Monday, February 25, 2013

Grendel by John Gardner

The old ram stands looking down 
over rock slides, stupidly triumphant.

Opening to


by John Gardner
To my surprise, John Gardner's novel Grendel has much more in common with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein than it does with Beowulf.

Grendel is Mr. Gardner's re-telling of the classic Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf which tells the tale of a young, heroic warrior who travels to Denmark to do battle with the monster who has been raiding the great hall of the local Danish king.  Beowulf is a wonderful work, I'm very fond of Seamus Heaney's recent translation which everyone should read.  I guess I had forgotten just how small a role Grendel plays in Beowulf.

Grendel really just gets the action going.  After several attacks on the Danish king, Beowulf shows up and saves the day, ripping off Grendel's arm in a epic battle that ends with the monster retreating to the sea to die in his mother's arms.  Grendel's mother then comes to attack the Danes. Beowulf defeats her, becomes king, and then, very late in life, faces a terrible dragon who finally brings Beowulf to a fitting warrior's end.

John Gardner gives Grendel his due, exploring the character of the monster in a re-telling that long preceded the current trend of re-telling classics.

One thing that really struck me about Grendel was how closely tied it is to Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein.  Much of Frankenstein, the best parts of it if you ask me, is focused on the monster's point of view.  Created by a man, the monster longs to become a human, but he is forever cast outside the realm of humanity because he was created by a human.  The monster, who has been assembled from parts of several human corpses, is also cursed with an appearance that everyone he meets finds horrific.

In one of the books more touching sections, the monster finds a little house, occupied by a small family.  He spends several weeks observing the family, watching them from afar, then from outside the window, envious of everything this rather poor family has even though all they really have is each other.  The monster is truly alone.  Not only does he have no one, he knows that there is no one in the world he could ever have.

When the monster makes himself known to the family's blind grandfather, he hopes that by befriending one person, he can befriend the entire family and thereby connect with humanity. Of course, we all know how this turns out.  As soon as someone who can see sees the monster, he is chased away by the terrified family.

People who don't know the novel expect Frankenstein to be a horror story, but it's really a long meditation on the challenges of being human, mainly of connecting with other humans.  Even Victor Frankenstein faces this dilemma in his own search to find a true friend.

Grendel covers much of the same territory.

Before he first encounters humanity, Grendel lives as a wild creature, a monster, but he is something more than his un-named mother.  He has a facility for language, for thought, that she clearly lacks.  We do not know who Grendel's father was, but clearly something more was added to his genetic make-up, something that turned out to be no- so-good for him.

Once he sees people, he can't help but follow them.  He wants to know more.  He wants to find 'people' equal to his own capacity for thought and for wonder.  He is able to spy on the Danes un-noticed for quite a few pages, but eventually they see him and attack.  While he tries to speak to them, his words come out as intelligible moans' he is trapped by his own monstrous body much like the monster in Frankenstein was.

  "You're all crazy!" I tried to yell, but it came out a moan.  I bellowed for my mother.
   "Surround him!" the king yelled, "Save the horses!" --and suddenly I know I was dealing with no dull mechanical bull but with thinking creatures, pattern makers, the most dangerous things I'd ever met.

Both Grendel and the monster stand outside the homes of humanity looking in at what they cannot have.  Grendel stands outside the hall of the Danish king listening to the singer inside singing songs about him and about the creation of the world.

    The harp turned solemn.  He told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light.  And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect.  The terrible race God cursed.
     I believed him.  Such was the power of the Shaper's harp!

Even if he is meant to be the villain in the tales the humans tell, Grendel still wants a place in their lives much the same way the monster in Frankenstein does.  The monster will also take on the role of villain by the novels end.

Both try to connect, both are seen as monsters when they do so, and both must finally wrestle with their 'creators.'   In both stories there is also a real sense that they are condemned to isolation because neither was made by 'God'.

Frankenstein closes with an account of the monster chasing his creator across the frozen arctic ice while a group of men aboard a ship watch from a distance.  How close is this to the way Grendel's life ends?  Chased by a group of men, across a frozen northern landscape, to a body of water where he is dealt a death blow by Beowulf.  By the end of John Gardner's novel, I began to wonder just how much Mary Shelley had been influenced by Beowulf when she wrote Frankenstein.

Of course, Beowulf did not create Grendel.

John Gardner plays with the question of who created Grendel in his novel.  The original epic poem was written by an unknown source.  This unknown poet is present in Mr. Gardner's novel as a singer who entertains the Danes with songs and tales of epic battles.  The character has a clear historical basis though I don't recall him acting as much of a force in Beowulf.  However, in Grendel, the Shaper, as Grendel calls him, is the main antagonist.  Grendel fights and kills many characters, but the one he really wrestles with, the way the monster wrestled Victor Frankenstein, is the Shaper.

Grendel after listening to one of the Shapers songs:

   It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and set out the sun and moon as lights to land-dwellers, that brothers had fought, that one of the races was saved, the other cursed.  Yet he, the old Shaper, might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, his cunning trickery. It came to me with a fierce jolt that I wanted it.  As they did too, though vicious animals, cunning, cracked with theories.  I wanted it, yes!  Even if I must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of his hideous fable.

The god this Shaper creates in his tale is not exactly the Judeo-Christian god, but close enough.  The Bible has its share of warring brothers and cursed races.  Is Grendel to be seen as Cain? as Judas?  It's interesting to me that even if his only role is to be the villain in the story, he wants a part so badly that he will take it.  He complains that the Shaper is not telling the story correctly, but he still wants a part in the tale.

The character of the Shaper can't help but call the idea of religion and religious explanations into question on a more fundamental level.  Has the teller come before the tale?  Did humanity's natural inclination towards finding patterns bring about the notion of god in the first place?  If Grendel is what really happened in Beowulf, then what really formed the basis for the other tales we use to explain our world.  Is there anything behind the tale at all?

At one point Grendel meets the dragon who will eventually bring about Beowulf's end.  The dragon is eternal in the sense that he knows the entire story from start to finish all at once.  For the dragon, what will happen, has already happened.  The dragon tells Grendel about humanity:

     'They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense.  They have dim apprehensions that such propositions as "God does not exist" are somewhat dubious at least in comparison with statements like "All carnivorous cows eat meat." That's where the Shaper saves them.  Provides an illusion of reality--puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness.  Mere tripe, believe me.  Mere sleight-of-wits, if anything: works with the same old clutter of atoms, the givens of time and place and tongue.  But he spins it all together with harp runs and hoots and they think what they think is alive, think Heaven loves them.  It keeps them going -- for what that's worth.  As for myself, I can hardly bear to look.'

Dragons really don't make for happy company.

However Grendel makes for fascinating, unexpected reading.  While I thought I would get an exciting adventure with lots of battle scenes, I got an intriguing view of humanity's habits, foibles perhaps, along with a new sense of what it is to create a character and how important it is to be a part of a story in some fashion.

    Grendel!  Grendel! You make the world by whispers, second by second.  Are you blind to that?  Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point.   

Like the monster wrestles with Frankenstein and Grendel wrestles with the Shaper, I have been wrestling with John Gardner's little book for some time now.  I think this is one that I'll come back to again some day.

And it's my new favorite book.


Ted said...

I enjoyed this one too. In fact, I've enjoyed all of Gardner's novels - wonderful writer.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Consider me as one person who has been swayed by your enthusiasm. By that AND that awesome cover. I'm pretty lame when it comes to the classics and I think this is probably the best way to get my education.

Anonymous said...

I read this several years ago shortly after I read Heaney's Beowulf translation. I found it a fine read indeed. Not all re-imaginings of classic tales from another PoV work, but this one did, definitely a book to return to. Fab review.

elizabeth said...

Beowulf is one of my favorites, and I've been meaning to read Grendel for a while. Now that I've read this, I'm moving it up on my list!

Aaron Brame said...

I always loved Grendel, for the same reason I loved Caliban. They're both monsters, and they're both destined to be destroyed (or mastered) by the heroes of their respective stories. No one ever gets to know them.

I named our first cat Grendel. He was a monster:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

This was a great post. I knew the basic premise of the book but not how Gardner developed it. Fascinating.

Jeane said...

What a fascinating post. I struggled through a translation of Beowulf once, but really loved Grendel and have read that one several times. I never really thought before, how different the two stories are. Nor did it occur to me the similarities to Frankenstine. You have got me thinking so much about this book I feel like I want to read it next (after the Dare is over, of course).

Jeanne said...

I read Gardner's Grendel when I was very young, so for me it was always the referent point for any other version of the story. Gardner came to my college and read parts of it, a reading that turned out to be right before he was killed. He had pale skin and white hair, and everything had streaks of black from the pipe ash he was always sticking his big, blunt fingers into and fiddling with.