Terry's Reviews > Grendel

Grendel by John Gardner
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's review
Feb 09, 2008

liked it

(my thanks to Rich for the Christmas gift)

It's sort of weird that I've never read this book before. Having grown up with an English teacher for a father, I've known the story of Beowulf ever since I watched an 8mm film project one of his students made, the chief special effect of which involved flushing a yearbook photo of the boy who played Beowulf down the toilet in order to simulate the hero's diving into the haunted mere. I've known about John Gardner's retelling of the story from the monster's perspective since studying the Anglo-Saxon epic in high school. I've been teaching Beowulf almost every year since Heaney came out with his translation, and every year I've thought of reading Grendel, but for some reason I hadn't until this year.

The problem with reading a book that you've been hearing about for twenty years is that you think you already know what it's going to say. And maybe one of the reasons I'd never got around to reading Grendel is that I was afraid it would turn out to be one of those by now trite demonstrations that all monsters are really just the misunderstood victims of the majority's prejudice. Since Gardner came out with his book, there is almost no literary monster--from the big bad wolf to the wicked witch of the west--who hasn't had her case re-examined and the evidence against her overturned.

But Gardner's Grendel is more than just a victim pleading for our sympathy. His sense of alienation has passed beyond blame to a kind of existential indifference that is more like Camus' Stranger than the Cookie Monster. The result is an enemy who is no less frightening for his being rendered more human. In fact, everything becomes more frightening: King Hrothgar, heroic Beowulf, the relentless progress of a barbaric civilization. Such depiction doesn't so much turn Beowulf inside out as reveal what has always been implicit in this most pessimistic of epics: the relentless way in which violence begets itself, the sense that chthonic forces hover ever at the margins where the firelight fades into darkness, the understanding that enemies are complicit in creating one another.

This last insight seems particularly relevant in our current context: a lesson for presidents and political rivals and archbishops alike to consider.
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07/06 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Frank (new)

Frank I took this book from the Marguerite Hall lending library my freshman year in college. I neither read it nor returned it. Now that you've digested it for me so eloquently and pithily, I don't think I ever will. Plus Bill already has a bonus reading test on it, so what more could I want?

message 2: by Rich (new)

Rich Moran I have read the book and, as I remember it, Terry's comment seems spot-on. It's not a great book, but it's intriguing. I'm not sure of the date of composition, but I'll bet it was written around the same time as Bonnie and Clyde. It was a neat trick, then, to reverse to the perspective of the anti-hero. Now it seems a little more tired, and the book isn't masterful enough to surpass its genre. But I think of it as a good pedagogical book—one that will make students feel comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, as they stand on the doorstep of a big idea like existentialism.

message 3: by Paul (new)

Paul Rhodes Why, praytell, is existentialism a big idea? I assume that you mean the Sartrean version thereof, that there is just existence without any fixed essences and, hence, no God. How can an idea which is predicated upon the denial of the biggest idea imaginable, that of an omnipotent God, be big? And there's another problem with calling existentialism big, namely that existentialism denies fixed essences and therewith the very possibility of objective meaning. The only meaning possible is one that the individual conjures up out of sheer bitchery and even that can have only subjective valorization. In the eyes of an indifferent universe, everything is utterly absurd. Thus, calling existentialism a big idea really does not mean a hill of beans in this crazy world.

message 4: by Paul (new)

Paul Rhodes It is also worth noting that Cicero called atheistic philosophers such as the modern existentialists minute philosophers because they diminish everything that is valuable. Atheistic existentialism is not a "big idea". It is small, cramp, and ultimately suffocating.

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