Not long ago, an acquaintance on Twitter asked for recommendations of lesser-read classics, which he defined as “anything published fifty years ago or more.” Unable to resist any occasion for a book recommendation, I began ticking through titles in my head and came, eventually, to John Gardner’s Grendel, a perennial favorite of mine. Scurrying to Google to look up the year of publication, I found that the novel was published in 1971—50 years ago.
I’d been the one to think of the novel in connection with the prompt, but I was still surprised to find that Grendel had reached the threshold to qualify as someone’s definition of an “old” book—almost as much as the book itself surprised me when I first read it years ago. A few of my professors had recommended the novel to me when I was an undergraduate, but I resisted, thinking the book too musty, too stodgy, too… well, classic, precisely the category the book now apparently qualifies for.
A reworking of the Beowulf myth from the monster’s perspective? Snore. Even the cover seemed to conspire in making me think the book was dull: that drab illustration in shades of brown and tan evoking the yellowed pages of a historical archive, and a fluffy monster looking a little like a Muppet, his head thrown back to unleash a howl at the sky. It was only years later when a trusted friend insisted over and over again that I read Grendel, practically thrusting the novel into my hands, that I gave in and discovered in its pages a work that felt newer, fresher, and far more dangerous than what I’d expected. That feeling has sustained itself through multiple readings over the years. No matter how many times I come back to it, Grendel still retains its ability to surprise.
The simple plot of the novel closely tracks that of Beowulf, its source material. Hrothgar, an ancient warlord-king, builds a mighty palace and mead-hall called Heorot to stand as a tribute to his greatness. But his peace is troubled by the embittered monster Grendel, who comes nightly to pick off Hrothgar’s thanes and drag them back to his lair to eat their bones. The warrior Beowulf shows up and, after engaging in some mead-fueled boasting, engages in battle with Grendel, ultimately killing him by ripping his arm off at the socket. Beowulf later fights Grendel’s mother and a dragon, too—though neither battle appears in Grendel, both monsters are featured.
Gardner’s trick in Grendel is not merely to turn these events inside out and give them a straight retelling from the monster’s perspective, but to give the story a fresh philosophical gloss, bringing a decidedly postmodern outlook to this pre-modern story. In Gardner’s hands, Grendel is not merely a monster but a sort of existentialist antihero, meaning-obsessed, struggling to grasp the significance of his existence, his consciousness, and the brute reality, the inescapable thing-ness, of the world he perceives around him.
From afar, Grendel spies on humans—“thinking creatures,” he calls them, “pattern makers, the most dangerous things I’d ever met.” Grendel witnesses them making early stumbles toward culture, but the thing these humans like to cultivate most is war: they meet in fields, shout boasts, then fall on each other and fight until the ground runs with blood, their battles foolish and futile.
Things change when a blind traveling bard who Grendel calls “the Shaper” comes to Hrothgar’s hall to sing a tale of the king’s exploits in battle, turning the brute reality of the humans’ fighting into art. The effect of the Shaper’s song is transformative; the hills, Grendel says, are hushed, “as if brought low by language… Men wept like children; children sat stunned.” Even Grendel, who knows the truth, is moved: “I too crept away, my mind aswim in ringing phrases, magnificent, golden, and all of them, incredibly, lies.” Grendel’s ambivalence turns to murderous anger when the Shaper’s song casts him as a villain, an antagonist to Hrothgar’s kingdom of courage and virtue.
So begins the monster’s war on this pre-modern human society. Grendel’s campaign against Hrothgar and his thanes is a contradictory one: he fights at once against the falsely constructed meaning of the Shaper’s art, and out of a paradoxical belief in that very same constructed meaning—in resentment that he has been cast as an outsider to it, an enemy to the human community. Grendel remains a nihilist, believing firmly that reality is a brute physical fact with no underlying significance, humans dangerous beasts whose battles signify nothing more than a childish fight for dominance. Any art that would suggest otherwise is a lie.
Yet Grendel is also, simultaneously, deeply credulous, sentimental, even a sort of hopeless romantic when it comes to the Shaper’s artistic propaganda. He can’t help but be moved by it, even as he yearns to unmask it. Had the Shaper’s song put Grendel in league with the humans, he might blithely accept their false values, their constructed virtues. But since the Shaper’s song casts Grendel as an outsider to the human community, he makes war on them, and on the meaning their art creates.Yet Grendel is also, simultaneously, deeply credulous, sentimental, even a sort of hopeless romantic when it comes to the Shaper’s artistic propaganda.
That this artistic approach to the material actually works—that casting a monster of myth as a nihilist antihero agonizing over the meaning of existence and art comes off as anything more than a pretentious academic game—is a minor miracle of style. In Gardner’s hands, all this philosophizing comes off as completely naturalistic, making perfect sense in the context of Grendel’s psychology and his world. Of course, one thinks, reading it, of course the dragon should be an all-seeing creature engaging in Cartesian philosophical discourse, of course Grendel himself should be a deconstructionist engaging in Lacanian wordplay (“I am lack: alack!”) and tearing apart the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition at its root.
Even more surprising, though, is who wrote the novel, relative to its contents and the conceptual tricks it deploys. John Gardner, in addition to being the author of Grendel, was a critic who, in his controversial work of criticism On Moral Fiction (1978), took the position of a traditionalist arguing against the meaning and language games of his postmodern contemporaries. He disapproved of metafiction and was stolidly anti-nihilist, arguing that the purpose of fiction was to inspire its audience toward morality. Yet his most enduring work of fiction… is a sly little metafiction full of postmodern language play. What gives?
A central image Gardner uses in On Moral Fiction provides a possible explanation. In the opening of the book, Gardner offers a “governing metaphor” for his project through a story from Norse myth about Thor “beating back the enemies of order.” By the end of the fable, Thor has been bested, the agents of chaos triumphant; Gardner’s goal in the critical work, he says, is to take up Thor’s hammer, and fight for the kind of narrative art that “beats back the monsters” again. Gardner’s use of heroes and monsters of myth as metaphors in this context is striking, suggesting that he might have intended Grendel as a critique of postmodernism by casting the monster as a miserable nihilist playing games with language and meaning, until he’s overcome by the moral power of the Shaper’s art, and ultimately killed by Beowulf, the order-restoring artist-hero. (Grendel, it should be pointed out, predated On Moral Fiction by seven years.)
If this was Gardner’s intent, however, then it’s clear that the material got away from him and became something that he didn’t quite intend. Grendel is simply too good a character, his perspective too charismatic and persuasive, to serve as a critique of postmodernism; if anything, Gardner ended up creating a vibrant space for the very perspectives and artistic approaches he claimed to be against.
Next to Grendel, On Moral Fiction is worse than unpersuasive—it’s deadly dull, closed-down and dreary where Grendel is open, alive, vibrating with antic energy. Grendel is funny, entertaining, troubling, and above all unruly; the novel refuses to behave. As a result, the viewpoints Grendel espouses end up being far more convincing than Gardner perhaps intended them to be. Gardner, in On Moral Fiction, may believe a classic work like Beowulf to be an example of true moral art—of the epic poem, he says approvingly that its “moral causality is inexorable.” But the falseness Grendel detects in the epic poem is real, and impossible to ignore. We have seen, through Grendel’s eyes, the baseness of the warring human tribes; we have heard, through his ears, the emptiness of the virtues the Shaper creates in his propagandistic reworkings of the ugly, violent history.Gardner disapproved of metafiction and was stolidly anti-nihilist, arguing that the purpose of fiction was to inspire its audience toward morality. Yet his most enduring work of fiction… is a sly little metafiction full of postmodern language play. What gives?
And Beowulf, the supposed hero of the tale? In Gardner’s hands, he is hardly an order-bringing moralist, but a nihilist alongside Grendel—albeit a cheerful one. In the midst of their climactic battle, Beowulf gets Grendel in an iron grip and whispers in his ear: “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.” Pushing Grendel against a wall, the warrior demands, “Feel the wall: is it not hard?… Observe the hardness write it down in careful runes. Now sing of walls! Sing!”
This is not quite the nihilism of Grendel and the dragon, but it’s not the essentialist moralism of Gardner’s critical work either. Instead it’s something that lands somewhere between, far more daring and terrifying than either extreme: art, rather than reflecting the world, actually makes it. Stories create their own realities. They create graves, gardens—even walls. We make the world by language, by stories. And the worlds we make are both within our control and beyond it, just as stories themselves leap beyond our abilities as writers, readers, and critics to tame or contain them.
This is what I like to believe Gardner discovered in writing Grendel, and the reason the book feels so at odds with its creator’s stated opinions, his dearly held beliefs: that in making stories, we bump up against something beyond ourselves, something outside our control, something that, if we’re lucky, leaps beyond what limits us and lives outside our precious little categories. Maybe “morality” was the name Gardner tried to give to this indefinable thing, but in doing so he made it smaller, I think. Grendel lives beyond the opinions of its creator, and that is because it is in contact with something alive, something that resists naming, and taming.
Gardner’s later critical work—which turned away from pure criticism to a consideration of writing craft—lends some credence to the idea that something in the writing of Grendel surprised Gardner, upending his tidy theories about the way life and art should work. In The Art of Fiction (1983), Gardner is more ambivalent about the traditionalist view of great literature; he acknowledges that many of the old stories, including Beowulf, are “authoritarian” in their purpose, and ripe for deconstruction.
Gone is the search for immutable truths in art, replaced by a striking humility, a growing sense that what truly lives on the page and in the hearts and minds of a reading public is beyond the control of the artist or critic: “What we enjoy we enjoy; dispute is useless. And one of the things human beings enjoy most is discovery.” A passage in which Gardner disinterestedly considers a writer “retelling the story of Beowulf from the perspective of the monster Grendel” as though he had not himself written just such a book is odd indeed—to get a confession of Gardner’s own sense of discovery in Grendel, one must turn to his other book on the craft of writing, On Becoming a Novelist (1983). There, Gardner speaks of moments in which writers encounter something in their stories he can only call “strangeness.” He admits that he cannot fully put the experience to words: “The mystery is that even when one has experienced these moments, one finds, as mystics so often do, that after one has come out of them, one cannot say, or even clearly remember, what happened.” But he says very clearly that he experienced just such a moment when he was writing—out of all the works of fiction he’d published to that point, all the texts he could have named—Grendel.
It’s perhaps especially fitting that the scene he reports as the one whose writing brings him into contact with strangeness is the novel’s final chapter, the scene of Grendel’s death, in which the monster was, according to Gardner’s own analysis, “hanging on for dear life to his convictions, in terror of being swallowed by the universe and convinced that his opinions and his identity are one and the same.” I take this as a kind of confession on Gardner’s part—a confession that Grendel’s struggle was his own, and that the experience of having his own opinions swept away by the power and strangeness of art felt like a kind of death.
“Is it joy I feel?” Grendel wonders as he flees into the woods, less an arm, to die. Perhaps it’s also the novelist speaking there, not quite understanding what he’d created, not knowing (how could he?) that it would be his most enduring work. And then, both wishing and not wishing the experience on his fellow writers, authors present and future, penning the monster’s last words: “Poor Grendel’s had an accident. So may you all.”