sympathize with Grendel's position, that of the predator. The prey is not meaningful, only nutritious and entertaining. It is a macabre humor, which accentuates how no death is noble, it is simply death. By making the Danes un-heroic and un-ideal, cowards and drunkards, the author is presenting the reality through the humor.
In contrast to the drunken lurching of the others, Unferth comes toward Grendel with speeches and bravery. He is a puffed up as a peacock, proud and ready to die for his king, his people, his ideal. Grendel simply states, "He was one of those." Grendel sees Unferth with a clear and unbiased mind. He is ridiculous. His exaggerated heroism, his words, even his first move, to scuttle sideways like a crab from thirty feet away, is laughable. Grendle does with him what he does with no other Dane in the story, he talks.
Unferth offers Grendle death, and Grendle sends back taunts. The reason this scene is funny is because the taunts are sharply accurate. The self-sacrificing hero is shown to be a spotlight loving fool, serving only his own reputation. Grendel continues talking to Unferth, making the poor wretch angrier by the moment. At one point, he compares Unferth to a harvest virgin. Unferth attempts to begin his own speeches, but is always cut off by Grendel, who has another barb to throw at him. Finally, Unferth screams and charges, his voice breaking.
This scene, of escalating argument, presents a different type of humor. While the first was a slapstick, exaggerated and dark humor, the argument is more sarcastic, intelligent and cutting. It exposes the cruel reality of the hero; he serves only himself and his fame when helping others.
When Unferth charges him, Grendel does the unthinkable. He throws an apple at him. Unferth is astonished, and even loses his heroic vocabulary. He continues charging, and Grendel continues the barrage of apples. This scene is pure humiliation for Unferth, pure delight for Grendel, and entertaining for the reader. Grendel, murderer and monster, is hitting the hero with simple red apples. By doing this, he is breaking any type of significance the battle could ever have. The bards cannot sing of how the monster threw apples. It is symbolically important that Grendel throws apples. Unferth symbolizes a virgin, pure in ideal and purpose. The apple brought down the first virgin, Eve, as these apples bring him down. They represent the truth, the knowledge that Grendle is pelting him with. The hero ends up on the floor crying, and Grendel remarks to him "Such is life...such is dignity." This remark holds no pity, only scorn, and is funny in its viciousness.
Most of the humor in the novel is followed by some of the most chilling and melancholic pieces of prose. This contrast of the humoristic with the somber makes the despair Grendel feels a more striking emotion. Before being completely exposed to nihilism and solitude by the Dragon, Grendel is compared to a bunny rabbit because he was startled. The monster that terrified the Danes is terrified by the Dragon, who continues poking fun at him and his fear. The reader is presented with the impotent figure of Grendel, trying desperately to react in some way to the dragon's laughter, and not knowing how. He gets angry, which immediately makes the dragon deadly serious. What follows is the dragon stating in turn his truths about life and snide side remarks on humanity. The humor allows the reader to connect slightly with Grendel's feelings as they transition from the comedy to the drama, sometimes in a jarring fashion.
This same transition occurs in the interaction of Grendel and Unferth. The Dane is a broken man, both physically and mentally. He cries. He has a broken nose. The humor is lost as the reader begins to feel pity for him. Once we feel connected to the being suffering, the humor evaporates, leaving behind the message, ideals are false. The humor sets up the atmosphere and the elements of the message, but it is only in the alternate tone that the message is truly established.
Grendel's humor is the truth in some aspects and a farce in others. It contrasts sharply with the Dane's views but it is a valid view. At the same time, the humor in Grendel hides a deep despair and the root messages. Grendel makes fun of Unferth, but is more like Unferth that he could possibly guess. Unferth represents the hero brought down by the monster, and the shattering of his own beliefs. Grendel is a monster who has no beliefs, and is brought down by an unnamed hero. The dragon spares Grendel, while Unferth is by Grendel. Unferth is a cast out among the men, and Grendle is a cast out to all human society. Unferth seeks desperately to die in the fight, and regain some type of honor. Grendel seeks the fight for some type of recognition from the Danes. In a way, when Grendel makes fun of Unferth, he is hurting that part of himself he dislikes. He, through Unferth, is hitting at the pretensions
on April 12, 2000
Marvelous. Written almost 30 years ago, Grendel by John Gardner has lost none of its nihilistic punch. Exposed to the novel half of those 30 years ago I had to experience it again after reading the critically lauded Seamus Heaney version of Beowulf. Greeting me once more were meditations on the dark existential void, religion, politics, and science by a creature, not too unlike us in our fears and hopes, who continued to strive to make sense of the universe and his place in it. Alternating between the sublime Orwellian double-talk of the minstrel Shaper and the cold, condescendingly bleak philosophy of the Dragon, Grendel struggles for meaning. Told that his life and energies exist only for man to define himself against, he finds small consolation. Still, Grendel throws himself on the mercy of the men in a Frankenstein's monster effort to be accepted... to no avail, deciding after that `why should I not' destroy them . At times darkly humourous, and touching, the creature muses on the beauty of Hrothgar's placid, sacrificing wife before attempting to kill her, and plays with the fallen hero Unferth before Beowulf's arrival. As those familiar with the epic know, Beowulf in the original poem arrives from across the sea to save Hrothgar's hall by doing battle with Grendel, his mother, and eventually the Dragon. Grendel senses Beowulf's arrival and marvels at the concept of fear. Familiarity with the story makes the inevitability of the conflict all the more delicious when Grendel finally realizes his purpose and observes `I cannot believe such monstrous energy of grief would lead to nothing' the reader is left to answer that it did not lead to nothing, it was a necessary component in an incredible story, told from the historical antagonist's point of view. Highly recommended to be read along with Beowulf.