John Gardner – Grendel (1971)

grendelGrendel is the mysterious monster from the old English epic Beowulf from the 10th century. Grendel has never gotten a very clear description and writers and filmmakers have given us many interpretations of the beast to choose from. John Gardner’s Grendel is the best by far, for in his little novel Grendel, he is the main character. We see his part of the Beowulf story through his eyes as he narrates his feelings and actions.

Grendel is a pathetic little monster, filled with loneliness and doubt. He hates the world, but the world does not even care. “ “Ah, sad one, poor old freak!” I cry, and hug myself, and laugh, letting out salt tears, he, he! till I fall down gasping and sobbing. (It’s mostly fake.)” Grendel points out to us that he doesn’t think that he is more noble than the deers that go at it again at springtime. He knows he is a monster, and fails to see any reason in it.

Grendel asks the dragon for help but realized that the old one is not his friend. “My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.” Eventually he keeps attacking the humans, inspired by the human storyteller (“the shaper”) who names him the big adversary of the Danes. Only this way Grendel could make a purpose for himself in the big cosmic show.

Grendel is a bittersweet tale, at once humoristic and sad. It is a short book, at times funny and with a flexible, unusual writing style. The Danes first mistake him for a fungus as he is hanging from a tree. He pesters the humans with glee but is convinced in the back of his head that nothing has any meaning. He revels in psychotic mindgames, talks to himself and has an unhealthy love/hate relationship with his mother. “(whispering, whispering. Grendel, has it occured to you my dear that you are crazy?)”

And when finally the big hero arrives, Beowulf, John Gardner describes him as utterly insane. For only a complete inner obsession with heroism can end Grendel’s nihilism. So what is there to live for, as Grendel asks himself? His road at least seems a dead end. The author, John Gardner, agrees that nihilism is not the answer, and he let Grendel put it in words: “Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”

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