So, on the advice of a friend I recently read John Gardner’s Grendel. Having never been forced to read Beowulf by sadistic english teachers or antiquarian fetishists, I read some summaries before reading this and that was it. All things considered, the central theme of the necessity of death is a connecting thread between the two, and some of the events later in Beowulf are foreshadowed in Grendel. Ultimately, I think they can be read as completely separate works.
My first impression of Grendel is that it was like having Holden Caulfield narrate an ancient nordic/germanic version of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The narrator, the eponymous Grendel, is an important aspect of the story I think. It’s not like stories where the narrator is unreliable – in this case the narrator is literally a monster. In other words, if the narrator seems unpleasant, maybe he’s supposed to. Gardner wanted to touch on all sorts of subjects throughout this work – and pretty well all of them from a modern viewpoint. An early middle ages monster who’s an existentialist grappling with the nihilistic fatalism expressed by a dragon seems odd given the actual historical context of the poem. Not just that, either – there’s also a little discourse on power games that sounds like something out of Machiavelli, a speech about the ground of rationality which I admit could have come from the likes of Eriugena, some discussion of free will that would have fit in Boethius or Abelard. It’s really just an odd collection of ideas gathered together in a self-consciously revisionist version of a myth. This book is how I imagine things could have gone wrong if Disney’s recent Maleficent had tried to insert little comments on social theory, naturalism, and heroism in the face of death.
Is the point that heroes and myth survive despite the reality of death? If not, is it about defeating Camusian nihilism by being a hero? Is the conclusion of this work actually what Grendel’s is – that all things are just accidents? I’m not sure what the point of any of the writing really was, there are no definitive statements. I don’t know if Gardner was deliberately opening up subjects just to keep skipping like a dilettante, but the book raised lots of modern questions and scattered a few remnants of historical suggestions for answers and generally just petered out.
It’s not so much that I didn’t enjoy the book – I did – but I felt like it needed footnotes for all the themes and subjects touched on. The fatalism discussed by the dragon is Aristotle’s “sea battle” argument discussed through the early middle ages and into the present. The priest’s diatribe about the king of the Gods is middle ages Neo-Platonism. It’s more that the reader comes across all of these sort of erudite subjects and receives them with Grendel’s shrug and uneasy nihilism and the story sort of chugs on with flourishes about mountains and streams and mead halls and such and never stops to really examine any of the things the book is apparently about.