The early Anglo-Saxons didn’t demand much from their monsters beyond being big and scary, so John Gardner had a clear canvas when he wrote Grendel. It is, of course, Beowulf’s most famous villain telling his side of the story in a prequel of sorts. You won’t be surprised by what it is, but rather how well it works. This little novel is a haunting piece of existential writing.
Once it gains traction, however. Grendel’s sometimes wonky descriptions (“[my mother's] smell poured in like blood into a silver cup, filling the moonlit clearing to the brim”) make the initial reading slow-going and frankly obnoxious until he encounters man. Thankfully, he’s not as hilariously eloquent as Frankenstein’s monster– not the cinematic “Fire Bad” version, you see, but the Mary Shelley ”Sirs, I Find Your Threat Of Immolation Distressing” version. Actually, this book functions much in the same way as the latter part of Frankenstein. It seeks not to excuse the monster’s savagery, but rather explain by intimate, sympathetic means how it sprang from human scorn. I dare say it does this even better.
How the Grinch Stole Christians
It’s easier to endear a murderous narrator to the reader when his victims seem like silly, vicious, drunken mooks before you even consider his perspective. Grendel is blessed with speech but cursed with the need to communicate, and while humans are the only ones who might talk back, Grendel’s appearance inspires more javelin throwing than conversation. So he becomes a watcher– amused, disgusted, and fascinated by the struggles of Dark-Age humanity in King Hrothgar’s growing dominion. From humble beginnings, Hrothgar gathers his power over the years, amassing gold and loyal thanes while constructing roads to the corners of his kingdom.
But Grendel’s heart shrank three sizes one day. “The Shaper” arrives at Hrothgar’s kingdom to sing mesmerizing songs of past conquest (“Lies!” as Grendel observes) and preach the gospel. Grendel even finds himself enthralled by the artful storytelling, and when The Shaper references him as a cursed being descended from Cain, Grendel is filled with self-loathing and bitterness: “It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and… that brothers had fought, that one of the races was saved, the other cursed. Yet he, the old Shaper, might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, his cunning trickery.”
Later Grendel encounters a temporally omniscient dragon that says “Boobies.” And yes, it’s the same one that will eventually slay and be slain by Beowulf. This meeting is one of the high points of the novel, wherein the dragon imparts that he’s witnessed the world’s end and that there’s no purpose to existence, yet he tells Grendel he should just go do as he pleases. The frustrated Grendel asks, “But why?”
So the heart of the story is Grendel’s being torn between a Christian dogma that explains his existence as an abomination and his uneasy belief that the world is meaningless. This is brilliant considering that Beowulf was a poem theologically at odds with itself, being a story of pagan heroism set down and re-interpreted by a Christian scribe.
Exterminate the Jutes!
So Gardner does great things with the original poem, even making sense of some enduring perplexities. The novel explains why the unstoppable beast bothers to torment the Danes for over a year when he could reasonably wipe them all out in one night’s work: “What will we call the Hrothgar-Wrecker when Hrothgar has been wrecked?”
It also explains how Unferth, Denmark’s bravest hombre before Beowulf shows up, would still be alive. After a humiliating face-off with Grendel, Unferth makes the exhausting swim down to the monster’s lair to seek a heroic death. Grendel picks him up like a child and carries him back to Herot. At every raid thereafter, our angsty beast makes it a point to slaughter all challengers except Unferth.
But Beowulf. His appearance in this thing is unforgettable.
I cruised through the Amazon reviews for this book and saw the occasional high school student being a hater. Maybe a sub-par teacher ruined the book for them, I wonder. I don’t presume to be a good educator by any means, but when I see a negative review of this book, I want to kick down that classroom door and and leap in, wailing on my flying-V guitar under crisscrossing gouts of pyrotechnics, for Beowulf and Grendel are fucking righteous, boys and girls, and if you give me an hour I’m-a tell you why.
Read it if
1. You’re looking for a great existential novel,
2. You’re ready to feel bad for the bad guy.