I would like to think of John Gardner’s Grendel as a commentary on the socio-historical conditions that led to the production of the epic Beowulf, but from the point of view of its monstrous arch-villain.
The way Gardner emphasizes the characteristics of Hrothgar’s feudal social order shows that it is the low level of technology and knowledge of their surroundings that leads the Danes to refer to divine beings and monsters to explain the natural forces they have no control over.
Grendel’s friend, the dragon who thinks dialectically by understanding connectedness and change as the essence of everything, has the following to say about human folly:
“Games, games, games!” He snorted fire. “They only think they think. No total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spiderwebs… I could tell you a thousand tiresome stories of their absurdity. They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories, their here-to-the-moon-and-back lists of paltry facts.
And indeed, the dragon further muses, that it is in fact the fear of the unknown as represented by Grendel that drives them to strive for development:
“You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shrink from – the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment…
I thus find it relevant that Gardner found the space to insert a long political tract on the state straight out from pages of V.I. Lenin’s State and Revolution in the novel:
What is the state when the chips are down? The answer is obvious and clear! Oh yes! If a few men quit work, the police move in. If the borders are threatened, the army rolls out. Public force is the life and soul of every state: not merely army and police but prisons, judges, tax collectors, every conceivable trick of coercive repression. The state is an organization of violence, a monopoly in what it is pleased to call legitimate violence.
In the novel we are shown how the bard who may have later on chanted Beowulf would have slanted the epic to glorify his own people and blacken their enemies.
Inside the hall I would hear the Shaper telling of the glorious deeds of dead kings – how they’d split certain heads, snuck away with certain precious swords and necklaces – his harp mimicking the rush of swords, clanging boldly with the noble speeches, sighing behind the heroes’ dying words. Whenever he stopped, thinking up formulas for what to say next, the people would all shout and thump each other and drink to the Shaper’s long life.
But then much of the observations are made through the eyes of a monster that while poking fun at the absurdity of the humans would rather focus on its own existential concerns:
I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly…
Grendel’s existential angst compels him to seek reaffirmation for his existence by taking it out on the world. Most of the time, Grendel’s anger is shown to intersect with futility as shown in the very first page, for instance, where his frustration with an unmoving old ram takes a turn to the absurd:
I stamp. I hammer the ground with my fists. I hurl a skull-size stone at him. He will not budge. I shake my two hairy fists at the sky and I let out a owl so unspeakable that the water at my feet turns sudden ice… The pain of it! The stupidity!
A matter of life and death for the humans is for Grendel a funny episode: “’Grendel!’ They squeak, and I smile like exploding spring.” Like the dragon, Grendel talks with the arrogance of a higher being looking down upon the stupidity of humans.
Endowed with a tragic-comic character, Grendel is self-conscious of his innate evil and the utter absurdity of it all as can be gleaned by the way he describes himself: “Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of old men, murdered children, martyred cows.” Or the response of other creatures to his presence:
The doe in the clearing goes stiff at sight of my horridness, then remembers her legs and is gone. It makes me cross. “Blind prejudice!” I bawl at the splintered sunlight where half a second ago she stood.
[In a way Grendel also serves as a cautionary tale against liberals who see the world’s problems as a simple matter of intolerance. It is the height of stupidity to allow a monster to kill and maim in the name of respect and tolerance.]
But the day the Geats arrive is the beginning of the end for Grendel. Yet he doesn’t know this at first when he sees them landing on shore: “O happy Grendel! Fifteen glorious heroes, proud in their battle dress, fat as cows!” Upon his death he would scream for his mother.
These are Grendel’s last words: “They watch on, evil, incredibly stupid, enjoying my destruction… Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.” ― A beautiful ending for a refreshingly insightful and comical novel.