Review: Grendel

grendel_cover20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 4

I hesitate to call John Gardner’s Grendel a modern Beowulf from the perspective of the monster, though that’s the first description to come to mind. The open secret among English majors is that Beowulf is a snooze despite its historical value. Happily, Grendel is funny and smart, and creates a sympathetic portrait of one of literature’s original villains. This novel follows Grendel’s 12-year war with Hrothgar and his conflicting emotions towards the men he watches from afar. It begins with Grendel’s irritation towards the slow-witted forest creatures who cannot understand his language and mistake him for a monster:

The doe in the clearing goes stiff at the sight of my horridness, then remembers her legs and is gone. It makes me cross. “Blind prejudice!” I bawl at the splintered sunlight where half a second ago she stood. I wring my fingers, put on a long face. “Ah, the unfairness of everything,” I say, and shake my head. It is a matter of fact that I have never killed a deer in all my life, and never will. Cows have more meat and, locked up in pens, are easier to catch. (7-8)

Though Grendel is intelligent and philosophical (he’s modeled on Sartre), he has no outlet for his mind. His mother (another villain of Beowulf) is old and unable to speak. Grendel’s prose paints her as an ugly, pitiable creature, but he calls for her like a child when in trouble. With no other companions, Grendel is fascinated by men and their culture even as his attempts to speak with them end badly. The final turn comes when Grendel finds a dead man and picks him up (presumably to eat later) before charging into Hrothgar’s hall to beg for peace. Seeing the corpse in his arms, the men attack and drive him away. Grendel feels more alone than ever:

I looked up through the treetops, ludicrously hopeful. I think I was half prepared, in my dark, demented state, to see God, bearded and grey as geometry, scowling down at me, shaking his bloodless finger.
“Why can’t I have someone to talk to?” I said. The stars said nothing, but I pretended to ignore the rudeness. “The Shaper has people to talk to,” I said. I wrung my fingers. “Hrothgar has people to talk to.”
I thought about it.
Perhaps it wasn’t true. (53)

Grendel consoles himself that no one understands the Shaper and that Hrothgar’s sons will betray his ideals, but it’s not enough. After a dreamy sequence in which he slips down through the earth, Grendel finds the dragon in what may be my favorite passage of the book:

Vanishing away across invisible floors, there were things of gold, gems, jewels, silver vessels the color of blood in the undulant, dragon-red light. Arching above him the ceiling and upper walls of his cave were alive with bats. The color of his sharp scales darkened and brightened as the dragon inhaled and exhaled slowly, drawing new air across his vast internal furnace; his razorsharp tusks gleamed and glinted as if they too, like the mountain beneath him, were formed of precious stones and metals. (57)

Love this description—Gardner’s writing is consistently top notch and imaginative. The dragon explains that Grendel’s midnight raids on Hrothgar’s meadhall cast him as the “brute existent by which [men] learn to define themselves”. (73) It’s an interesting chat, but having the characters describe themselves in such a way makes it feel like Grendel is doing my lit homework for me which crimps my summer-reading-is-fun vibe. It’s hard to turn off the mental red pen and highlighter when reading the back half of Grendel. I appreciate that Grendel is so self-aware and I enjoy philosophy, but there’s no room for interpretation when Gardner shoves it all in your face. That said, there’s a little levity to keep things from getting too literary. The dragon’s final advice:

In some way that I couldn’t explain, I knew that his scorn of my childish credulity was right.
“Nevertheless, something will come of all this,” I said.
“Nothing,” he said. “A brief pulsation in the black hole of eternity. My advice to you—”
“Wait and see,” I said.
He shook his head. “My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.” (74)

By the time Grendel is tying a tablecloth around his neck as a napkin before diving in for a slaughter, you kind of love him a little. He’s a much richer character than anyone in Beowulf and I’m sorry that my distaste for the original kept me away from this book for so long.

Overall: 4.4 (out of 5) I slid off a few points for the heavy-handed philosophical bits. I enjoy philosophy, but it feels pretentious, like Gardner can’t escape his own cleverness. That aside, this book is brilliantly written. Grendel’s portrayal is complicated and fascinating. Despite his status as a monster, he feels very human at times and it’s impossible to not care about his well-being.

Translation: Read it.

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Previously On:
Book 3: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
Book 2: A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Book 1: The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier