le 5 juin 2004
This is the Beowulf story from the monster's point of view and, in some sense, the coming of age story for the monster. He starts out as a young monster briefly lost from his mother and trapped in a tree by the future king and his group. He's saved at the last minute, and becomes fascinated with the strangely acting humans who are somelike like him but mostly not.
From forest shadows, he views--through his primal lens--the duplicitous, scheming and barbaric true nature of the king's growing empire and the warring clans around it. No animal, points out Beowulf, would treat his own kind so cruelly.
Later in the novel, as Grendel grows out of young adulthood into complete monster maturity, he begins to interact more fiercely with the humans. He wants to show them how wrong they are, how vulnerable, how false their gods. To his surprise, however, the beauty of Beowulf's queen--who is completely inaccessible--enchants him. Rather than seriously persue the queen, however, he views the king as unworthy of her and this feeling builds his resentment toward the king and his domain.
Outside of the monster Grendel, there are two arresting figures in the book. The first is the dragon, who sits in a subterranean lair and, more importantly, stands outside of time and thus can see eons of events at glance--before and after they occur. From this perspective, the dragon attempts to school the young monster in the finer points of space-time. This is an entertaining sidetrack from the novel's main thrust, and the dragon's viewpoint of time (analogous to surveying a plain from a mountaintop) leaves a lasting impression on the reader. To Grendel, of course, the concepts are beyond him and the dragon becomes upset at Grendel's obvious boredom and disquiet.
The other captivating character is not that of Beowulf (who comes across as an irrational, primal force himself) but a young man in the king's court whom Grendel refuses to kill. The young man tries to die a hero by stalking Grendel alone, something everyone knows would lead to death. But Grendel sees what he's up to and, to deny him, leaves him a hairsbreath from death and deposits him back at the king's main hall. In subsequent encounters, Grendel also leaves the man unharmed while killing everyone else around despite the man's calls to fight.
The shame of repeatedly being the sole survivor disgraces the man. His self-image is wrecked and, in a time when dying in battle is a great honor, is publicly disgraced and laden with survivor guilt. It is this broken, dispirited man who over time is the only human to win Grendel's respect. It's as though, by finally abandoning the achievement of what's expected in human society, he lands closer to Grendel--the natural purist, the exile, the free thinker. Indeed, near the conclusion of the novel, this 'chosen' man scorns Beowulf's bravado.
The story broadcasts, more than anything else, the flaws of human societies: their impurities, iniquities, injustices. Nature, in the novel, is elevated and becomes something that is pure, vibrant, wholesome, and greater than petty and repetitive struggles of human society. Grendel and his kind symbolize the collective forces of nature.
The writing is casual, open, modern. That's a relief if you've read older translations of Beowulf. The character viewpoints of the three I mention here (Grendel, the dragon, and the defeated man chosen by Grendel) ring true and are innovative in their dialogue and description.
This is one of the best novels I've encountered. I recommend it!
le 31 octobre 2003
I'm going to be truthful in the fact that I did not enjoy the epic poem, Beowulf . Yet, I did enjoy the modern novel, Grendel. Grendel was a story less about egotistical men and more about a tormented creature trying to find the point of his isolated life. Due to the fact that I found the characters in Beowulf self-absorbed, I was humoured by Grendel mocking and torturing them. In addition, this tale was enlaced with nihilistic views that questioned existence. This agonized soul ponders the purpose of being: is there any point in living if everything is predestined? Not only did it question life, but also government, religion, ethics, and morals. I would recommend this novel due to the fact that it is intriguing with an underlying theme that is simple and direct.
le 11 décembre 2003
Grendel has a sarcastic and cynical mind, which serves to entertain both him and the reader. Through his expositions of situations, we see humor where others would simply see violence, and irony where others only fact. These others are the humans, the Danes, unwitting neighbors of Grendel, forced to stand night after night of slaughter. What is a traumatic and terrifying experience for them, is simply a game to Grendel, and the reader. Grendel bursts in on the Danes, ready to kill, and they squeak. They are funny in their fear, laughable in their drunken fighting. The reader is focused on Grendel's perception of the Danes. The deaths go by easily, because of the humor involved. It does not cross the reader's mind that these are people Grendle is killing. The humor allows the reader to sympathize with Grendel's position, that of the predator. The prey is not meaningful, only nutritious and entertaining. It is a macabre humor, which accentuates how no death is noble, it is simply death. By making the Danes un-heroic and un-ideal, cowards and drunkards, the author is presenting the reality through the humor.
In contrast to the drunken lurching of the others, Unferth comes toward Grendel with speeches and bravery. He is a puffed up as a peacock, proud and ready to die for his king, his people, his ideal. Grendel simply states, "He was one of those." Grendel sees Unferth with a clear and unbiased mind. He is ridiculous. His exaggerated heroism, his words, even his first move, to scuttle sideways like a crab from thirty feet away, is laughable. Grendle does with him what he does with no other Dane in the story, he talks.
Unferth offers Grendle death, and Grendle sends back taunts. The reason this scene is funny is because the taunts are sharply accurate. The self-sacrificing hero is shown to be a spotlight loving fool, serving only his own reputation. Grendel continues talking to Unferth, making the poor wretch angrier by the moment. At one point, he compares Unferth to a harvest virgin. Unferth attempts to begin his own speeches, but is always cut off by Grendel, who has another barb to throw at him. Finally, Unferth screams and charges, his voice breaking.
This scene, of escalating argument, presents a different type of humor. While the first was a slapstick, exaggerated and dark humor, the argument is more sarcastic, intelligent and cutting. It exposes the cruel reality of the hero; he serves only himself and his fame when helping others.
When Unferth charges him, Grendel does the unthinkable. He throws an apple at him. Unferth is astonished, and even loses his heroic vocabulary. He continues charging, and Grendel continues the barrage of apples. This scene is pure humiliation for Unferth, pure delight for Grendel, and entertaining for the reader. Grendel, murderer and monster, is hitting the hero with simple red apples. By doing this, he is breaking any type of significance the battle could ever have. The bards cannot sing of how the monster threw apples. It is symbolically important that Grendel throws apples. Unferth symbolizes a virgin, pure in ideal and purpose. The apple brought down the first virgin, Eve, as these apples bring him down. They represent the truth, the knowledge that Grendle is pelting him with. The hero ends up on the floor crying, and Grendel remarks to him "Such is life...such is dignity." This remark holds no pity, only scorn, and is funny in its viciousness.
Most of the humor in the novel is followed by some of the most chilling and melancholic pieces of prose. This contrast of the humoristic with the somber makes the despair Grendel feels a more striking emotion. Before being completely exposed to nihilism and solitude by the Dragon, Grendel is compared to a bunny rabbit because he was startled. The monster that terrified the Danes is terrified by the Dragon, who continues poking fun at him and his fear. The reader is presented with the impotent figure of Grendel, trying desperately to react in some way to the dragon's laughter, and not knowing how. He gets angry, which immediately makes the dragon deadly serious. What follows is the dragon stating in turn his truths about life and snide side remarks on humanity. The humor allows the reader to connect slightly with Grendel's feelings as they transition from the comedy to the drama, sometimes in a jarring fashion.
This same transition occurs in the interaction of Grendel and Unferth. The Dane is a broken man, both physically and mentally. He cries. He has a broken nose. The humor is lost as the reader begins to feel pity for him. Once we feel connected to the being suffering, the humor evaporates, leaving behind the message, ideals are false. The humor sets up the atmosphere and the elements of the message, but it is only in the alternate tone that the message is truly established.
Grendel's humor is the truth in some aspects and a farce in others. It contrasts sharply with the Dane's views but it is a valid view. At the same time, the humor in Grendel hides a deep despair and the root messages. Grendel makes fun of Unferth, but is more like Unferth that he could possibly guess. Unferth represents the hero brought down by the monster, and the shattering of his own beliefs. Grendel is a monster who has no beliefs, and is brought down by an unnamed hero. The dragon spares Grendel, while Unferth is by Grendel. Unferth is a cast out among the men, and Grendle is a cast out to all human society. Unferth seeks desperately to die in the fight, and regain some type of honor. Grendel seeks the fight for some type of recognition from the Danes. In a way, when Grendel makes fun of Unferth, he is hurting that part of himself he dislikes. He, through Unferth, is hitting at the pretensions
le 10 novembre 2003
John Gardner's "Grendel" shines an odd spotlight on English literature's earliest antihero. When reading "Beowulf," who really ponders the character of the monster Grendel, who after all is not so much a literary character as an object for Beowulf to defeat as an exhibition of his heroism? Gardner sees the shaggy, anthropomorphous monster as a painfully self-conscious creature bellowing in rage at the forces of nature in agonistic protest against his miserable existence as a descendant of the cursed race of Cain.
Grendel is sad, lonely, and bored. His only friend (besides his mother, who offers little conversational companionship) is a wise ancient dragon who sits on a massive treasure hoard and mentors the young beast in the significance of being a monster, that having the power to terrify and brutalize is just as much an affirmation of life as killing to eat. And killing is Grendel's forte: He repeatedly targets the thanes of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, who, as descendants of the blessed race of Abel, intrigue him; voyeuristically he spies on them in their meadhalls, sardonically observing their folly, believing that he provides for them a healthy challenge to their complacency. He particularly enjoys the ineffectual assaults of a warrior named Unferth who seeks hero status by trying to slay Grendel numerous times and whom Grendel always spares out of spite, to dishonor him and amplify his ineptitude.
If Grendel were human, he'd be called a sociopath. He hates himself, men, and the world, but he turns his extreme negativity into a strange attitude of superiority -- he likes to show his enemies that he can always beat them, that they're defenseless against his aggression and foolish as well. Of course, he finally realizes his limits when one fateful day an unnamed Geat prince arrives on Hrothgar's shores, ready to claim his own superiority.
A few weeks ago I read Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea," which invents a background story for a mysteriously obscure but important character from "Jane Eyre." Gardner employs the same concept in "Grendel" and even uses a similar postmodern prose style, but he succeeds where Rhys failed because he gives Grendel a personality, a reason to exist as a character, and doesn't just make him a mute symbol of victimization. Grendel is a powerhouse and doesn't need anybody to feel sorry or make excuses for him.
le 22 avril 2003
What if you could see into the mind of Grendel, the terrifying creature of the night from Beowulf? Well, with this book by John Gardner, you can. Brutal at times, irreverent at others, and very cynical at others, Grendel wanders around for many years watching the development of the various human tribes and the emergence of Hrothgar as a sort of king among them. He spends twelve years in a unique relationship with the king, trying first to make friends with the Danes (he is attacked) and later making raids and killing the most drunken of Hrothgarï¿½s thanes. The notorious coward Unferth (the one who later insults Beowulf) is also developed here--Grendel has such contempt and pity for Unferth that he will not kill him (thus giving him a heroï¿½s death) despite Unferthï¿½s repeated attempts to fight him.
In the poem Beowulf, Grendel is a very flat character. He is, in fact, the epitome of evil, unfeeling and cruel. He comes, he kills and eats people, he leaves. Then he comes back. This book gives Grendel a personality. He knows he is a member of the fallen (Cainï¿½s) race, and accepts that fact. He is lonely, and cannot even get companionship from his mother, who has long ceased to communicate. In fact, his only real ï¿½friendsï¿½ are the Danes he kills. Still, he knows he is dependent on Hrothgarï¿½s survival. ï¿½If I murdered the last of the Scyldings,ï¿½ he muses, ï¿½what would I live for?ï¿½
This book gives excellent insight into the character of Grendel, and will definitely change the way you look at the poem Beowulf. Gardnerï¿½s Grendel is a creature who determines to kill Beowulf for the honor of Hrothgar, so that his thanes will not have been outdone by a newcomer. I highly recommend this short work for anyone interested in the great old English epic.
le 26 février 2003
John Gardner's GRENDEL is a challenging, provocative project; it surrounds a very simple, captivating hook- "let's see things from the perspective of Beowulf's grand nemesis"- with a text that does not yield in the least to a cursory, detached perusal. This is not weightless entertainment meant to be experienced on a lawn chair set in front of a booming, rolling ocean, the seagulls squawking and flapping overhead, the sand burning and glinting below. Nevertheless, however stupefied one might become while absorbing many of the thematic attributes on display, it is an unquestioned presupposition that many readers will find Gardner's creative philosophical essay a value-added reading session.
Grendel is a beast. A horrible, tacky promulgation of evil which slithers through the mere and squats in the forest, spying upon Hrothgar and his subservient thanes, torn at times between impulsive desire to strip them of their flesh and drain them of their blood and a more reserved, diplomatic approach: shoot for crony status with the tribal humans, become a component of their hierarchy. Grendel is no ordinary monster, though- he is quite intelligent and introspective, and he is possessed of a deep intellectual thirst about the world around him, and how he fits into it; in essence, this gargantuan, rumbling menace is a Socrates/Kant/Plato at heart. Thus, we are afforded a first-person narrative which supplies interesting insight into the creature's thoughts and beliefs, which are varied and surprisingly sharp.
And one of the characters which both fascinates and confounds Grendel's thinking is the harp-playing bard, known as the Shaper. This charismatic individual spins lusty tales of faraway lands and great battles and feisty seas, all in an effort to gather favor and employment in the hall of Hrothgar...and certainly, the man succeeds, for his relation of these noble adventures in jaunty lyrical form captivate the collective imagination of the king and his loyal subjects. Grendel is critically suspicious of the Shaper, and his reservations are confirmed when he pays a visit to the dragon, an immemorial oracle of sorts, and a philosopher in its own right. As time goes on, as winter comes and sets in, fierce and freezing, the narration tells of battles and deaths and humiliations and enslavements- Grendel falls in love, and through it all, through everything, he tries, dutiful as a drone, to make sense of it all, to find his true point of reference and relevance, especially as he finds himself waiting for the change that is coming, a mutagenic agent which will certainly shift all of his foundations.
One of the biggest obstacles in need of immediate surmounting when applying oneself to the book is the poetically trying nature of the prose itself; nearly every sentence represents a voluptuous, voluminous metaphor, and each metaphor is cleverly encrypted with self-contradicting concepts and richly ironic constructs, as well as an overall general intimation that what appears to be sound argument is in fact a capricious, wanton presentation of pabulum valiantly attempting to pass itself off as paradigm- at times, a search for a key to the ciphers within seemed a fruitless effort. To show what it was like to read any given passage in GRENDEL, imagine if this entire review were written as follows:
The words, they come teeming at the reader, engorged and engrossed on a luxurious high, for after bivouacking in contextual places where it is possible for them to acquire novel etymological connotations and thus overwrite the old semantical laws- as forbidden as that is by the crusty old dragons which roam hallowed halls dedicated to inculcating the young neophyte intellects for vague political purposes- they are full of haughty hubris and silver-sallow envy of the very things they wished to be; Grendel, for his part, that epic-mythic scurvy scourge, is as complex as the calculus needed by a clergyman to denounce the universe as anything but biblical and altogether as anti-entropy as a space of infinite volume under constant temperature and pressure. The literary experience contained within the pages sinks into your bones like a catechistic cold, imploring you to remember its ideologies even as you struggle to regain your own congenital compass; do not try and suffer the embarrassment of attempted consolidation and reconciliation of Gardner's professed dogma with the amorphous versions of the cyclical mythology handed down through the ages, first through anonymous and then, finally, eponymous legions...
That is what GRENDEL was; that's how it felt. As can be seen, the preceding paragraph is as convoluted and crenelated as a catalytic enzyme in its quaternary state- yet, such a biochemical constituent represents a rational, orderly construction, a natural form, one that makes sense even though it is densely complex and vividly difficult to comprehend at first study; this analogy is perhaps useful when considering the imposing style in ubiquitous use throughout the story. The essential point is that the possibility of identifying and understanding worthwhile meanings in Gardner's writing definitely does exist, just as it is doable for science to relate the mechanism of a protein with its jaw-dropping design. And the meanings you may or may not derive tend to captivate whether you find them or not; that may not make a whole lot of sense, but then again, anyone who has finished the book probably knows it already. Cross I-think-therefore-I-am with existential nihilism and present it in a Harlan Ellison-like beaker and the picture will almost draw itself.
Excellent book; still, it will only garner three stars, because it is an academic exercise at heart, and that aspect must be taken into account.
le 6 février 2003
Last fall, I read Beowulf; ever since then, I've wanted to read John Gardner's Grendel as well in order to get "the other side of the story." This book served as my introduction to nihilism, which proved to be interesting; expectedly, Grendel's life revolves around the destruction of things and people around him. I enjoyed the portrayal of Grendel's mother because Gardner showed her as desolate and nearly dependent on her son. This was an interesting departure from the despair-ridden, revenge-seeking character in Beowulf.
The book's climax comes in the last ten pages when Beowulf appears, and ironically enough, I read these pages as an excerpt last year. However, having read Beowulf, the ending was already "spoiled," so to speak. (Still, it seems good triumphs over evil more often in early literature than during another time period.)
Overall, if one reads Beowulf, I recommend they also read Grendel. Without Beowulf, however, this book would be confusing and difficult to follow.
le 3 juillet 2002
Alternating between the sublime Orwellian double-talk of the minstrel Shaper and the cold, condescendingly bleak philosophy of the Dragon, Grendel struggles for meaning. Told that his life and energies exist only for man to define himself against, he finds small consolation. Still, Grendel throws himself on the mercy of the men in a Frankenstein's monster effort to be accepted... to no avail, deciding after that 'why should I not' destroy them . At times darkly humourous, and touching, the creature muses on the beauty of Hrothgar's placid, sacrificing wife before attempting to kill her, and plays with the fallen hero Unferth before Beowulf's arrival. As those familiar with the epic know, Beowulf in the original poem arrives from across the sea to save Hrothgar's hall by doing battle with Grendel, his mother, and eventually the Dragon. Grendel senses Beowulf's arrival and marvels at the concept of fear. Familiarity with the story makes the inevitability of the conflict all the more delicious when Grendel finally realizes his purpose and observes 'I cannot believe such monstrous energy of grief would lead to nothing' the reader is left to answer that it did not lead to nothing, it was a necessary component in an incredible story, told from the historical antagonist's point of view.
Another great read is The Price of Immortality, I highly recommend it.
le 14 mai 2002
Having read Seamus Heaney's translation (which I have reviewed) of the original Beowulf, I came across Gardner's "Grendel" as a new spin on the same story. In the classic version, Beowulf is a strong warrior that arrives at a suffering realm of Hrothgar, an old Dane, who is being constantly assaulted by a strange monster called Grendel. The majority of the epic poem tells of battle, family history and how warriors celebrate (e.g. singing and drinking mead).
The first major difference in Gardner's novel when compared to the original poem is the starting point. Gardner starts with Grendel as a being cured with isolation, with only his mother for company. This fact is probably what makes the reader the most sympathetic with Grendel. Grendel's mother is incapable of speech or language, so she cannot truly be a companion for her son. Like the original poem, there is no physical description ever given for Grendel's race and few clues about their origin. There is some suggestion that that they are the spawn of Cain; a cursed version of humanity. The cover illustration provides the reader with some idea but something more specific in terms of Grendel's origin would definitely have been appreciated.
The depiction of Grendel reminds the reader of the way Shelley depicted the Creature Frankenstein in her 19th century novel, "Frankenstein." He is rejected by humanity when he tries to join them, he is unique (as mentioned above, Grendel's mother cannot really provide a real relationship) and eventually he turns to violence. The thing about Grendel that prevents the reader from being truly sympathetic is his casual killing. Initially, he kills for food and generally stays away from man. Then, as he starts to learn more about men and find out how they treat him, he starts to attack Hrothgar's meadhall every night, murdering a few men and then withdrawing.
Aside from the nearly continuous violence in the novel, there are many passages where Grendel and other characters reflect on life and reality. There is one memorable scene where a warrior manages to get into Grendel's lair but he is injured and weakened by the process of getting in. He then asks Grendel to kill him, so that he will have fulfilled his heroic duties. The discussion of what makes a hero worthy provides some insight into the culture that originally produced, "Beowulf" over a thousand years ago. Unfortunately for the hero, Grendel does not kill him and to add insult to injury, takes him back to Hrothgar's meadhall to live out his days.
There is also a strange encounter between a dragon and Grendel (this is a not in the original poem anywhere) where they discuss time, metaphysics and reality. The dragon is shown to be a quasi-divine in his knowledge and is almost omniscient. He struggles to impart any knowledge to Grendel as he finds it difficult to communicate at a level that Grendel could comprehend.
The main events of the poem, Beowulf's battles, have a comparatively minor part in the novel. In fact, only about the last 10-15 pages even include Beowulf in any way at all. Indeed, Beowulf is such a minor role that he is not even named. Only readers of the original tale will recognize him.
My overall impression of the novel is not favorable. It is excellent as far as exploring the psyche of a monster and what contributes to making a monster, a monster. Its philosophical speculations are vague and depressing. For those in search of a novel comparable in many ways to Frankenstein, this is probably one of your best bets. I would strongly recommend Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf for the causal reader, not interested in a scholarly accurate translation, who only wants to experience one of the first major pieces of English literature.
le 16 avril 2002
Grendel isn't a monster, Grendel is, above all, a defenseless creature, more human indeed than human beings, what a paradox!
The creature seeks from the beginning a meaning of life, but all his efforts are futile. He seeks affection and love from the Scyldings and finds none, nothing but hatred. Then he turns his rage against humankind, but he even realizes that he can't hate, because hatred is equally absurd. When he meets the dragon, who's the keeper of wisdom, understands that there is nothing to understand, life is nothing but a labyrinth with no exits. There is no possible redemption; everything is dominated by fate. Whether one lives or dies, it doesn't matter and nobody cares either. There is a powerful growth of nihilism throughout the tale. "Nihil ex nihilo, as I always say", says Grendel. The history of humankind, a history since the beginning full of blood, wars, lust and greed, is a series of lies. Everybody lies to make life bearable, but lies they speak after all: kings, nobility, armies, glorious feats of brave warriors, hymns and songs, the religion of the druids with their rotten empty non existent gods, everything is such a hideous trick. Everybody is tricked, everything is nothing but a poor shadow, an illusion. Life is a game led by chance.