Grendel is a retelling of the epic poem Beowulf (c. 1000) from its villainous monster’s point of view. It was John Gardner’s best-received and best-selling novel. Gardner explores many philosophical themes within its stream-of-consciousness narrative, and the novel may best be seen not as the clash of hero and monster, but as a clash of visions—the creative artistic vision of the Shaper, who sees the world as ordered and meaningful, and the nihilistic vision of the Dragon, who sees the world as disordered and meaningless. Grendel himself is continually tugged between the alluring power of both visions, yet he finally commits to the Dragon’s perspective, even as Beowulf is committed to the Shaper’s.
In this view, it is not Beowulf who is the sole destroyer of Grendel. Behind Beowulf’s victory is the Shaper, the creator of the heroic and civilizational ideals that impose redemptive patterns upon life’s seemingly monstrous irrationality. Unferth tries to defeat the monster, but as a slayer of his own brothers, Unferth is too close to monstrosity himself; after all, Grendel is descended from Cain, the original brother-slayer. Therefore, Grendel’s defeat must be brought about not by his kindred spirit Unferth, but by one who more perfectly embodies the Shaper’s vision of the hero.
Gardner himself assumes this shaping stance by imposing a cyclical pattern upon the twelve chapters of the novel. Within these...
(The entire section is 517 words.)