by John Gardner.
Vintage, 1971, 1989.
Paperback, 192 pages, $14.

Reviewed by Pedro Blas González

Importance is derived from the immanence of infinitude in the finite. Expression, however—listen closely now—expression is founded on the finite occasion.

John Gardner, Grendel

John Gardner’s Grendel is a monster, foe of Beowulf, the protagonist in that classic work of the Old English canon. J. R. R. Tolkien is correct in his assessment that many critics have wrongly overstressed the merits of Beowulf as a historical document and not as a work of poetry. By considering Beowulf—a work of literature—as an allegory of good and evil, the plight of man in the cosmos, of “men caught in the chains of circumstance or of their own character, torn between duties equally sacred, dying with their backs to the wall,” Tolkien essentially downplays Beowulf as a historical document, and those critics who have made it a cottage industry of converting human imagination into fodder for social-political mania.

In Tolkien’s 1936 book Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, the creator of Middle-earth mythology and author of the Lord of the Rings places great emphasis on the monsters in the story: the Dragon and Grendel. Tolkien sizes up Beowulf—the creation of an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet—in the following way: “The illusion of historical truth and perspective, that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense—a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.The lovers of poetry can safely study the art, but the seekers after history must beware lest the glamour of Poesis overcome them.”

Tolkien’s judgment of Beowulf, literature, and story-telling seeks to understand what monstrosities, human and otherwise, may convey about the nature of man and our penchant for embracing contradictions.

Following in the same vein of Tolkien’s metaphysical regard for Beowulf, John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel retains the inspired heroism of Beowulf while solely focusing on Grendel’s point of view. Gardner’s novelistic Grendel takes an innovative approach that enhances our appreciation of Beowulf. The novel’s plot, place, and time are the same as in Beowulf. The drastic change, however, is the acerbic language of the novel. Gardner’s lyrical descriptions of Grendel’s worldview showcase the creature as morally gutted by the effects of his cynical relativism. Grendel’s smugness is often comical, but more often than not it is just tragic and pathetic. His moral superiority complex is a central component of Grendel’s character. No doubt Gardner took much enjoyment molding Grendel’s character from some of the real monstrosities that shaped the world at the time of writing, for the creature resembles the ethos of a committed postmodern intellectual.

The novel begins with Grendel taking delight in killing, maiming, slashing, and ripping apart his prey. Violent imagery, no doubt. Yet nothing in Gardner’s tale of a wily and crafty monster seems gratuitous. Gardner is a literary author. This is particularly important given that the protagonist of his fine novel is a monster who possesses what can be referred to as a well-developed historical sense of praxis. Lest we forget, the latter was Lucifer’s great innovation as a preternatural being and Lord of This World.

Gardner could have turned the monster into a dumb, amoral killing-machine, the kind that rules popular culture today. Instead, his Grendel is a postmodern denier of objective values. Absent is the cheap popular language of graphic novels and comic-book superheroes. Gardner’s Grendel is a loner who takes profound pleasure in a world fashioned by his perverted sense of entitlement. Whatever Grendel wants, he takes. Grendel’s epistemology is retribution at its finest.

Gardner employs an economy of poetic language to paint a vivid portrait of Grendel’s bitter weltanschauung. Throughout the novel, the reader is always aware of Grendel’s thoughts and emotions, which illustrate the monster’s predatory view of the world and his hatred for mankind. Praxis, Grendel no doubt understands, means leaving no stone unturned. His malignancy sees to it that no time is wasted in attaining worldly power and its attendant pleasure. Without a code of objective values to serve as a moral compass and guide him through life, Grendel’s great ability for autosuggestion makes it easy—actually enjoyable—for him to rationalize the absence of meaning and purpose in his life. Gardner’s monster is quasi human, given his awareness of right and wrong. In addition, Grendel’s thought and language coalesce into unity of action that is indicative of a premeditated, self-conscious morality.

Grendel is a Schopenhauer-esque philosophy turned into a dark tale of the absence of meaning and what this means to man’s morality and human behavior. Grendel’s life is not daunted by the absence of purpose, though. He fills the void created by his privation of meaning by amping up the function—some would argue the need for action—of one’s whose life is guided by monstrous beliefs.

Grendel harbors no illusions about the phenomenal world. He spends his days and nights trapped by his spirited suspicion of others. For instance, his lucid description of a ram, which he looks down upon as being stupid, is indicative of his own life: “He stares at as much of the world as he can see and feels it surging in him.” Grendel lives in his own head, as it were. Grendel’s crowded mind is perhaps best described by reference to Andrew Marvell’s “Thoughts in a Garden”: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/Does straight its own resemblance find.”

The monster’s philosophical violent pessimism—and the novel is a candy-store repository of such images—is tapered by Grendel’s blind will to exploit his human opponents. Grendel learns to take great pleasure in what he considers a futile, one-way trek through the cosmos. His stark morality is motivated by the thought of merely living for the moment. What can be more postmodern? The monster thinks of himself as a “shadow-shooter,” “earth-rim-roamer,” “walker of the world’s weird wall.” Grendel’s empty and sophomoric description of the world makes him a postmodern nihilist. It also makes him a pathetic creature. Keep in mind that Gardner’s novel was published in 1971, a turbulent time when the great manifestos of moral dissolution were taking root.

While not one to be self-effacing, Grendel does possess some capacity for self-knowledge. Early on in the novel the monster offers the reader a glimpse of the pitiful state of his despair through a dishonest mea culpa: “Not of course, that I fool myself with thoughts that I’m more noble. Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men, murdered children, martyred cows. (I am neither proud nor ashamed, understand. One more victim, leering at seasons that never were meant to be observed.) ‘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.’”

Gardner’s contention is that the modern world is replete with moral and social aberrations, monstrosities and monsters that we have come to embrace as brokers of normality. Grendel’s infinite freedom, or so he attests, is tempered by his cynicism towards virtue, moderation, and prudence. Why contain oneself when our will to power can unburden us from the weight of morality? After all, the postmodern worldview is measured by the expansive inventory of hedonistic pleasures that the present has to offer.

While the humans that Grendel targets as his victims find joy in their lives, Grendel merely perceives the world to be the object of his perception, that is, of his will for power. In Beowulf the protagonist fights Grendel on his own terms. Beowulf rips off the monster’s arm with his bare hands, not wanting to attack the monster with weapons. In Gardner’s Grendel, the monster extends this courtesy to his human adversaries. His greatest weapon is stealth and surprise as he stalks his human prey, merciless.

Grendel is pitiful yet sinister. What makes him such is not so much his actions but his thoughts. His worldview is criminal. If man is what he thinks, as some people are wont to say, then Grendel is a pathetic creature. When he tries to make sense of life, space, and time, he merely finds himself the recipient of dead-end beliefs: “Space hurls outward, falconswift, mounting like an irreversible injustice, a final disease.”

While dependent on Beowulf for its overarching meaning and cohesion, Gardner’s Grendel holds up very well as a novel. Grendel is a tale of envy and of the main character’s inability to embrace his own limitation. This is one clue to Grendel’s road to perdition. Grendel can be said to be ruled by devilish pride. There is much of the biblical Cain, brother of Abel, in Gardner’s Grendel. Because Grendel is alienated from man, it is next to impossible to say what kind of creature he might become. What is important, though, is that Gardner found it necessary to re-tell this classic tale of the interplay between good and evil. Grendel may be a monster, but he is a calculative one. His constantly having to plot his next exploit keeps him from the possibility of attaining joy.

Grendel is a novel that is fraught with metaphysical and existential themes. The creature itself is tormented by thoughts of them. The monster convinces himself that priests who possess no convictions while serving the gods of the Scyldings are rife for killing, given their incredulity. After a long passage where the monster ruminates on the nature of religion and belief, he says, “I have eaten several priests. They sit on the stomach like duck eggs.”

Grendel’s greatest cynicism is fueled by his reaction to man’s regard for heroism. Gardner is poignant in his portrayal of heroism that springs from the fulfillment of human struggle not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. The hero undertakes difficulty because it is the nature of human limitation that demands it. Gardner refers to “inner heroism” as the hero’s ability to accept human limitation in dignified silence. Grendel scoffs at this, and says that he will act just to spite those who hold this belief. Genuine heroism finds its lasting expression, then, not through action but in its embrace of objective values.

The underlying dominant theme of Gardner’s Grendel is the clash between importance and expression. While importance is objective, underscoring the reality of man’s existence; expression is just a byproduct of the here-and-now. Grendel is repulsed by the former as much as he embraces the latter.

Grendel’s existence, on the other hand, reverberates in ennui. His boredom is the outcome of his perverse values. No doubt, Grendel expresses himself much as the modish craze for self-expression that we profess in our own time. But what he expresses is nothing more than his reaction to the tide of passing sensuality; the vagaries of space and time. Grendel’s expression is nothing more than a vibrant display of megalomania. Even the Dragon, who gives Grendel a course on metaphysics, accuses the monster of not being interested in anything serious: “Nothing interests you but excitement, violence.” Nothing in this form of expression says anything of genuine individuality; when expression is not rooted in importance, not immanence.

Gardner offers us a tale told by an idiot. The novel is Grendel’s story. The tragedy, the author suggests, is that even idiots can paint monstrosities into palatable forms of expression. Regrettably, we are reminded, monstrosities grow if unabated by a gravitas, the nemeses of unfounded expression. This is why old tales must be re-told.  

Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.