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!
Sing words! Sing raving hymns!
“You’re crazy. Ow!”
“I sing of walls,” I howl. “Hooray for the hardness of walls!”
Terrible, 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.]