Ah, Grendel! You’ve come back

April 5, 2012

I recently re-read John Gardner’s Grendel, the 1971 novel that re-tells the first part of the epic medieval poem Beowulf from the monster’s viewpoint. The willingness to give reading time to a book I’ve already read, when there’s not enough time to read all the books I haven’t read, got triggered by an advanced reading copy of Grendel inscribed by the publisher to the intended receiver, “Please read. You will love this.” The ARC is a rare acquisition for my library that took me back to the time one of my college English literature professors gave me his copy of Grendel, thinking, I suppose, I’d appreciate Gardner’s extraordinary imagination and lyric monster writing. It was not an assignment, rather something Mr. Parks enjoyed and wanted to share with the student (me) who was interning with him that quarter. I read the book, but the story and all its meaning sailed right over my head.

So here, decades later, I’m reading Grendel out loud and walking around the room at the same time because one cannot sit still under that sheer magic created by Gardner, a narrative of such magnificent lyric words and insights you can’t help but to dramatically read the story out loud to hear them. I relished the rhythms of the lonely, philosophical monster’s fretting and roaring as he struggles to understand the purpose of his existence. Grendel doesn’t see himself as people see him, a violent fiend from hell, and Gardner skillfully brings to life the monster’s sweet, emotional confusion.

Grendel lurks outside King Hrothgar’s magnificent mead hall, spying on the drunken feasts and listening to the poetry of the harpist, known as the Shaper, who sings of goodness and hope. One day, the Shaper tells the story of Cain and Abel, “an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light.” Grendel learns he’s from the darkness, “the terrible race God cursed.” Filled with scorn and doubt, he seeks the counsel of a gold-hording dragon, who dismisses the idea there’s any meaning in life, light or dark, and claims the Shaper creates illusions. The dragon casts a spell on Grendel, making him invulnerable to any weapon. “I could walk up to the meadhall [sic] whenever I pleased, and they were powerless. My heart became darker because of that.”

Grendel rampages through the mead hall, savagely killing Hrothgar’s men night after night, seeing no worth in any life, especially because he can so easily take it. When he decides not to kill Hrothgar’s wife, he says:

“It would be meaningless, killing her. As meaningless as letting her live. It would be, for me, mere pointless pleasure, an illusion of order for this one frail, foolish flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity.”

He’s a horrible creature, but Gardner gives him humanity, and you can’t help but love Grendel — he’s intelligent, funny, self-loathing and monstrously witty. He knows what he’s doing isn’t right, and yet he can’t stop because he can’t reconcile the senselessness he sees in the world. He’s a beastly creature capable of love and sympathy — desiring it, actually — who transforms into evil because no one gave him a chance to be anything but evil. There’s a great life message here, and many more like it in this classic, right up to the end when Grendel finally is overcome by the hero Beowulf.

One doesn’t need to have read the original medieval poem to enjoy Gardner’s spin-off, but there’s so much more to Grendel’s story after his death, when Gardner’s novel ends, that it’s worth reading Beowulf either again or for the first time. I did (again). I picked up the wonderful translation by poet and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney. Published in 2000, Heaney’s version became a national best-seller, which says it all – how often do you see translated medieval poetry described as a best-seller?

As for Gardner’s Grendel, it’s poignant, spiritually and psychologically rich, and delightful to read. I understand now why Mr. Parks wanted to share it.

Update: The title to this post was slightly modified after publication.

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