“I am a monster, I’ll make you run faster…”

The Zemeckis-Avary-Gaiman Beowulf is some kind of monster—but its actual monster, like so many Grendels before him, has been quasi-humanized, reduced to a pitiful antagonist rather than a creature of perfect evil. As Scott Nokes pointed out last year in his review of the film Beowulf and Grendel, this characterization of the monster is typical of modern adaptations:

This Grendel, though, is what I refer to as the Postmodern Grendel — deeply misunderstood. Way back when John Gardener was re-imagining Grendel as simply misunderstood and flawed, this reading was audacious. Now, it is simply boring and pedestrian. I find that my students are incapable of understanding Grendel as evil, or as an enemy of God.

He’s right: postmodern whimsy sometimes makes it harder to teach a modern work. When so many readers have seen Hamlet as the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and far more have considered The Wizard of Oz through the eyes of the Wicked Witch of the West, those of us who teach John Gardner’s Grendel may have a hard time explaining to students why the novel was such a big deal when it was published in 1971.

But maybe novelty no longer matters. As I gear up to talk about Grendel in class in a couple of weeks, I’m finding that not having to fawn over the rather obvious shift in the narrator’s point of view will give me much more time to discuss with students what this novel is really about. Conventional wisdom has always dubbed Grendel a postmodern novel, the tale of “the outsider, the person who walks on the edge”—but the book keeps howling at me that it’s something else entirely.

For example, here’s Grendel soaking in ennui:

So childhood too feels good at first, before one happens to notice the terrible sameness, age after age.

Here’s Grendel on the heroism of Unferth:

“Monster, prepare to die!” he said. Very righteous. The wings of his nostrils flared and quivered like an outraged priest’s.
I laughed. “Aargh!” I said. I spit bits of bone.
He glanced behind him, making sure he knew exactly where the window was. “Are you right with your god?” he said.
I laughed somewhat more fiercely. He was one of those.

Here’s Grendel on the pointlessness of it all:

Stars, spattered out through lifeless night from end to end, like jewels scattered in a dead king’s grave, tease, torment my wits toward meaningful patterns that do not exist.

Here’s Grendel on the unreliability of narrative:

As if all by itself, then, the harp made a curious run of sounds, almost words, and then a moment later, arresting as a voice from a hollow tree, the harper began to chant…

What was he? 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.

Here’s the young Grendel after getting his foot stuck in a tree-root and facing an attacking bull. Wallowing in solipsism, he throws in a dash of blasphemy for good measure:

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!

Here’s Grendel meeting his first humans, who assume he’s a giant fungus or a tree spirit. Of course, Grendel is unable to communicate with them.

“You’re all crazy,” I tried to yell, but it came out a moan. I bellowed for my mother.

So here we have a monstrous parody of the 20th-century protagonist: a narcissistic, solipsistic, nihilistic atheist who bemoans his alienation and wallows in existential angst. He disdains traditional heroism, he blames society for making him what he is—and he has mother issues!

I can see my students feeling pity for this character, maybe a little sympathy, and they’re sure to find him a clever and intriguing narrator. But really, what careful, thoughtful reader has ever admired this nasty, self-obsessed monster?

In 1971, a Time magazine reviewer compared Gardner’s Grendel to Caliban, Milton’s Lucifer, and King Kong, suggesting that the monster “throbs with primal rage, despair, collegiate idealism and existential inquiry.” But like many ersatz idealists, Grendel finds that his world-view literally can’t survive a collision with reality. Here’s Beowulf disabusing Grendel of his solipsism:

Grendel, Grendel! You make the world by whispers, second by second. Are you blind to that? Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point. Feel the wall: is it not hard? He smashes me against it, breaks open my forehead. Hard, yes! Observe the hardness, write it down in careful runes. Now sing of walls! Sing!
I howl.

“I’m singing!”
Sing words! Sing raving hymns!

“You’re crazy. Ow!”
“I sing of walls,” I howl. “Hooray for the hardness of walls!”
he whispers. Terrible. He laughs and lets out fire.
“You’re crazy,” I say. “If you think I created that wall that cracked my head, you’re a fucking lunatic.”

Dying, Grendel at last sees the world as existing beyond himself:

Every rock, every tree, every crystal of snow cries out cold-blooded objectness. Cold, sharp outlines, everything around me: distinct, detached as dead men. I understand.

In the novel’s final line, Grendel at last has a breakthrough:

“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”

Too late, Grendel acknowledges the reality of others. That closing line is easily read as a curse—but perhaps it’s a benediction, with the monster hoping that others might benefit from the same enlightening “accident.”

Like many a postmodern protagonist, Grendel embodies the intellectual trends of the day, but he’s not some whining prep-school antihero or an English professor coping with a midlife crisis; rather, he’s a creature of consequence. Julie Taymor has suggested of Grendel that “the monster is the most human of humans,” but I don’t think she’s right. Instead, he’s a truly wretched creature: an abomination cobbled together from the spare parts of modernity—a monster made insane by modernity itself.

There’s much more to say about Grendel, and I suspect my students, an increasingly candid bunch, will surprise and enlighten me with perspectives that aren’t stuck in 1971. Accustomed to other novels that sincerely praise nonconformity, they’ll probably notice, without my prompting, that Grendel isn’t just the story of a sensitive rebel, a Morrissey with bloody claws.

Grendel is a work of stark medievalism. It expresses little sympathy for the prejudices of the modern wit and outright disdain for the fatal affectations of the anti-hero. This Grendel is misunderstood—every time a reader assumes he ought to be seen as something other than the embodiment of doctrines that presumably rot the modern mind. Forget the conventional wisdom: Far from being a postmodern paean to the moody outcast, John Gardner’s Grendel may, in fact, be one of the most reactionary novels an English major will ever read.

[UPDATE, 12/1/07: Welcome, new readers!  Whether you’re here from 2Blowhards, Urban Prowlers, StumbledUpon, StevenHartSite, or Unlocked Wordhoard, I hope you’ll stop back occasionally if you’re interested in books, history, teaching, and medievalism.]

5 thoughts on ““I am a monster, I’ll make you run faster…”

  1. This is a good piece on a much overrated and much misunderstood book. But I’m not sure you’re all of the way there yet.

    I read a batch of Gardner this summer, starting with ON MORAL FICTION and ON BECOMING A NOVELIST. This is an unpleasant way to encounter Gardner, who was in his way a tiresomely literal-minded chap. Most of his books seem to be aesthetic fables meant to illustrate his ideas — that’s certainly the case with GRENDEL, as artificial a construct as can be believed. But then again this was the Sixties, too — and Gardner is a (maybe *the*) quintessential American novelist of that period. (This is why I think his best book, and a very fine novel it is, too, is THE SUNLIGHT DIALOGUES. The reality of the Sixties themselves — the self-serious joviality, the heavy-handed games, was the best setting for Gardner’s method.

    But I digress. I read GRENDEL in the context of Gardner’s work and thought, and I think this is what you’re missing: your diagnosis of Grendel is spot-on, he’s a victim of Modernity itself. But Gardner is not critical of him — rather far from it. He intensely identifies with him.

    Read ON MORAL FICTION and you’ll see the argument of GRENDEL laid bare: the artist is the highest calling, for he tells the lies that soothes the despair that all men feel when confronted with the harsh truths of reality, etc., etc., etc. In fact, he can in some vague mystical way transform reality itself — at least our remembrances of it, which is the next best thing. This passage:

    As if all by itself, then, the harp made a curious run of sounds, almost words, and then a moment later, arresting as a voice from a hollow tree, the harper began to chant…

    What was he? 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.

    yes, is “about the unreliability of narrative”, but you’re missing the forest for the trees. The point isn’t that narrative is unreliable; the point is that narrative is powerful.

    And that’s what Grendel tries to do/be; and that’s what he fails at. Grendel is running from reality and trying to transmute it’s harshness through, essentially art; that’s what he fails at. Beowulf is the crushing coldness of Reality, but he’s nothing to admire, he’s the coldness of death, basically.

    Thus the last line is intended to be tragic, for Gardner saw the artist’s lot as essentially tragic — it wasn’t something that could last forever. It’s not a curse or a benediction — it’s a prophecy.

    I say all this not as an admirer of the novel. I find it heavy handed and very silly, essentially THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA for disillusioned Sixties hipsters. Nor do I say this as an admirer of Gardner’s thought, really. Like a lot of artists, Gardner wasn’t much of a thinker, and one reads ON MORAL FICTION especially thinking that Gardner was one of those guys who wanted desperately to believe in God but somehow couldn’t quite make the plunge. (There’s a terrific amount of hedging and to-ing and fro-ing that occasionally makes for interesting reading, although you end up just wanting to give the guy a good shake.)

    I just think your reading is a very interesting misreading.



  2. Doug: Thanks for such an interesting comment, which gives me much to ponder. I freely admit that my reading is not, in fact, a complete reading, as I’ve not considered the dragon, the priests, and the poly-sci playlet about Hrothulf and his adviser. I’m still thinking about the novel, and I recently ordered some of Gardner’s other books so I can get a better sense of him as an author—but responses like yours are exactly why I floated this notion in the first place.

    If you’re right about what Gardner intended, then Grendel is certainly a failure by the author’s own standards, because twice now, in my classes of adult undergraduates, the folks who were willing to defend the monster or sympathize with him were certainly in the minority—although the students in the majority were by no means monolithic in their anti-Grendel arguments. I came away from my most recent student discussion about the book with a newfound appreciation for how useful the book is at stimulating passionate debates among students about the different ways to read a novel once authorial intent is taken out of the picture.

    Let me also point out, for the sake of curious readers, that Doug is going to be offering several readings of John Gardner’s books over on his blog. (Click on his name above.)


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