Explain the theme of "truth" in John Gardner's Grendel as to how it is derived from faulty perceptions and how it applies to the novel as a whole.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In John Gardner's Grendel, the concept of truth relates toperspective. In the original tale of Beowulf, the monster has—for no good reason—attacked and killed Hrothgar's men. Beowulf arrives to help—to rid the land of this "descendant of Cain." Beowulf is clearly the hero, there to save the Danes—innocent Christians set upon by the bloodthirsty Grendel.

Gardner's Grendel is given a voice, and the story is told from hisperspective. Child-like, he paints himself as a sad, lonely creature who has been attacked by humans. His tale is told in a manner that garners sympathy from the reader for this pitiful and friendless "fiend." However, his "faulty perceptions" are in his repeated failure to take the blame for his actions—condemning humans instead.

As the story progresses, Grendel presents himself as something more "human" than the raging monster in Beowulf. When he confronts Unferth, he carries on "civilized" conversation—to the Dane's amazement—complete with insults:

"...the awful inconvenience," I said. "Always having to stand erect, always having to find noble language! It must wear on a man."

Grendel then attacks his manhood:

"But there are compensations," I said. "The pleasant feeling of vast superiority, the easy success with women—"

Unferth's reaction is exactly what this rather savvy version of the creature wants—he is enraged and attacks. Grendel defeats Unferth—who almost begs for death. Grendel waits until the man falls asleep and returns him to the hall—but kills two guards...

...so I wouldn't be misunderstood.

In the process, Gardner gives the monster gentle feelings, which the old Anglo-Saxon tale does not. Perhaps a bit of truth is expressed, ironically, by Grendel at the beginning of Chapter Seven:

Balance is everything...

The balance in Beowulf falls on the side of the hero—Beowulf is presented as a sterling character. The reader has no reason to doubt this aspect of the story. In the novel, Gardner engages the reader to be more sympathetic toward the creature. We may want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Grendel admits:

I hung balanced—a creature of two minds...

With the same human characteristics of the men around him, Grendel evokes pity and empathy—caught between two worlds. The "truth" in Beowulf is at first questionable when we see things from Grendel's perspective—that is often the case with truth. In the hottest debates that rage within society, it is very often based onperspective—each side believing they are keepers of "the truth."

But Grendel sees only his version of the truth; the reader is asked to make allowances in that Grendel is a product of his experiences at the hands of thoughtless, monstrous humans. However, Grendel is a monster: he makes choices, and in doing so, he murders—anddelights in his actions.

At the story's end, Grendel asks for no forgiveness from the reader, but tries to "blame" Beowulf, saying he is insane—lucky to have bested Grendel because of an "accident." But Grendel fails to convince the reader of his innocence—Grendel's feelings are notcredible in the face of his inhumanity. This, then, is Grendel's truth—that the world consists only of his perceptions of humankind andits failure to accept him—he does not deal in facts.

Grendel may infer that forgetting his place is what costs him his life—but more accurately, he is never able to objectively judge his actions.