“I touch the door with my fingertips and it bursts, for all its fire-forged bands–it jumps away like a terrified deer–and I plunge into the silent, hearth-lit hall with a laugh that I wouldn’t much care to wake up to myself…. I am swollen with excitement, bloodlust and joy and a strange fear that mingle in my chest like the twisting rage of a bone-fire.”
With words like these, John Gardner brings to life Grendel, the villain of the ancient Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. The creature, a mix of animalistic brutality and human intelligence, tells his own story–his life in the cave with his mute mother, his first meetings with Hrothgar’s people, the cruel vengeance he wreaks upon them, and the encounter that deprives him of his arm and ultimately his life.
In flashbacks and stream of consciousness stories, Grendel gives us the tale of his childhood. He is a curious and observant creature, living in a dark cave with a mother who can only communicate with mutters and signs. Grendel resents his mother for her inability to communicate. He begins to learn of the outside world, observing King Hrothgar’s people, the Scyldings, from afar. One day, while exploring in the forest, his leg gets wedged in a forked tree. An angry bull charges at him, goring him again and again while he helplessly tries to twist out of the bull’s reach. In that moment, comes Grendel’s epiphany:
“I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly–as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink.–An ugly god pitifully dying in a tree!”
Grendel espouses the existential philosophy and becomes his own god–a god that creates the universe and, coincidentally enough, is dying in a tree. Men from Hrothgar’s hall arrive and nearly finish the work the bull has begun, until Grendel’s mother savagely rushes upon the scene and rescues her disillusioned progeny.
After this incident, Grendel’s fascination with the Scyldings continues to grow. As he spies on them, a discovery shakes his new philosophy. Hrothgar’s bard, whom Grendel calls the Shaper, sings a song “of battles, of marriages, of funerals and hangings, the whimperings of beaten enemies, of splendid hunts and harvests. He sang of Hrothgar, hoarfrost white, mgnificent of mind.” Grendel soaks in the beauty of the song and creeps away, his “mind aswim in ringing phrases, magnificent, golden.” The world this man had created with his words was not the world Grendel had created–and the beauty of it gives him a longing for it to be real.
Puzzling over the Shaper’s words, Grendel visits the cave of the Dragon, only to be confirmed in his existential philosophy. “What god?” replies the Dragon, when Grendel asks him about the God of the Shaper’s world. Grendel is the only being that can give meaning to his life, though in the Dragon’s view, meaning does not even exist. Life is “a brief pulsation in the black hole of eternity,” and all anyone can do is “seek out gold and sit on it.”
After the Dragon convinces Grendel that nothing matters (and puts a spell on him so that no weapon can pierce his skin), Grendel’s bestial nature gains the upper hand. He raids Hrothgar’s hall, soaking it in the blood of the victims he devours. Unferth, the bravest of Hrothgar’s warriors, attempts to win a hero’s name for himself by slaying Grendel. The monster, seeing Unferth’s desire, mocks him for it and refuses to even give him the satisfaction of a hero’s death. For a short time, the beauty of Hrothgar’s new queen Wealtheow shakes Grendel out of his nihilism, but the Dragon’s words come ringing back, and the only thing that keeps Grendel from slaughtering the queen is the knowledge that there would be no meaning in it if he did.
For twelve years, Grendel afflicts Hrothgar’s land until the arrival of a band of strangers, one of them a beardless giant of a man. Although beset by an intangible fear, Grendel resolves to attack these strangers in the hall. But when he reaches to seize a sleeping warrior, the iron grip he receives in return is more than he bargained for. Grendel’s last struggle gives more than a deathblow; it gives a refutation of the Dragon and everything that he believes. Grendel may be an “ugly god dying in a tree,” but Beowulf’s grip proves to him that he can neither create nor control his own universe.
John Gardner’s writing blends the warrior poetry of the Anglo-Saxons with the stark prose of the twentieth century. The short, clipped sentences blend seamlessly with the alliterations and kennings. Gardner uses the language of the story as a tool to reflect the psychological change in Grendel. At the beginning of the story, when Grendel is under the spell of the Shaper, the prose has a nobility and a grandeur that rivals the ancient epic itself. But after Grendel’s meeting with the dragon, after he has accepted that life is without meaning, the prose itself begins to disintegrate into a confusion reminiscent of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. This work is well worth the read for Beowulf aficionados or dabblers in philosophy.