The Plot

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Grendel, a young monster, lives with his mother in a vast cave under a marsh. Swimming through a pool of firesnakes, he finds a secret door leading to the world above. On the surface one night, he becomes stuck in a tree. Exhausted, he finally sleeps, awakening to find that a group of humans is trying to figure out what he is. Grendel understands their language, but they misinterpret everything he says and eventually try to kill him. Only his mothers arrival rescues him.

Grendel periodically visits the surface to observe these creatures who speak his language. They slowly evolve from small marauding groups, always fighting and bragging, into organized communities clustered around meadhalls; they begin planting crops and domesticating animals. Hrothgar gradually predominates, brutally subduing nearby tribes and building roads to consolidate his power. Despite these superficial changes, Hrothgars actions merely change the scale, not the meaning, of the incessant strife. The arrival of a blind bard, whom Grendel dubs the Shaper, transforms everything. His poetic words turn violence into heroism for an ideal, and destruction into part of the glorious destiny of Hrothgars people. Bloodshed, suffering, and sacrifice now have a historical context and transcendent meaning.

Grendel understands that the Shapers songs hide reality behind beautiful webs of words, but he still longs to believe the vision. He accepts the Shapers view that God divided humanity into two races, even if he himself is a member of the race that God cursed. Overwhelmed by emotion, he tries to make peace with the humans. Again, they misunderstand and attack him; when he defends himself, he inadvertently kills several of them and flees into the forest. Nevertheless, he begins to comprehend that, as the humans enemy, he helps to transform them into the creatures of the vision. A visit to the dragon who sees all of history reinforces this dawning realization.

Caught between despising humans and yearning to belong, Grendel begins his idiotic war. Rendered invulnerable to weapons by the dragon, he makes systematic, murderous raids on Hrothgar’s meadhall. One thane, Unferth, understands Grendel’s speech and tracks him down, seeking a hero’s death; Grendel mockingly lets him live. Grendel has second thoughts, however, when he sees Wealtheow, the queen. Given to Hrothgar in a political marriage, she sacrifices her happiness for her people. Her beauty and sacrifice spur Grendel to greater violence. Confronting an old priest, Grendel pretends to be The Destroyer but slowly realizes that human society contains its own destruction, in the form of ambition, jealousy, and greed. As humans themselves recognize this, Grendel becomes obsolete.

In the twelfth year of Grendel’s war, the Shaper dies, and strangers arrive from far away. One stranger fascinates Grendel with his mild voice, massive shoulders, beardless face, and empty eyes. Incredibly, he promises Hrothgar that he will destroy Grendel. That night, the stranger, wide awake and utterly fearless, awaits Grendel’s raid. He grasps Grendel’s arm in a merciless grip and whispers that his death is as inevitable as spring. He tears off the monster’s arm. Panic-stricken, Grendel flees to the forest and dies, protesting to the last.

Historical Context

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American Society in the Late 1960s The heady days of the early 1960s, with their promise of peace abroad, political change in Washington, and economic boom throughout the country, had given way by the end of the decade to a series of gloomy developments. The prospect of an unwinnable war in Vietnam was compounded by numerous protests that often ended in violence. Disillusion with the American political system was symbolized by several assassinations: first, that of President...

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John F. Kennedy in 1963, then the 1965 murder of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X then those of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Early advances in civil rights stood in contrast to riots by urban blacks, whose expectations had been raised but not met by President Johnson's promises of a "Great Society." Economic uncertainty was reflected in a stagnant and inflationary economy that was unable to support both the war in Vietnam and the needs of President Johnson's domestic agenda.

Protests and Politics The 1960s saw numerous protests, particularly over issues concerning civil rights and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. By 1968, dissatisfaction with the Johnson administration's responses to these concerns led to a record number of protests, particularly on college campuses. Although President Lyndon Johnson declined to run for reelection in 1968, the Democratic National Convention was seen by many groups as the ideal protest forum, one which could gain them a wider audience. Several antiwar protest groups, as well as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the civil-rights group once led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. showed up in Chicago to protest. This led to several conflicts with Chicago police, who had been instructed by law-and-order mayor Richard Daley to stop any such protests. One legal rally led to violence when a group of police attacked not only protesters but innocent bystanders and members of the media who were covering the event. The whole conflict was captured by television cameras and broadcast nationally. In the aftermath, several leaders of activist groups—the "Chicago Seven"—were charged by the U.S. Attorney General with conspiracy to riot, even though most of them had never met before the convention.

Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, in part aided by his "law and order" platform and his promises to bring an "honorable end" to the Vietnam War. In 1970, however, Nixon announced that U.S. military forces had invaded Cambodia, another Southeast Asian country, in order to find and destroy enemy Vietcong bases. This triggered massive demonstrations on college campuses and often rioting. The Ohio National Guard was called to quell unrest on the campus of Kent State University, and on May 4, shots were fired into a crowd, killing four students and injuring nine others, including some students who had not even participated in the protest. Investigations later showed that, contrary to official claims, none of the victims had been physically threatening the Guards, or even been closer than sixty feet. A similar situation occurred at Jackson State University in Mississippi eleven days later, leaving two women dead. The result of these two incidents was a student strike that shut down over two hundred colleges and universities nationwide, and a country embroiled in conflict over political protest.

Literature of the 1960s As befitted an era of conflict and protest, much of the literature of the 1960s was concerned with political issues. Socially conscious artists saw their work as a means to communicate their ideas, criticisms, and protests. Black humor, such as that found in the antiwar novels Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut or Catch-22 by Joseph Heller was often employed to satirize issues of the day. Writers also experimented with form, trying new and different techniques to push the boundanes of traditional fiction. These more literary works often ended up on best-seller lists, adopted by a reading public open to new literary possibilities and new ideas. By the end of the 1960s, however, many artists became frustrated with what they felt was a lack of effectiveness in using art to achieve social reform. They adopted a nihilistic viewpoint—that existence is pointless. Literary works reflected this view either by focusing only on a work's form, not its content, or by using absurdity to deal with the hopelessness of life.

Gardner's Grendel, written at the tail end of this era, attempted to refute this nihilistic viewpoint. While the twelve-chapter structure is an important part of the novel, this form serves to highlight and support the content, not replace it. Gardner also makes an argument for the importance of the artist in society. Through the character of the Shaper, the author points out the positive influence an artist may have on those around him. In this way, Gardner's work reflects the spirit of many other literary novels of the day, and achieved similar success.

Literary Style

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Point of ViewGrendel is told in the first person ("I") from the point of view of the title character. Grendel is a monster with poetic aspirations whose every attempt to communicate with ordinary humans is met with misunderstanding and hostility. By focusing on the monster, the author elicits some sympathy for an otherwise thoroughly repulsive character who eats humans for pleasure. Because the point of view is that of Grendel, instead of the omniscient narrator of the original poem, the reader must deduce the story's theme from the monster's limited perspective. Fortunately Grendel is not just an aspiring poet but a good writer. In this respect he resembles Gardner's philosophical nemesis, Jean-Paul Sartre, whose philosophy of existentialism Gardner despised. Gardner told interviewer Marshall L. Harvey in Chicago Review that he wished "to present the Beowulf monster as Jean-Paul Sartre." According to Sartre, human beings are basically isolated individuals in an accidental world where God does not exist. Man must therefore create his own values, even though these values have no meaning outside the individual consciousness. Thus, when Grendel is attacked by the bull while trapped in a tree, he realizes that "the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity ... I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist" (Chapter 2). From that moment until the end of the story, in which Grendel describes his fatal wound as an "accident" (Chapter 12), the monster articulates Sartre's bleak philosophy.

Structure The story begins in the "twelfth year of my idiotic war" against Hrothgar (Chapter 1) and uses the technique of flashback to tell the story of the monster's life. Grendel's long reminiscence covers from "when I was young" (Chapter 2) to the moment when he lies dying from Beowulf's fatal attack (Chapter 12). Within that frame, Gardner has ambitiously structured his tale around the twelve years of Grendel's war (one for each of the twelve chapters). He has also given each chapter an event associated with one of the twelve signs of the zodiac and their associated ruling planets and houses. (In an American Literature article, Barry Fawcett and Elizabeth Jones explicate each of these items.) For example, Chapter 1 opens with Aries the ram, representing Spring. Aries is associated with the planet Mars, the god of war—hence the references to Grendel's war with Hrothgar. Aries also corresponds to the first house in astrology, that of life—hence the funeral scene in which Hrothgar celebrates the life of the victims of that war. Beowulf's inspiring speech in Chapter 12, with its images of spring ("strong searching roots will crack your cave and rain will cleanse it: The world will burn green ... ") recalls the Spring imagery of Chapter 1. In this way the author is suggesting a cyclical pattern, which reinforces Beowulf's words of rebirth. As Kathryn Van Spanckeren has analyzed at length (in John Gardner: Critical Perspectives), Gardner used such "embedded structures" as the narrative frame in all of his novels except Nickel Mountain.

Other critics, such as Craig J. Stromme in Critique, have noted that each chapter is designed to highlight a different school of philosophy. After Gardner's introduction to the astrological idea of endless cyclical repetition in Chapter 1, Grendel begins as a solipsist in Chapter 2—"I exist, nothing else." In Chapter 3, Grendel is exposed to the sophistry of the Shaper, who can by the power of his words make his hearers believe anything. In Chapter 4, the Shaper articulates the theology of the Old Testament, in which the children of light are contrasted to the descendants of Cain, the children of darkness. In Chapter 5, the dragon expresses English philosopher Alfred Whitehead's philosophy of the fundamental connection of all things, but Grendel can't understand it. In Chapter 6, Grendel emerges as a skeptic who, in Stromme's words, "accepts that beings other than himself exist, but ... has postulated them all as enemies." Similarly, Grendel is exposed to Christianity by Wealtheow in Chapter 7, Machiavellian statecraft by Hrothulf in Chapter 8, the hypocrisy of the young priests in Chapter 9, the pessimism of Nietzsche in Chapter 10, and the nihilism of Sartre in Chapter 11. Thus Grendel is structured as a survey of philosophical ideas.

Parody In Gardner's hands Grendel is a parody that is used both to imitate and to ridicule or admire specific pieces and forms of literature and specific authors. Most obviously, Grendel is a respectful tribute to its source of inspiration, the Old English classic Beowulf. Gardner borrows most of the plot and characters directly from the original poem. Where the author has expanded the role of a character, as in the case of Grendel or the dragon, it is generally to ridicule or act as a foil for specific philosophers and their works. For example, Grendel represents a "case history of a bad artist" whose words are constantly misunderstood by others, according to David Cowart in Arches and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. He inspires only acts of violence, whereas the Shaper's words inspire hearers to do great deeds. Thus we see Grendel, inspired by the Shaper, try his own hand at poetry, which at first results in ridiculous doggerel (Chapter 7). This awkward attempt gives way to somewhat better rhymed verse (opening of Chapter 8); still more creative and metrically freer verse (end of Chapter 8); and lastly, truly inspired, alliterative verse (Chapter 12), albeit composed as Beowulf smashes Grendel against a wall. Similarly, by ridiculing the Shaper's lack of a "total vision, total system" (Chapter 5), the dragon seems to be advocating Whitehead's philosophy of connectedness, though as Howell notes, the dragon's "sneering tone seems to undercut the validity of Whitehead's vision as well as the Shaper's." Gardner, however, is using both Grendel and the dragon in a parodic manner to bring out the prominent points of contrasting philosophies.

Compare and Contrast

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Sixth-century A.D. Scandinavia: Using Scandinavian chronicles and sagas, it is possible to date the historical events in the original Beowulf, the basis for Grendel, to this time and place. The basic political conflict in Beowulf is between the Danes (represented by Hrothgar's house) and the Geats (represented by Beowulf and his visiting party). Similarly, the rivalry between Hrothgar and Hrothulf over what would happen to the throne when Hrothgar died are also recounted in the Scandinavian analogues.

1960s-1970s United States: Political turmoil in the United States reaches a peak with students protesting the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. The Chicago police, under Democratic Mayor Richard Daley, repress the demonstrations with great force, leading to disillusionment not only in the Democratic Party (whose candidate, Hubert Humphrey, eventually lost the presidential election to Richard Nixon) but also in the whole democratic process.

Today: Widespread disillusionment with the political process continues, with record numbers of eligible voters not voting and widespread cynicism among both politicians and voters about the effectiveness of the democratic process. Today, cynicism feeds on the controversy surrounding the ways in which political campaigns and candidates are financed. Cynicism also flourishes because of the decrease in bipartisan spirit on many issues between the two major political parties. Nevertheless, there is agreement that the U.S. system of government still seems to work as well or better than any system others have been able to devise.

Sixth-century A.D. Scandinavia: The political tribes of the area have little interaction with cultures outside of Europe; the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., while creating new political realities throughout Europe, is scarcely felt in Scandinavia (which had never been a part of the Roman Empire) either politically or economically.

1960s-1970s United States: This period sees the beginning of an increasingly inflationary economy (where prices rise quickly). The high inflation of this stagnant economy, combined with the oil embargo by Arab nations, produces a serious economic recession in 1973 and 1974.

Today: Fueled by low inflation and interest rates, the steady growth of the U.S. economy leads to a period of economic prosperity and optimism unequaled since the early 1960s. In 1997 the influence of a worldwide economy can be seen in a sudden drop in the U.S. stock market, caused by economic downturns in Asian countries.

Sixth-century A.D. Scandinavia: Power rests on wealth from raids and trading, although trading eastward is cut off during this period by the Huns and Avars. Society consists of a landed aristocracy and farmer tenants and a local court system.

1960s-1970s United States: Young people, particularly students, challenge the authority of those who govern at all levels. There is a general questioning of the right of a power elite, composed largely of white males, to make policy for an increasingly younger and more diverse citizenry. Civil rights groups continue to fight for the rights of minorities, while others focus on equal rights for women and homosexuals.

Today: There is a greater representation of women and minorities in various areas of life, including government and the workforce. Nevertheless, some inequalities remain, particularly economic ones, and racial issues are prominent in politics. A country containing individuals of diverse social, sexual, and ethnic identities, the United States remains more a "salad bowl" of many separate ingredients rather than a "melting pot" containing one definition of "American."

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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Much of the initial and continuing popularity of Grendel can be traced to its retelling of the first third of the Beowulf story through the point of view of the monster. In the epic, the monster was a mere brute presence, a son of Cain who killed the retainers in King Hrothgar's great hall. Gardner assumes the reader's familiarity with his original source, but he creates his Grendel as a perversely likable character who is far less inhuman than the monster in the original story. His Grendel is half-human, and therefore traces to other important monsters in literature such as Shakespeare's Caliban (The Tempest, c.1611) and Milton's Satan (Paradise Lost, 1667).

Although Grendel is the narrator of this story, the reader should not identify the monster's point of view with that of the author. Gardner employs a fairly traditional literary technique, the "unreliable narrator," a fictional character with whom the reader sympathizes but whose conclusions and inferinferences should be scrutinized carefully against the facts, not only of this story, but of the original Beowulf legend as well. Grendel does not represent Gardner's position on heroism orhuman institutions. In fact, Grendel's cynicism is one of the chief devices by which the author makes his theme clear, and that theme ironically involves a modern affirmation of certain of the values of humanity and art Grendel so violently rejects.

Media Adaptations

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Grendel was adapted as an animated cartoon titled Grendel, Grendel, Grendel by Alexander Stitt in 1981. Sir Peter Ustinov was featured as the voice of Grendel.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources David Cowart, "John Champlin Gardner, Jr." in Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II, edited by Jeffrey Helterman and Richard Layman, Gale, 1978, p. 177.

David Cowart, Arches & Light: The Fiction of John Gardner, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Don Edwards and Carol Polsgrove, "A Conversation with John Gardner," in Atlantic Monthly, May, 1977, p. 43.

Helen B. Ellis and Warren U. Ober, "Grendel and Blake - The Contraries of Existence," in John Gardner: Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn Van Spanckeren, Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, p. 47.

Barry Fawcett and Elizabeth Jones, "The Twelve Traps in John Gardner's Grendel," in American Literature, Vol. 62, December, 1990, pp. 634-647.

John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, Basic Books, 1978, p. 82.

Marshall L. Harvey, "Where Philosophy and Fiction Meet: An Interview with John Gardner," in Chicago Review, Vol. 29, Spring, 1978, p. 75.

John M. Howell, Understanding John Gardner, University of South Carolina Press, 1993, pp. 61, 71-73.

John Romano, review of Freddy's Book, in New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1980, p. 26.

Stephen Singular, "The Sound and Fury over Fiction," in New York Times Magazine, July 8, 1979, p. 36.

Craig J. Stromme, "The Twelve Chapters of Grendel," in Critique, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1978, p. 87.

Kathryn Van Spanckeren, "Magical Prisons - Embedded Structures in the Work of John Gardner," in John Gardner: Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn Van Spanckeren, Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, pp. 114-129.

For Further Study Leonard Butts, "The Monster as Artist: Grendel and Freddy's Book," in his The Novels of John Gardner: Making Life Art as a Moral Process, Louisiana State University Press, 1983, pp. 86-110. Butts discusses Grendel as a failed artist who lives in his own first-person narrative, unable to make connections with humans or redeem himself through imagination and art.

Norma L. Hutman, "Even Monsters Have Mothers: A Study of Beowulf and John Gardner's Grendel," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1975, pp. 19-31. The author compares the two works and finds that Gardner's novel stands up well beside the older classic.

Jerome Klinkowitz, "John Gardner's Grendel," in John Gardner Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn Van Spanckeren, Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, pp. 62-67. Characterizes the work as a product of its times and faults it for being Gardner's personal experiment instead of addressing its real audience.

Dean McWilliams, "Grendel," in his John Gardner, Twayne, 1990, pp. 29-41. McWilliams reads Grendel as an exploration of the role of dialogue in the creation of the self and the world.

Joseph Milosh, "John Gardner's Grendel: Sources and Analogues," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 48-57. An essay connecting Grendel with Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale.

Jay Rudd, "Gardner's Grendel and Beowulf: Humanizing the Monster," in THOTH, Spring/Fall, 1974, pp. 3-17. A close analysis of the onginal poem and why it is so appealing to modern writers like Barth, Heller, and Beckett, as well as Gardner.


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Butts, Leonard. The Novels of John Gardner: Making Life Art as a Moral Process. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Butts draws his argument from Gardner himself, specifically On Moral Fiction (that art is a moral process) and discusses the ten novels in pairs, focusing on the main characters as either artists or artist figures who to varying degrees succeed or fail in transforming themselves into Gardner’s “true artist.” As Butts defines it, moral fiction is not didactic but instead a matter of aesthetic wholeness.

Chavkin, Allan, ed. Conversations with John Gardner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. Reprints nineteen of the most important interviews (the majority from the crucial On Moral Fiction period) and adds one never before published interview. Chavkin’s introduction, which focuses on Gardner as he appears in these and his other numerous interviews, is especially noteworthy. The chronology updates the one in Howell (below).

Cowart, David. Arches and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Discusses the published novels through Mickelsson’s Ghosts, the two story collections, and the tales for children. As good as Cowart’s intelligent and certainly readable chapters are, they suffer (as does so much Gardner criticism) insofar as they are concerned with validating Gardner’s position on moral fiction as a valid alternative to existential despair.

Henderson, Jeff. John Gardner: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Part 1 concentrates on Gardner’s short fiction, including his stories for children; part 2 contains excerpts from essays and letters in which Gardner defines his role as a writer; part 3 provides excerpts from important Gardner critics. Includes chronology and bibliography.

Henderson, Jeff, ed. Thor’s Hammer: Essays on John Gardner. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1985. Presents fifteen original essays of varying quality, including three on Grendel. The most important are John M. Howell’s biographical essay, Robert A. Morace’s on Gardner and his reviewers, Gregory Morris’s discussion of Gardner and “plagiarism,” Samuel Coale’s on dreams, Leonard Butts’s on Mickelsson’s Ghosts, and Charles Johnson’s “A Phenomenology of On Moral Fiction.”

Howell, John M. John Gardner: A Bibliographical Profile. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980. Howell’s detailed chronology and enumerative listing of works by Gardner (down to separate editions, printings, issues, and translations), as well as the afterword written by Gardner, make this an indispensable work for any Gardner student.

McWilliams, Dean. John Gardner. Boston: Twayne, 1990. McWilliams includes little biographical material, does not try to be at all comprehensive, yet has an interesting and certainly original thesis: that Gardner’s fiction may be more fruitfully approached via Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism than via On Moral Fiction. Unfortunately, the chapters (on the novels and Jason and Medeia) tend to be rather introductory in approach and only rarely dialogical in focus.

Morace, Robert A. John Gardner: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1984. An especially thorough annotated listing of all known items (reviews, articles, significant mentions) about Gardner through 1983. The annotations of speeches and interviews are especially full (a particularly useful fact given the number of interviews and speeches the loquacious as well as prolific Gardner gave). A concluding section updates Howell’s John Gardner: A Bibliographical Profile.

Morace, Robert A., and Kathryn VanSpanckeren, eds. John Gardner: Critical Perspectives. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. This first critical book on Gardner’s work covers the full range of his literary endeavors, from his dissertation-novel “The Old Men” through his then most recent fictions, “Vlemk, The Box Painter” and Freddy’s Book, with separate essays on his “epic poem” Jason and Medeia; The King’s Indian: Stories and Tales; his children’s stories; libretti; pastoral novels; use of sources, parody, and embedding; and theory of moral fiction. The volume concludes with Gardner’s afterword.

Morris, Gregory L. A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. Like Butts and Cowart, Morris works well within the moral fiction framework which Gardner himself established. Unlike Cowart, however, Morris emphasizes moral art as a process by which order is discovered rather than (as Cowart contends) made. More specifically the novels (including Gardner’s dissertation novel “The Old Men”) and two collections of short fiction are discussed in terms of Gardner’s “luminous vision” and “magical landscapes.”




Critical Essays