“An extraordinary achievement… very funny, original and deft, altogether lovable, poignant, rich with thought and feeling…immensely enjoyable. John Gardner has become a major contemporary writer.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Written over a thousand years ago, Beowulf is the epic poem which tells the story of the great warrior Beowulf who comes to the aid of the Danes after he slays the monstrous Grendel and his mother.
The story of Beowulf and Grendel has been retold and readapted countless times over the centuries, and it’s a testament to the tale that its timeless themes still resonate with us in the 21st century. Beowulf and Grendel’s story has been reshaped into films, comics, music, and plays, but perhaps none of those retellings are as unique, or offer as much new insight into the classic tale, as John Gardner’s Grendel.
Most retellings of the epic poem focus on the hero, Beowulf, but in Grendel, Gardner takes an alternative look at what transpired, by putting the story’s monster front and centre. Gardner’s novel follows the story from Grendel’s point of view as he watches the Northmen from afar and contemplates his place in the universe. Though a novel, much of Grendel is spent examining the power of myths and legends, as well as the nature of good and evil. Many popular philosophies are tested by the creature, and most fail to satisfy Grendel as he grapples with his existential thoughts.
The novel begins with Grendel leaving his mother’s cave for the first time and exploring the lands around him. He encounters animals but soon finds them to be dumb and lacking in dignity, though it’s not long before he chances upon a group of humans. He can understand them, they are unable to make sense of the monster’s speech and the encounter soon becomes bloody, with Grendel barely escaping with his life. Later he tries once again to connect with humanity but his efforts are in vain. From then on, Grendel spies upon the humans, lead by the great king Hrothgar, and watches as they go from little more than animals to a civilization capable of building farms, weapons, and great mead halls.
Grendel’s education continues after he finds himself debating with a mighty dragon who believes in fatalism and tells Grendel the human’s stories are nothing more than a way for them to try and make sense of the chaos of the universe. Feeling more nihilistic than ever, Grendel decides that, if he is to be perceived as a monster, he might as well be one. Thus he begins wrecking havoc upon Hrothgar’s halls and takes delight in bringing death and destruction down on the Danes. That is until a certain warrior named Beowulf arrives…
Stories retold from the villains perspective are fairly popular nowadays, and are an excellent way of re-examining classic tales, but Gardner’s is arguably the most original and most interesting. This sympathy for the devil style story doesn’t try to paint Grendel as some kind of misunderstood angel, he’s certainly an antihero, but one can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for this force of nature who is totally alone in the world. As Grendel himself says: “The world resists me and I resist the world.” There’s a certain tragedy to Grendel in that, despite his deep philosophical thinking, he’s destined for a life of loneliness, frustration, and violence.
As a novel I found Grendel to be engrossing. Gardner does away with any excess fat and delivers a short, concise story which is full of beautiful turns of phrase that add an air of poetry to the otherwise bleak nature of the story. I found it to be a fascinating dive into the philosophy of good and evil and at times found myself wondering if, for all our sins, humanity is so much more moral than a beast like Grendel?
Added 5th February 2019