Grendel by John Gardner
This short novel reimagines the the old English poem Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. Grendel is the eponymous protagonist, in the original a bloodthirsty giant ape-man cannibal with a mad-on for anyone who hangs out in a mead hall, here instead a solitary philosopher of a monster who watches the rise of the court of Danish king Hrothgar in all its bloody self interest and wonders where he stands in relation to it.
The first half of the book has Grendel introduce himself (and his mad, monstrous mother) to the reader and take us with him on his rambling journeys as he travels the land, developing pet theories to explain the nature of existence at the same time as experiencing its violence and enacting violence upon it.
The arrival of a storyteller at Hrothgar’s court begins to codify Grendel’s place in their society as an avatar of evil and, though initially resistant and a little resentful, after an encounter with a powerful dragon who lives outside of time and who can see the future, Grendel embraces the role thrust upon him and devotes himself to becoming the murderous – though still skeptical – villain of the piece, spying on court intrigues, passing silent and cynical judgement and murdering soldiers – until his inevitable encounter with Beowulf, the hero destined to slay him.
I first read Grendel 20 years ago without knowing more than the bare outlines of the legend (something along the lines of “monster kills heaps of people until a hero rips his arm off”). I was prompted to come back to it after finally reading the poem that inspired it, and I’m really glad I did. Turns out Gardner was a Beowulf scholar – his intimacy with the source material is evident if you know what you’re looking for (not that I claim to have fully decoded this intricate work – cursory examination of criticism of Grendel has shown me that there’s a lot to this little novel, which doesn’t surprise me). It feels smart. Also funny and playful and kind, if you can say that sort if thing about a book starring a literal monster who tears people apart with his hands and eats them. In this instance I’m confident you can.
The “internal monologue of the badguy reveals them to be not so bad after all” trope is pretty played out these days, but Gardner’s take on humanising the monster doesn’t feel obvious or forced – maybe because it was written in ’71 or maybe because he’s just a really good writer. I wasn’t as convinced by his portrayal of Beowulf as an avatar or death or Fate (or the Dragon – it’s a little complicated to be honest) – I thought it did disservice to the depth he has, and the journey he takes, in the original poem. Still, you could make a case for this being Beowulf at the height of his youth and arrogance at the start of his own transformation from brash unthinking hero to (spoilers?) wise and weary king or something if you wanted to. It’s not a biggie – this is Grendel’s story, not Beowulf’s, so a depiction of Grendel’s murderer as a baddie is kind of fair enough.
Anyway. Great book. You should read it, then read the poem it’s based on, then read it again. Then read the poem again too.
Highly, HIGHLY recommended.
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