Although most of the characters are familiar from the epic Beowulf, from about the eleventh century, they naturally play somewhat different roles in Grendel’s own retelling. Hardly a brute force of nature, this sophisticated monster asks philosophical questions and shows more self-awareness than his human foes. By contrast, whatever dignity Hrothgar has, he has gained from constantly confronting an enemy such as Grendel. Grendel does not even know the noble Beowulf’s name; to him, the stranger’s fearless heroism simply masks cold-blooded insanity.
This early work by John Gardner earned his first major critical acclaim. Like his other works, Grendel reveals Gardner’s fascination with questions of morality and meaning, as well as his use of unexpected or alternating perspectives. Gardner strongly believed that literature should contribute positively to morality, as he wrote in On Moral Fiction (1978), by forcing readers to consider the moral premises of choices and by showing the consequences of evil. His novel October Light (1976) won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Grendel recalls three types of fantasy literature. First, it resembles the works of J. R. R. Tolkien in its re-creation of a densely textured, premedieval world on the cusp between paganism and Christianity. Here readers find rituals from a distant past, fabulous creatures and characters who possess arcane powers, and a...
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