Reshaping the World:
John Gardner’s Grendel
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
Among the many innovations of twentieth-century Modernism, the recasting of old texts in strikingly new contexts resulted in fascinating and original ways to conceive of ourselves and once again made the novel into something truly novel. James Joyce’s Ulysses was loosely patterned on Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, the former book’s protagonist Leopold Bloom standing as a complex contrast to the classical Odysseus, with the reader’s knowledge of the Homeric hero playing off of the book’s information by filling in the backing framework and creating expectations that Joyce very cleverly manipulated and made new. Just three years after Ulysses, one of Joyce’s most vocal acolytes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, published The Great Gatsby, which is similarly based on The Satyricon, a first-century Roman novel attributed to Petronius that serves as a byword for its era’s decadence. While the Modernists used these ancient works as a kind of thematic touchstone, more recent writers have created alternate or intertwining versions of classic works. In 1966, Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, a kind of prequel to Jane Eyre that took up the young Bertha and attempted to give her a richer existence than the one she suffered in the Charlotte Brontë novel. Much more indelibly, however, John Gardner’s 1972 novel Grendel retells the Old-English Beowulf story in the voice of the monster himself, creating a character and a work that—amazingly—compete with the original in both narrative and imaginative power.
There are in fact three monsters in the Beowulf epic—Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and an unnamed dragon—and although Grendel is the first and easiest to be killed in the original poem, Gardner lets him tell the story from his warped, peripheral perspective as if his experience were the very center of the tale, as all of our perspectives are. A frustrated and solitary creature, Grendel howls at the stupidity of the beasts and humans who inhabit the land around him, and although he’s largely just a brutish and grotesque figure, he’s nonetheless a higher life-form whose broader perspective affords him a deep understanding of the humans’ insane folly. They can’t understand his speech, but he can understand theirs, and his long lifespan allows him to observe the humans’ patterns and progressions on both a small and a large scale, their incremental shifts and consolidations of power shocking both Grendel and the reader with their short-sighted brutality. Grendel is especially astonished by how humans use theories to guide and justify their sickening actions, his longer view unveiling their manipulative and self-destructive use of ideas and revealing the purposeful inhumanity that propels these human beings into the purposeless abyss.
|An illuminated manuscript of Beowulf|
Entrancing Grendel even more than they repulse him, the humans accompany and abet their ceaseless slaughter with an epic retelling of events that shapes it all into a gorgeously seductive narrative. Known as “the Shaper” (a literal translation of the Old-English word “scop”), the resident poet entertains and flatters the current king with illustrious and heroic tales of the king’s own conquests, the singer’s harp-accompanied verse versions lulling not just the humans with their artistry, but Grendel as well, who becomes obsessed with the Shaper’s marvelous reshapings. Perhaps recalling Franz Kafka’s portrayal of Gregor Samsa in his story “The Metamorphosis,” with Gregor’s dual higher and lower natures soaring alongside his sister’s violin playing, Grendel’s susceptibility to the Shaper’s magic reveals at once his finer sensitivities and his simple-minded propensity for being hypnotized by artistically hewn lies—this double-edged susceptibility mirroring our own as readers of fine literature and believers in flattering mythologies about ourselves and our civilization.
Delving into the deepest heart of darkness, Grendel leaves the human world for a while and descends far into the bowls of the earth, where he meets a dragon whose utterly terrifying conversation takes the reader on a trip through the underworld that surely stands alongside any in classical or medieval literature. A fatalist in the deepest and most nihilistic sense of the word, the dragon expounds upon a philosophy of meaninglessness that removes any agency or purpose from any possible choice or action. A kind of prophetic visionary, he can foresee all events, past and future, including his own death, and he explains to Grendel that even his knowledge can’t forestall anything that’s been laid out. If he were to attempt to thwart his fated death, he would merely be bringing it about more surely by falling into its inexorable steps. The dragon is a higher life-form than Grendel, and much of this conversation goes over Grendel's head, his mind drifting off as all this abstract thought fails to capture his imagination in the way that the Shaper’s entrancing words do, but Grendel retains an infected residue of this worldview as he re-ascends to the human world and moves toward the death awaiting him at the hands of the newly arriving hero, who is fated to become the subject of the Beowulf epic that inspired Grendel’s own tale.
It’s difficult to tell which is more sick, the publicly espoused lies that further the ends of brutality, or the resigned but sophisticated nihilism of prophecy and philosophy, but by juxtaposing and entwining them, Gardner paints a grim picture of a species so lost in words that it has very little concept of the true meaning of its actions. By putting all of this old wine into a new fictional skin, though, Gardner strikes deep into our self-recognition and tries to reawaken us to ourselves. But can we truly see it? Grendel entrances as a work of art as surely as any Shaper’s song, and even though it tells deeper truths, it’s possible that its art and its philosophy simply leave us ravished rather than reshaped. Like David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, which endlessly entertains us while warning us of the dangers of endless entertainment, Grendel straddles a tricky line. Like Wallace, Gardner was a fierce moralist but also a master artist capable of spinning mesmerizing fictional webs. Gardner even once condemned Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow—a novel that contains profound moral and historical criticism within its arc of mindless pleasures—as decadent and amoral entertainment. And Wallace, a thoroughly didactic Dostoyevskian, leveled similar criticisms against Pynchon, who was very unsecretly his idol. There’s just no pleasing some moralists.
So what do we take from these novels—and from Grendel in particular? Do we change our lives, or do we change our minds, or do we just keep turning the pages, in love with the sound of the Shaper’s voice? Is there any way to truly awaken from the nightmare of history and reshape the world in the way that the great novels do? Perhaps not. Grendel certainly doesn’t wake up to pull away from the matrix that artfully slaughters him and everyone else within its sphere, and neither do we as we repeatedly follow our politicians into yet more artificially manufactured wars. But maybe the shock of this novel can open our eyes—if only to the dragon’s fatalistic vision of the future, which we may not be able to change or opt out of but at least can perceive and experience with clearer and finer senses.