The Ironic Monster

Grendel, by John Gardner

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image via hammysbooks.blogspot.com

Beowulf has been an on-again, off-again read for me since high school. Then, a few years ago, Seamus Heaney’s translation of the tale placed me in the first row for Beowulf, and so when I came across Gardner’s telling of Grendel’s story, I had to read it.

Such literary twists are rarely what you expect, and that’s the case with my reading of Grendel. In Gardner’s telling, the monster is brutal in an almost matter-of-fact way; he enjoys the hunt, the kill. It’s just the way of his nature. But the unexpected aspect of Gardner’s Grendel is the monster’s affinity for human nature. He sees himself in them – their violence, their crudities, their lust for battle-born heroism.

In the process, Grendel becomes quite the modern philosopher. He waxes forth on existence, romance, war, God, all seen through the lens of his own beastly lusts. But this doesn’t mean he approves of human traits that mirror his own. He’s the logical extension of humanity’s weaknesses and failings. Grendel refuses to accept this, and, unlike the humans he wars on, he wishes for the time of his death.

Then comes Beowulf, the Geat leader. Grendel watches these Danes wade ashore, a growing sense of excitement growing in him, realizing that he and Beowulf will soon do battle – the grandest battle of either’s life. As Gardner dwells during that moment in Grendel’s psyche, we note that Beowulf, the human hero, is every inch the monster Grendel is.

Gardner’s tale here is often elliptical, lyrical. He chooses this voice, I think, as a response to what he sees as the failings of humanity’s reason, favoring the voice of the Shaper (the story’s bard) as a faker, an enemy of rational experience, a purveyor of chaos. The story is fraught with irony of the sort that forces us to see life as experience, but ephemeral experience, taking us nowhere.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

 

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