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John Gardner’s Grendel

A swamp troll with cannibalistic tendencies kidnapped me and held me captive in his underwater lair for about 4 months – that, anyway, is my excuse for not having written anything for this blog in so long.  (Note: replace ‘swamp troll’ with ‘dissertation chapter’ and this all makes more sense.)

I have escaped, however, and on the subject of angry swamp trolls, I’m sharing my thoughts on a book I recently reread, John Gardner’s Grendel (1979).  Forced to read Grendel in high school, my only appreciation for this book used to be for its length (only 174 pages) and large typeface.  This was, however, before I read Beowulf, either in Old English or in translation.  Returning to this novel after falling in love with Old English poetry (and becoming slightly obsessed about Beowulf), the story made a lot more sense.  Grendel made a lot more sense.  I realised what a treat Mr Gardner had to offer monster-loving heorðgeneatas.

I guess I should begin by saying there are ‘spoilers’ in this post, as much as there can be spoilers for a story that’s already over a thousand years old.  If you’ve already read Beowulf, nothing should be a huge surprise here.  This is the story about how a monster becomes a monster – or does he?

*Note: There is no equivalent of ‘monster’ in Old English, only different types of scary things which may or may not fall into that category – aglæca (‘hostile attacker’ or something along those lines – can be applied to heroes like Beowulf, however), eoten (‘giant’), feond (‘fiend’), etc.

But back to what appeals to me about Gardner’s Grendel.

– Alliterative verse:  Gardner is a master imitator of Anglo-Saxon poetic verse.  Take the line, ‘Him too I hate, the same as I hate these brainless budding trees, these brattling birds’.  H H (caesura) H, B B (caesura) B.  Beautiful alliteration.  You have the two stressed alliterative words in the first half of the ‘line’ followed by one stressed alliterative word in the second half.  This sentence is just like 2 lines (or 4 half-lines) of Old English verse!

Another great sentence: ‘He sings to a heavier harpsong now, old heart-string scratcher, memory scraper.’  This sentence combines alliterative verse with kennings…

– Kennings:  A kenning is a compound of 2 words that creates a lovely metaphor.  Some examples in Old English are woruldcandel (‘world-candle’), banhus (‘bone-house’) and hwælweg (‘whale-road’), which mean respectively ‘sun’, ‘body’ and ‘sea’.  Gardner creates his own kennings.  Grendel is a ‘shadow-shooter’ and an ‘earth-rim-roamer’.

– Are the Grendel-kin human?  Grendel describes his mother, ‘Life-bloated, baffled, long-suffering hag.  Guilty, she imagines, of some unremembered, perhaps ancestral crime.  (She must have some human in her.)’  Gardner hints at the Grendel-kin’s connection to that original crime of kin-killing, Cain’s murder of Abel, which also reminds us that even Cain was human.  How different from us (humans) are the Grendel-kin really?  Are they at all?

– Speech:  Grendel hears human speech for the first time: ‘The sounds were foreign at first, but when I calmed myself, concentrating, I found I understood them: it was my own language, but spoken in a strange way….’  Although we have no sense in the original Beowulf that Grendel can understand or communicate with speech, here we see him recognising his own voice in these strangers.  His mother, on the other hand, had ‘forgotten all language long ago, or maybe had never known any’.  Is the younger generation more human?

Later, however, Grendel becomes angry at the wilful destruction wrought by the humans, and this fills him with ‘a wordless, obscurely murderous unrest’.  He becomes frustrated: ‘We, the accursed, didn’t even have words for swearing in!’  He cannot voice his anger, only responding with ‘AAARGH!’

– Grendel values life and doesn’t like to waste it:  Grendel hates the way the humans have battles and slaughter each other and then slaughter their enemies’ livestock, pointlessly taking lives.  ‘I was sickened,’ he says, ‘if only at the waste of it: all they killed – cows, horses, men – they left it to rot or burn.  I sacked all I could and tried to store it, but my mother would growl and make faces because of the stink.’

– Bleeding trees:  I have to bring this up because it’s one of my obsessions (see previous blog post ‘Bloody trees’).  The child Grendel is stuck in a tree.  He has hurt his leg and is bleeding.  Before noticing Grendel the Danes see his blood on the bark.  One says, ‘See there where it grows up out of the trunk?  Sap running all over.’  Another says, ‘It’s like blood.’  Hello, aprocryphal and apocalyptic imagery!

– The issue of truth:  In Beowulf Unferth questions the Geatish hero’s stories about his great feats of valour and strength.  In Grendel we also encounter the issue of truth in the stories of heroism.  Grendel hears the scop sing for the first time and says, ‘When he finished, the hall was as quiet as a mound.  I too was silent, my ear pressed tight against the timbers.  Even to me, incredibly, he had made it all seem true and very fine.’  Emphasis, of course, on the word ‘seem’.

‘What was he?’ Grendel asks himself of the scop.  ‘The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way – and so did I.’  Finally he flees the meadhall, ‘ridiculous hairy creature torn apart by poetry’.  That is why Grendel hates Heorot’s songs: they rewrite the past, they fill memory with lies.

– The scop:  The scop, or ‘Shaper’, ‘…built this hall by the power of his songs: created with casual words its grave mor(t)ality.’  He shapes history and truth; he gives longevity to one group while leaving another to be forgotten.  ‘He reshapes the world,’ says Grendel.  ‘He stares strange-eyed at the mindless world and turns dry sticks into gold.’  Such is the power of the storyteller.

The scop’s poetry is what makes Grendel turn evil.  ‘He told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light.  And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect.  The terrible race God cursed.  I believed him.’  Stories are sung and villains are made.

– The dragon:  The dragon sits on his gold hoard philosophising about the universe.  He tries to explain to Grendel, but has difficulties, and he voices an idea I wish more people considered when imagining those notorious Middle Ages: ‘It’s damned hard, you understand, confining myself to concepts familiar to a creature of the Dark Ages.  Not that one age is darker than another.  Technical jargon from another dark age.’

– A monster is made:  Who in fact are the monsters?  Grendel says of Hrothgar’s men, ‘I’d meant them no harm, but they’d attacked me again, as always.  They were crazy.’  It is at this point that Grendel starts killing for pleasure.  ‘I had become something,’ he says, ‘as if born again.  I had hung between possibilities before, between the cold truths I knew and the heart-sucking conjuring tricks of the Shaper; now that was passed: I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings!’  He defines himself as the scop once did in his fantasies of good-versus-evil.   He is the one who shows him ‘reality’ to counter the scop’s words.  ‘Grendel the truth-teacher, phantasm-tester!’

The dragon explains Grendel’s role in human society: ‘You improve them, my boy!  Can’t you see that yourself?  You stimulate them!  You make them think and scheme!  You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last.  You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.’

This is why we need our monsters.


3 comments on “John Gardner’s Grendel

  1. Shannon
    December 7, 2012

    Nice. I’ll share this with my monster-making friend Jeremy Warren. ( He also ponders on why we need monsters.

  2. Jester
    January 21, 2014

    This is why we need our monsters.

    Ironically, going by Gardner’s own statements, the point here actually seems to be that we need our myths, and that Grendel is a monster because he’s allowed himself to be enamoured of the Dragon’s nihilist denial of their validity, culminating of course, in Beowulf’s ultimately defeating Grendel, verbally dismembering the concept of a meaningless universe that the latter clings to in the process.

    • beoshewulf
      January 22, 2014

      That’s an interesting point. I’m not wholly convinced that Grendel has chosen to believe in the concept of a meaningless universe, however. The Dragon’s words do seduce him, but I think if he wanted to avoid being part of the ‘myth’ he wouldn’t cast himself so completely into the role of the monster. And although Grendel is defeated, in this novel the Dragon remains at large. What does it mean then if Beowulf kills but is also killed by the Dragon at the end? A win for the meaningless universe? Thanks for your thought-provoking comment.

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This entry was posted on November 17, 2012 by in Blood, Monsters and tagged , , , , , , , .
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