As winter bites I’m recommending a dark book for a dark time of year – “Grendel” by John Gardner. My previous choice (“Black Ships”) was a novel based on an epic poem in Latin (Virgil’s “Aeneid”) retold from a woman’s point of view; this time I’ve gone for a novel based on the great Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf” (see my Fantasy Reads post of June 2014) told from a monster’s point of view. “Grendel” was first published in 1971 and reprinted in the Fantasy Masterworks series in 2015, with a perceptive introduction by Adam Roberts. You can get this as an ebook but I cherish my battered Picador paperback which has a wonderfully sinister cover illustration by Michael Leonard and semi-abstract illustrations by Emil Antonucci.
Like the complex poem it is based on, “Grendel” doesn’t have a straightforward linear narrative. The story is told by the monster himself as he looks back on the events and encounters which led to his reign of terror. In Dark Age Daneland (Denmark), in caverns below a lake filled with fire-snakes, a wordless water-hag gave birth to a son called Grendel. As he grows, this son becomes bored with the clinging company of his devoted mother and the “putrid stinking hole” they live in. He begins to explore the forest surrounding their lake. An attack by a wild bull leads to Grendel’s first meeting with a group of humans led by a warrior called Hrothgar. Grendel’s attempts to communicate with them fail and he has to be rescued by his mother.
Grendel spends years secretly watching the humans who encroach on his forest. He learns about murder and war as he sees rival groups destroy each other. Most ruthless of all is Hrothgar who gradually makes himself the greatest power in the area. A blind harpist arrives at Hrothgar’s meadhall and sings of the glories of the ancient kings of Daneland. King Hrothgar is inspired to believe that he is the ruler destined to bring peace and prosperity to his country. He decides to build a magnificent new meadhall on a hill overlooking the sea. When the hall is finished, the harpist, whom Grendel calls the Shaper, sings of God’s creation of the world and how an ancient feud between brothers (Cain and Abel) first “split all the world between darkness and light”. Grendel, a descendant of Cain, longs to come into the light but when he tries to enter the hall people perceive him as a monster and drive him away.
Grendel still yearns to believe in “the hopeful dreams” of the Shaper but is disillusioned during a conversation with the great dragon who can see past, present and future. The dragon claims that nothing Grendel does will make any difference in the end but still encourages him to scare people “into glory” by acting the monster. When Grendel next gets into a fight with Hrothgar’s soldiers, he discovers that he has become almost invulnerable. For twelve long years Grendel makes murderous night-attacks on Hrothgar’s hall and no-one is able stop him. Then fifteen strangers arrive in Daneland and their mighty leader offers to guard Hrothgar’s hall. Suddenly, “it’s a whole new game” for Grendel….
Is it worth trying this novel if you haven’t read “Beowulf”? My answer is – yes. It helps if you have a basic knowledge of the legend of “Beowulf versus the monsters” but even this isn’t essential. Plot-wise, Grendel himself tells you all you need to know. You may also be worrying that the characters in “Grendel” will speak in archaic and poetic language that is hard to understand. Well, there are some passages of poetry but most of the time Grendel pokes fun at the human tendency to make speeches that are “long-winded, tediously poetic, all lies”. John C.Gardner (1933-1982) was a professor of English literature who specialized in Old and Middle English but he wasn’t a tweedy type – he died in a motorbike accident. He was capable of producing brilliant pastiches of Anglo-Saxon poetry but “Grendel” is also full of contemporary language and deliberate anachronisms. So the dragon explains his views on the universe in scientific terms and a rebellious peasant uses modern political jargon. Though short (120 pages) “Grendel” is a very wordy book but one in which the impact of every word is carefully calculated.
At first glance the original black and white illustrations in “Grendel” look like meaningless squiggles but once you examine them carefully you begin to see the shape of a huge hairy beast. Antonucci’s drawings don’t just show you the monster they illustrate the main theme of the story – Grendel’s search in an uncaring universe for something which would give meaning to his life and death. As he looks back on his “idiotic war” with Hrothgar, Grendel calls himself a “Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men”. Grendel envies animals who simply live their lives without reflection while he is condemned to observe and question everything. In the course of the novel he explores and rejects many of the ideals and beliefs which people live by, such as patriotism, heroism, revolutionary politics, loyalty to family, romantic love and faith in benevolent or all-powerful deities.
Gardner finds characters in the original poem to embody most of these ideals and beliefs. He uses Hrothgar’s champion Unferth, who is infamous for killing his own brothers, to illustrate the “shoddy reality” of men who claim to be selfless heroes and he allows Grendel to idealize Hrothgar’s beautiful queen for a while before being repelled by her sexuality. Hrothgar is presented as a thug who foolishly comes to believe his own myth. His shining meadhall has a doom-laden atmosphere because a monster within Hrothgar’s family is as dangerous as the one prowling outside. While telling his own story, Grendel exposes and jeers at most of the illusions people cling to but he never quite rejects the power of the Shaper to create beauty and meaning through his poetry. In a controversial book called “On Moral Fiction” (1978), Gardner himself argued that fiction ought to be a force for good. He also criticized contemporary authors for not caring enough about their characters.
It is very clear that Gardner cared about Grendel. The narrative voice he created for this outcast driven mad by poetry is extraordinarily convincing. Grendel describes his own brutal deeds in gruesome detail and with the blackest of humour. He whinges and rants but there are moments of lyrical beauty. This monster’s actions and ideas are fascinatingly unpredictable. He goes through extremes of emotion yet there is always a detached part of his mind mocking his own feelings. Gardner shows Grendel enduring the loneliness of the psychopath who finds it hard to believe that anyone else is real. He cannot even relate to his mother, whom he describes as a “horrible, humpbacked, carp-toothed creature, eyes on fire with useless, mindless love.” The hero (never named in this novel) who is destined to be Grendel’s nemesis accuses the monster of shaping his own dark world. “Grendel” could be read as Horror but like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” it is also story about what makes us human. Gardner’s Grendel is one of Fantasy Fiction’s great anti-heroes. Meet him if you dare. Until next time…