Themes and Meanings
Beneath this fantasy story lies a serious metaphysical novel. Gardner’s chief concerns are the nature of man and the meaning of life itself. The musings of the monster and his interactions with the Scandinavian warriors provide a vehicle for the reader’s journey through the maze of philosophical issues confronting twentieth century man as he, too, searches for the rationale of human existence.
Gardner’s position on the ultimate meaning of life remains unclear. Grendel is openly existentialist. (Indeed, many of his ideas and some of his very words are slyly adapted from the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre.) To him, life is merely an accident, unplanned and purposeless. No benevolent (or malevolent) deity presides over human destiny. Hence, there is no ultimate judge to pronounce men’s actions good or evil. Throughout the novel, Grendel learns that lesson, which is made most clear to him by the hero who kills him: “You make the world by whispers, second by second,” the hero tells him; “Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point.” Life is what each man, or each monster, makes of it. To Grendel, man’s behavior seems merely ludicrous and hypocritical. Nevertheless, he sympathizes with those who display what the reader recognizes as man’s highest and most human qualities, one of which is to act with some regard to the afterlife. Hence, it would be naïve to assume simply that the monster’s fatalistic approach to life is...
(The entire section is 458 words.)