Grendel is the story of the battle between the monster Grendel and the Scandinavian King Hrothgar, told through the eyes of the monster. The story highlights the various encounters between the monster and the men who hate and fear him but who are powerless to do anything to him, until a stranger from across the waters comes to end Grendel’s life.
Grendel lives in an undersea cave with his mother but spends most of his time wandering through the forests, observing the men and women in the various villages and fortresses built across the countryside. Angered by a rebuff that he receives from Hrothgar and his thanes, Grendel vows to make life miserable for the king. At will, he raids human dwellings, destroying life and property with delight. He takes particular pleasure in wreaking havoc in Hart, the hall that Hrothgar builds as a showplace and from which he reigns as a kind of overlord.
None of Hrothgar’s warriors can match the monster’s strength, and Grendel mocks them because they are boastful at banquets but unable to live up to their claims when put to the test. He is especially harsh on Unferth, Hrothgar’s greatest warrior; when Unferth follows the monster to his underwater lair, Grendel taunts him about the poor state of men who claim to be heroes, then renders him unconscious and delivers him back to Hart, unharmed, so he must suffer shame before his peers.
Grendel is not the only enemy Hrothgar faces. Even...
The monster Grendel has been attacking the Danish king Hrothgar and his mead-hall, Hart, for twelve years. Grendel is extremely embittered. He is frustrated by the stupidity of an old ram, the unresponsiveness of the sky to his complaints, and the very existence of the trees, birds, and animals around him. He thinks of his home, a cave with an underwater entrance, and his mother, an uncommunicative monster asleep in the cave. Eventually, his rage and anger drive him to attack Hart yet again, and he kills and eats several of Hrothgar’s thanes (warriors). The monster’s rage is unabated by the attack, and he secretly attends the funeral pyre held the next day for the various body parts he has left behind.
Grendel recalls his earlier life and the events leading to his ongoing war with Hrothgar. As a youth, he explores his cave home and eventually swims out into the larger world. During one of his explorations, he catches his foot in the cleft of two oak trees grown together and is attacked by a bull; he also encounters men for the first time. Grendel can understand their language, but his attempts to communicate frighten the men, who decide to kill him; however, Grendel is rescued by his mother and taken back to his cave.
This incident does not immediately turn Grendel against humans; in fact, he observes them over the next several years as they gradually develop more complex homes and civilizations. Hrothgar, as a result of his skills as a savage warrior and pragmatic politician, emerges as the acknowledged leader of the humans over a wide geographical area. A blind harpist and poet, the Shaper (a translation of the word scop, pronounced “shope”), arrives at the mead-hall and becomes resident bard, commemorating in his songs Hrothgar’s victories in particular and human history in general. Grendel is enraged and yet fascinated by the Shaper’s poetry, and Hrothgar is influenced to build his civilization on more general principles of justice. Grendel remains angered at what he sees as the hypocrisy of the entire enterprise, yet he goes back again and again to hear the Shaper’s songs, which combine mythology, history, and biblical references. At one point, he is so moved by the poetic songs that he goes to the mead-hall to attempt a treaty with the humans, but he is rebuffed and attacked by the frightened thanes.
Grendel is torn between his desire to become like the noble and heroic humans celebrated by the Shaper, and his cold-blooded knowledge that most of what the Shaper celebrates is fictitious. However, his life is changed by a trance-like, visionary encounter with an ancient, omniscient, treasure-hoarding dragon. Grendel and the Dragon have an extended philosophical argument over the nature of human destiny as presented by the Shaper; ultimately, the Dragon strengthens Grendel in his nihilism and disbelief. Grendel accepts his role as the death-dealing monster who spurs the humans toward their development and achievements; soon, he discovers that the Dragon has placed a spell upon him that makes...
In Grendel, Gardner takes one of the mainstays of Western literature, the Old English epic Beowulf, and gives it a dramatic new vision by telling it from the point of view (and through the words) of the monster. In this way Gardner is able to present the story anew but also to make telling comments on his enduring theme, the place and power of art in human life.
Beginning the novel as a brute, barely articulate figure, Grendel is exposed to art and its powers by two competing forces. On one hand, there is the human he calls the Shaper, the blind poet of the mead hall; allied with the Shaper is Wealtheow, the beautiful queen. These two are embodiments of the positive power of art to raise human beings—or even creatures such as Grendel—beyond the pointless round of mere existence. Yet Grendel is profoundly troubled by them and by the power they wield and comes to prefer their opposite number. The Old Dragon represents another aspect of art, its negative side, as he holds the universe to be meaningless, a random collection of events without purpose, its creatures without dignity.
There is thus a truly philosophical dimension to the novel—as is always the case with Gardner’s fiction—and in Grendel, Gardner has composed a satirical portrait of the noted modern philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whose theory known as existentialism posited a meaningless world, a vision close to the Dragon’s bleak theories. In accepting this view, Grendel closes himself to the effects of what Gardner termed “moral fiction”—that is, literature that transcends...