Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The source for Grendel, and the primary inspiration for both its characters and its story line, is the medieval heroic poem Beowulf. That work recounts the major triumphs of Beowulf, hero of the Geats, whose immortality is assured by his actions to rid King Hrothgar’s lands of the monster Grendel and to save his own kingdom from a fierce dragon. The details of Beowulf’s encounter with Grendel are presented with exceptional fidelity in this twentieth century account of the story—with one important difference. Gardner, who was a scholar and teacher of medieval literature as well as a novelist, retold this most famous Old English story from the point of view of the monster. By shifting the novel’s focus to the much-maligned villain of the earlier tale, Gardner highlighted the essential themes of Beowulf and allowed the reader familiar with both works to develop a better appreciation for the medieval classic.

Those not familiar with Beowulf may appreciate Grendel for itself: a tale of fantasy underpinned by metaphysical questioning. Readers who know the original, however, will immediately recognize the larger subject with which Gardner is dealing: the contrast between medieval and modern worldviews. The nature of heroism, and man’s understanding of the purpose of life, have changed radically in the ten centuries intervening between the creation of these two works. By simply turning the story on its head,...

(The entire section is 427 words.)