In Grendel, Gardner takes one of the mainstays of Western literature, the Old English epic Beowulf, and gives it a dramatic new vision by telling it from the point of view (and through the words) of the monster. In this way Gardner is able to present the story anew but also to make telling comments on his enduring theme, the place and power of art in human life.
Beginning the novel as a brute, barely articulate figure, Grendel is exposed to art and its powers by two competing forces. On one hand, there is the human he calls the Shaper, the blind poet of the mead hall; allied with the Shaper is Wealtheow, the beautiful queen. These two are embodiments of the positive power of art to raise human beings—or even creatures such as Grendel—beyond the pointless round of mere existence. Yet Grendel is profoundly troubled by them and by the power they wield and comes to prefer their opposite number. The Old Dragon represents another aspect of art, its negative side, as he holds the universe to be meaningless, a random collection of events without purpose, its creatures without dignity.
There is thus a truly philosophical dimension to the novel—as is always the case with Gardner’s fiction—and in Grendel, Gardner has composed a satirical portrait of the noted modern philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whose theory known as existentialism posited a meaningless world, a vision close to the Dragon’s bleak theories. In accepting this view, Grendel closes himself to the effects of what Gardner termed “moral fiction”—that is, literature that transcends...
(The entire section is 651 words.)