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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

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 rich poetic language that animates the physical world. The resemblance to Tolkien’s work should come as no surprise, for both Gardner and Tolkien were professors of early English literature, and Tolkien wrote influential works on Beowulf.

Like T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1983), Grendel takes a familiar story and tells it from a different perspective. White introduces whimsical elements to the Arthurian legend, and Bradley considers it from the perspective of the women involved, producing fresh insights into tales that are now almost part of the collective unconscious. Gardner’s reversal of perspective, from that of the hero to that of the monster, likewise reinvigorates an ancient story. Some might find Grendel even more powerful than modern renderings of the Arthurian legend, for fewer layers of romance separate modern readers from the brutal and primitive world of the original.

Finally, Grendel is an animal fantasy, like Richard Adam’s Watership Down (1972). Such works teach readers to see the world from the perspective of nonhuman characters. This usually entails making the readers own human perspective appear foreign and strange. Gardner chose the even harder task of asking readers to empathize with a huge murderous monster, not with more vulnerable animals. This daring act of imagination, along with Gardner’s teasing philosophical musings and gorgeous language, make Grendel a classic of modern fantasy literature.

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Critical Context