Where, if anywhere, can we draw a line between good and evil?
Where do the ideas for creating art come from? Anywhere and everywhere, I suppose. Sometimes I think they’re like a bullet out of the blue; other times they’re like a flock of birds or a swarm of bees, converging at a point in consciousness as they become more than a thought.
I’d guess John Gardner’s idea for Grendel came from something in between. As a classics scholar he was familiar with myths, archetypes, the oral storytelling tradition. Such was the story of Beowulf and his hero-journey. [I desperately want to digress here, but I’m not going to.]
So I imagine John, one of my favorite literary icons, sitting in his study puffing on his pipe, ruminating on the Beowulf legend about the Norse hero who slays the great shaggy beast Grendel who’s been terrorizing the countryside for who only knows how long, when . . . his mind takes a turn or pause and he wonders: What was Grendel’s story?
And with that thought in mind, Gardner wrote one of the masterpieces of both modern and historical literature.
I first read Grendel in college and neither its impact nor its influence, literary or personal, has lessened over the years. Surely it was an important novel to read in order to understand the hero archetype, because it (obversely) personified the archetype of the anti-hero. Just as we understand other dualities – yin/yang, love/death, heroism/cowardice, right/wrong and so on (add your own). But all of these dualisms can be found in literature. And so, of course, in Grendel. It was a great pleasure to read it again.
As we begin Gardner’s novel, our feelings toward Grendel lean toward disgust at his dark side: after all, this is a beast who has gone beyond the ethics of killing animal prey for sustenance to the sheer pleasure of killing human beings for personal satisfaction and pure savagery. Yet he has a consciousness; he has thoughts and can share them with language. Is he really a beast? Immoral? Moral? Perhaps amoral because he kills indiscriminately, at least up to a point.
And is it at this point where our disgust is challenged? We’re dangerously close to where our aligning with Grendel is a mock pathetic fallacy. Surely his earliest experiences with humans have conditioned him to regard them as life-threatening. Yet he goes on the attack, perhaps at first because he’s protecting himself and his mother, but it soon looks like it’s become bloodlust.
Even so, it’s difficult not to take his side against these brutal, unevolved, men. The dragon snorts fire and says men, “. . . only think they think. No total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance . . ..”
We see we’re not completely wrong to feel some empathy for Grendel, because he won’t harm the beautiful queen Wealtheow.
He’s capable of reason, as when he talks with the wise old man who tells him, “All governments are evil. Monstrously evil.” [p121]
He’s also curious and capable of irony when he asks the (archetypal) blind priest:
“’Tell us what you know of the King of Gods.’
“’The King?’ he says.
“’The King’. I do not giggle.” (pp. 131-33)
This, of course, gives Gardner a wonderful opportunity to espouse his cultivated views of religion.
Grendel is a literary romp of the first order, from the stunning (new) paperback cover portrait (Gardner ensured his books would always be illustrated, and this one is no exception). You feel him wrestling with beasts – not only Grendel but Beowulf and his so-called 6thcentury civilization, and God. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to me to think he never resolved any of these issues to his satisfaction and so at age 49, perhaps, took his own life while riding his motorcycle.