Book name: Grendel
Author: John Gardner
Publisher: Alfred A Knopf/Gollancz
Format: ebook, print, audiobook
Genre: Fantasy, literature
Publication Date: 1971
Star Rating: 5/5
Voicing the unvoiced from classic literature has become quite a popular pastime in recent decades, but the original narratives that first made this popular still claim a special place in my heart.
Grendel is the monster from the epic poem Beowulf, who terrorises King Hrothgar and his men. The monster is eventually killed, but Beowulf is told entirely from the human point of view.
In Grendel by John Gardner, however, the narrative is written in the first person, with Grendel himself telling the tale.
Grendel lives with his mother in a cave beneath the lake of firesnakes. He emerges to kill cattle and sheep, to listen and watch the men in Hrothgar’s meadhall and to ruminate on the sheer pointlessness of existence.
Such a story could be heavy indeed, but Grendel takes more joy in life than he realises. He is gleefully satisfied when one man, Unreth, swims down through the lake and locates the cave.
Unreth is determined to die gloriously killing the monster and earn his place in legend. This is something that Grendel guesses, and he then subverts it by carrying him home to Hrothgar’s hall and leaving Unreth alive on the steps.
From then on, the two engage in an uneven battle, with Grendel sparing Unreth whenever he kills Hrothgar’s men. This is not an act of sympathy on Grendel’s part, but an unremitting determination to be a cruel as possible. Unreth becomes desperate and obsessed in return.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, Grendel just really wants to belong. He becomes cynical and even more violent when he is rebuffed by men. As with Shelley’s monster, he lingers at windows listening and watching the lives of men without being able to join them.
The relationship between men and Grendel takes many twists and turns. When they first encounter him, Grendel has become trapped by his foot in an oak tree.
Their initial assumption is that he is an oak spirit, attached to the tree and possibly killing it. They worship him, afraid of what attacking him would mean for their harvest.
However, repeated attacks on the meadhall change the relationship that the men have with Grendel. He is othered, declared an enemy.
The recognition that he speaks their language gives the men pause for thought, yet ultimately his attacks on them mean that he must die.
Grendel is often analysed in terms of existentialism and alienation from the universe. It is true that Grendel has grown cynical and bitter, and he is inclined to reflect on the universe as a cold and unfeeling place.
However, Grendel was not born that way. He tries to reach out to men, but is rebuffed. He enjoys more success conversing with a dragon he finds sitting on a hoard of gold. He remains curious about the universe and has an excellent sense of humour. He is alive to irony and the absurd.
In many ways, Grendel is better than we. He hunts to eat, and is shocked by how men kill each other for sport or for territory. He tries to store the bodies of men killed by other men to avoid letting the meat go to waste.
He is critical of our relationship with each other and with the environment. He is portrayed as being far more reflective than men, as an outsider who can see things about our lives more clearly than we can.
He is presented as far more honest and objective than the Shaper, the storyteller who rewrites history to flatter and glorify Hrothgar.
There is plenty of humour in Grendel. Most of it is ironic, my personal favourite being his treatment of Unreth.
Grendel is not a long book, but funny and painful in equal measure. To be othered and excluded is a cruel and unpleasant experience, so it is right that it should be so.
However, the story is more life affirming than it is often given credit for. The lives of men are seen to be pointless, but Grendel is full of energy and determination right to the end. In every sense, his was a story that deserved to be told.
Thank you for reading my review of Grendel by John Gardner.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested reading in my article about sigils in fantasy fiction (Truth Stranger Than Fiction).
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