John Gardner

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Gardner, John 1933–

Gardner, an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, biographer, and children's book author, is also a scholar of medieval literature. As both an artist and a critic, Gardner believes that art should serve a moral purpose, that essentially art is "a game played against chaos and death." The subject of his work is often drawn from myth and legend. Admitting an indebtedness to Chaucer, Dante, and Walt Disney, Gardner is consistently drawn to the fairy tale for the source and style of his writing. The breadth of his learning is revealed in the wealth of allusion from the entire spectrum of Western literary and philosophical tradition found in his work. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

Susan Strehle

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[The Resurrection and Nickel Mountain, two novels from the "very early" phase of Gardner's career,] resemble each other in several ways. They share an upstate New York setting, which Gardner will replace with more fabulous realms in the later novels. They share an omniscient narrator, presenting plausible characters who speak convincing dialogue; Gardner will use self-conscious and unreliable first-person narrators in the later novels. They share a conventional chronological structure, which will be modified to more experimental forms in the last three novels. The Resurrection and Nickel Mountain share a large, philosophical focus on the question, posed bluntly and emphatically to James Chandler, "What is the meaning of life?"… Gardner will rephrase the question and alter the simplicity with which the answer is achieved, but he will not change the affirmative tone of his answer.

Just as the first two novels share similar themes and techniques, they also share a similar flaw. At their worst, they are sentimental; the affirmations made by the protagonists are not earned nor are they fully credible…. If sentimentality forms the implicit trap for the affirmative vision, Gardner will avoid it in his last three novels through the use of self-consciousness and humor.

Gardner's last three novels are his best and are distinguished from the first two by their inclusion of the figure of the alien, developed to its fullest in Grendel. Gardner's three most compelling characters are aliens: the Sunlight Man, Agathon, and Grendel. Each is an eccentric, estranged from a society he improves through the biting wit of his alienation; each is pitted against righteousness and complacency; each is an artist of sorts: the Sunlight Man with magic, Agathon with fictionalized narrative, and Grendel with poetic myth. Finally, each is a joker, a sad clown, whose jokes emerge like black humor from a mood of despair.

The Sunlight Dialogues and The Wreckage of Agathon share a similar theme, in which the metaphysical focus of the earlier novels is replaced by a social focus. Both novels are about the inadequacy of law and the need for justice, the narrowness of codified rules and the need for a broader human understanding. (pp. 87-8)

Though both novels suggest the kind of affirmative vision that remains constant through Gardner's career, its locus is changed from the protagonists' celebration of life to the legacy of understanding they leave for others. (p. 89)

[The] prison cells of both novels are fundamentally alike in spite of the differences of time and space, and the cell works as a controlling metaphor for human experience in both novels. In form, each of the novels replaces the realistic conventions of the earlier works with more experimental techniques. Both play with contrasting narrative perspectives; The Wreckage of Agathon contrasts the first-person accounts of mentor and disciple, and The Sunlight Dialogues shifts among the consciousnesses of several major...

(This entire section contains 1222 words.)

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and minor characters in the third person. Both works are dialogues of a sort between opposed perspectives on the same events: the Sunlight Man's dialogues with Clumly are echoed in Agathon's dialogues with Peeker.

Finally, both works are self-conscious about their status as fiction…. In these two novels, artificially constructed truths survive and, indeed, benefit from the authorial admission of the lie. (pp. 91-2)

While the novels in Gardner's second phase presented the alien figure in dialogue with a member of the society he mocked, the alien Grendel provides the only voice in his novel. His alienation shapes the narrative. (pp. 92-3)

In spite of his view of life as accidental and art as a "gluey whine of connectedness," Grendel becomes an artist. Gardner has commented that "at the end of the novel Grendel himself becomes the Shaper…. At the end, Beowulf slams Grendel into a wall and demands that he shape a poem of walls. Grendel responds with an original poem that blends motifs from the Old English alliterative tradition…. Not only has Grendel achieved a successful poetic form, but he has arrived at a vision of time as both destructive and creative. His poem is about time's destruction of the walls of Hrothgar's hall and their simultaneous survival through the creative process of art: "these towns shall be called the shining towns" because artistry, the Beowulf epic or Grendel's own narrative, connects them in a meaningful vision of human experience. Though he dies by accident, "Blind, mindless, mechanical," Grendel has also arrived at the fortuitous accident of poetry, and as he dies he wonders, "Is it joy I feel?"… (p. 93)

[The] novel affirms the human ability to learn nobility and dignity through suffering imposed by the alien.

In form, Grendel is the most experimental of Gardner's novels. Its twelve chapters follow a year's cycle, and each chapter is keyed to an astrological sign…. The chapters are also identified with what Gardner termed "the main ideas of Western civilization." Each chapter presents a spokesman for one of the ideas, which include imperialism, mysticism, materialism, solipsism, and anarchism. As single-minded claims to truth, these ideas appear limited and are meant to be rejected in favor of the seasonal cycle which provides the frame of the novel…. The poetry functions, like the diary entries in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to turn the form of the narrative into a metaphor for its concerns; as Grendel becomes the heir of the Shaper's vision, he also becomes the heir of his craft.

Like The Wreckage of Agathon and The Sunlight Dialogues, Grendel is a self-conscious novel, but its self-consciousness takes on a more literary, parodic quality and works more successfully for sustained humor. Grendel is, first, a literary inversion of the epic Beowulf…. The epic is humorously inverted, for Gardner takes the limited viewpoint of the monster, who cannot see the larger meaning of the events he narrates because he lacks an epic perspective. A literary echo of Frankenstein's monster is also made comic by this monster's self-conscious awareness of his own ludicrousness…. Another comic inversion is of Camus's Sisyphus: a mountain goat climbs up to Grendel's mere while Grendel throws stones down at him; the animal, absurdly, refuses either to die or quit climbing, so Grendel continues throwing. While one must imagine Sisyphus happy, one witnesses Grendel simply frustrated.

Out of the self-consciousness of his alien narrator Gardner generates most of the novel's superb, if black, humor. Grendel mocks himself, just as he mocks human society…. Not only is his twentieth-century perspective incongruously comic in the eighth-century setting, but his consciousness of his own ridiculousness is also delightfully humorous.

Gardner has said that "what art ought to do … is to celebrate and affirm…. Of course, a beautiful affirmation is meaningless if it doesn't recognize all the forces going against it." In his last three novels, Gardner successfully found a way to make the affirmation while acknowledging the forces going against it. His solution came through the figure of the alien, developed at its best in Grendel, who improves the world through the bitter humor of his alienation. Not an affirmer himself, the alien makes possible the affirmation of maturity, complexity, and understanding by other characters. Such a process of growth, Gardner has written, provides the solid truths accessible to the novel…. (pp. 94-6)

Susan Strehle, "John Gardner's Novels: Affirmation and the Alien," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1976), Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 1976, pp. 86-96.

Judy Smith Murr

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The best key, although a reductive one, to John Gardner's fiction is the narrator's question in Jason and Medeia: "Is nothing serious?" In his fiction Gardner engages us in a search for the answer to this question, a search to determine if life is nothing more than a series of comical, meaningless exercises. A representative of order and one of disorder, an adherent to forms and a believer in magical chaos, conduct the quest through a series of bizarre confrontations…. Mythic and quotidian realities inevitably merge in Gardner's work. The answer to his question lies in the merging of contradictions: "the true measure of human adaptability is man's power to find, despite overwhelming arguments, something in himself to love." Man is ridiculous, his actions are absurd; but such perception and his ability to love regardless grant man his seriousness.

Gardner is, of course, telling us nothing new. He recreates new forms and revitalizes old ones for a new perception of the often-conducted search for meaning. His astoundingly visual prose, his reworking of myths, and his resurrection of old forms (pastoral novel, epic poem) shock us out of our complacency about the nearly exhausted question and its equally repetitive answer. His use of magic and deformity, of the mythic and the common, and his insistence on the positive power of love transport a tired search into an active playground…. Gardner lets us laugh precisely because we are laughable, and only in our ability to laugh can we approach our seriousness. The ridiculous and the serious are inseparable in his fiction; operating simultaneously with and against each other, they bring us into Gardner's funhouse and out into his gravity.

The ridiculous is emphasized by a special kind of deformity, based on the ludicrous…. Antagonistic non-order and protagonistic order repeatedly merge in Gardner's fiction; the deformity of the one merges with and defines the conformity of the other. He brings them together and concerns himself with articulating the result of the confrontation…. Disparate at first, the deformed anarchists and the conformed heroes of law and order are inextricably joined, not without pain and not without healing…. What matters in these meetings is not who wins but what fusion can occur. Both sides are right and wrong; order is as ridiculous as non-order. In their fusion, in the interstices between contradictions, lies the meaning.

Accident necessarily plays a large part in Gardner's fiction; fusion depends on accident as much as anything else, but it is not negative; it rings with the positive value of chaos. (pp. 97-9)

The world of Grendel is the mythic stage which occupies half of Gardner's fiction. Absurdity abounds in his legendary retelling, and accident, meaninglessness, and chaos are its bywords. By retelling the myth from the monster's point of view, Gardner places us with Grendel in the underground…. Emphasizing the anarchistic quality of Grendel, Gardner prepares us for the paradoxical fusion of the monster's chaotic world and the ordered world of man. The underground world of Grendel is dark, terrifying, and chaotic, but it is no less frightening or disordered than the above-ground world of man….

Even absurdity, Gardner informs us, must have a focal point for articulation. (p. 99)

His efforts to find order and meaning, to rail against the ultimate truth that all is nothing, haunt Grendel and impel him toward ultimate absurdity. He is ridiculous, his battle is idiocy, but the fight against foolishness is as necessary as its recognition. (pp. 100-01)

"Poor Grendel's had an accident": his closing words are haunted and dignified by the fact that he "could laugh if it weren't for the pain."… Horribly caught by accident, by the joke he established as truth, the Destroyer finds his dignity in his indignity, his seriousness in his absurdity. Myth is dismissed, order made as laughable as disorder, but what emerges is the truth that the striving toward order is necessary and that our only hope in a world of meaningless non-pattern is the realization of our comical madness….

Grendel, in a sense, is an introduction to Gardner's most complex opposition of order and disorder. The Sunlight Dialogues brings both the comic and the grave to extremes and creates a terrifying sanity in a world of preposterous absurdity. Grendel gains self-recognition, and we join with him in serious laughter; the Sunlight Man also learns the truth, but we merge with him in serious laughter and a poignant, loving acceptance of the lunacy of it all. (p. 101)

Gardner alleges, without pejorative judgment, that we are bizarre, deluded, and have meaning only in the momentary fusion of contradictions which is inevitably madness; but our seriousness is in our celebration of our piddling lunacy and the buzzing chaos which surrounds us. Order and disorder are one and the same madness, but they are all we have. In the face of such sparsity, love and laughter are the eternal verities Gardner constructs as our salvation. (p. 107)

Judy Smith Murr, "John Gardner's Order and Disorder: 'Grendel' and 'The Sunlight Dialogues'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1976), Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 1976, pp. 97-108.

Stephen J. Laut, S.J.

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[In The Life and Times of Chaucer Gardner] shows both his scholarship and his imaginative talent. Many external facts about Chaucer's life are available; little can be discovered about his inner life, nor about many of the important events of the times. Gardner furnishes what has been learned over the years, and uses his novelist's skill for the rest. Some of this works; some doesn't.

Perhaps the chief problem with the book is that Gardner never aims at a specific audience. The general reader will find out far more than he wants to know…. All the dubious data of Chaucer's career are mentioned: his uncertain date of birth, his education, employment, patronage, the questionable details of his marriage and fatherhood, his jobs and places of residence, his financial successes and failures. No place in all this is there certainty. Gardner has to fill in much of his account with "Probably," or "It seems likely that …" and "It would be pleasant to think that…." As a result, much of the book is too detailed and too full of minutiae to please the popular audience. As for the scholar, there is too much summary recounting of well-researched commonplaces to be of real appeal. Surprisingly, for a novelist of Gardner's stature, the tone and style of the work is spotty, moving from pedantic to chatty without warning.

As any competent scholar, Gardner has his own axe to grind in many of the details he furnishes and the conclusions he draws. One need not agree with them; however, one must be challenged and provoked to reconsideration by the ideas Gardner puts forward…. He finds explanation of much of the poet's art in his encounters with Nominalism, then a great issue at Oxford. Gardner makes a good case for tying the "Marriage Group" of Tales together as a discussion of government. His insights into the personal meaning of many lines of Chaucer's verse is quite persuasive and ingenious. Gardner set himself a formidable task in this book; let us rejoice that he has succeeded as well as he has. (p. 121)

Stephen J. Laut, S. J., in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977 Helen Dwight Reid Foundation), July, 1977.

Jay L. Halio

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[October Light is a] strange but often beautiful and touching account of two lonely, elderly people, caught up in their memories, their convictions, and their prejudices…. October Light examines American culture and values retrospectively and, at least at the end, prospectively. Some of those values, embodied in these two sturdy Vermonters and their friends, seem in danger of extinction, about to be swept away by a crasser, younger generation that, paradoxically, they themselves have bred. The title of the book and much of its writing seems to indicate that even in Vermont, or especially there, we are witnessing the twilight of our civilization—a sad, briefly exhilarating period that will relentlessly pass into a dark, wintry time. There are many signs of decadence and degeneration. For example,… Sally reads a paperback novel that her grandnephew found in the pigstye and accidentally left behind. Though torn and soiled, with frequent gaps of missing pages, it provides a fascination for her, and she reads the whole thing. An ostensibly cheap thriller filled with sensationalistic accounts of attempted suicides, dope smuggling, sexual license, and other tawdriness, this novel-within-the-novel contrasts and compares with the main events and, in part, offers an oblique running commentary. At one point Sally glimpses that the thriller she is reading is about Capitalism, about the same values her brother holds dear—"An Hour's Work for an Hour's Pay, and Don't Tread on Me, and Semper Fidelis!" If so, it is an utter parody of that system and its values, although how conscious or deliberate a parody she is not sure, and at times Gardner's writing of these episodes rises well above the level he is apparently mocking. Both stories portray more or less unflatteringly the Rugged Individual of a former age, but the alternative of an effeminate dependency is hardly more attractive.

What emerges, then, from James's experience—intolerance of his sister's modern notions, a drunken rampage, his daughter Ginny's almost fatal accident—is a sense that while many of the values he holds dear are still worth preserving, they need not exclude others that may be more compatible with his own than he had previously thought. (p. 841)

[Descriptive passages throughout the novel] show Gardner at his lyric best, a poet really in tune with America's rural music which complements and is older than her urban poetry. (p. 842)

Jay L. Halio, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1977, by Jay L. Halio), Vol. XIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1977.

Joseph Milosh

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The plot of Grendel is based on that of the Old English poem Beowulf, though not in an especially straightforward way. The main action of Beowulf breaks into four parts: the Grendel episode …; the subsequent battle with Grendel's mother …; the return voyage …; and the dragon fight…. In the original, each major conflict concludes before the next begins, and a fifty-year successful reign by Beowulf separates his fight with the dragon from his conquest of Grendel and his mother. Gardner's novel opens with Grendel ravaging Hrothgar's meadhall and men, and ends immediately after the fight with Beowulf, Grendel's death being imminent: this episode represents only about one-fourth of the Anglo-Saxon poem. Both Grendel's mother and the dragon appear, but Gardner assigns them new functions, as well as departing from the chronology of the original.

Gardner's restructuring of the Anglo-Saxon original, which strikingly alters the epic material, points to further literary sources, but the advice of a medieval author, Hugh of St. Victor, should be taken: "Do not strike into a lot of by-ways until you know the main roads: you will go along securely when you are not under the fear of going astray." Concentrating on Gardner's alterations in character, theme, and rhetoric will provide a structure for beginning the task of explicating the art of Grendel. (pp. 48-9)

In Beowulf, the character Grendel is static. He enters as an evil force, enraged by the music of men and associated with Cain. Like many a pagan in later medieval romance, he appears to require little motivation for his malicious activity. Once on the scene, he is predictable: he will return regularly to find his human dinner, his strength and intent will be invariable so that there is no hope of overpowering him or stirring his pity, and his horrendous deeds will become increasingly terrible in the minds of men because of their repetition….

Gardner's Grendel, on the other hand, is anything but a static character. He grows, passing through several initiations, evolving more than many a modern hero. Grendel begins as an unseen observer of men, reporting their actions and difficulties and threats. He comes into contact with them because he is forced to, and he then seeks to proceed from observation to communication and understanding…. (p. 49)

Grendel's response to their violence results in the quick retreat of his attackers and, for the monster, an increasing awareness of his power, particularly his ability to toy with men. The joy which Grendel feels in the destruction of men is itself another indication of his growth and understanding. Ravaging is not merely a vendetta, as it is for Grendel's mother in the original poem. It brings awareness: "I had become something, as if born again. I had hung between possibilities before, between the cold truths I knew and the heart-sucking conjuring tricks of the Shaper; now that was passed: I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings!"… This bloody baptism, intensified by the reference to the reversal of Christian tradition, marks spiritual development just as surely as does the orthodox sacrament it parodies. Grendel is searching for truth, however, so that one step climbed leads but to another on his ladder of imperfection. (pp. 49-50)

In his searching and changing Gardner's Grendel is very like man, again in contrast to the original. His initial contacts with Hrothgar's followers stem from pity for exiles or a desire for friendship …, and poetry brings out his tenderness…. He knows fear and trembles before the teachings of the dragon …, and he responds to beauty with a passion akin to love…. (p. 50)

The humanizing of Grendel is necessary to Gardner's portrayal of the absurdity of war. In the original poem, struggle is inevitable, but noble and glorious as well. In Beowulf, drinking, boasting, swearing of oaths to serve, and ringgiving are the meadhall counterparts to courage and loyalty on the modern battlefield: reciprocity strengthens. Conversely, in Grendel war loses its nobility and contaminates whatever is associated with it. (pp. 50-1)

Accompanying the humanizing of the monster and the antiheroic war theme is a comment on the poet's role. In Anglo-Saxon society, the scop held a place of honor, bringing dignity to a lord's meadhall. Poems about the scop, like "Widsith" and "Deor," attest to the knowledge of the scop, and his need for a lord. Beowulf itself stands as a monument to the Anglo-Saxon poet and his domain, the heritage and actions of great men.

Grendel is an altogether different literary monument. The scop or "Shaper" here is indeed skillful, so skillful that Grendel himself is moved…. But the skill is a technical one only, and even then so entirely a product of tradition and convention that the scop himself merits little credit…. The motivation of the scop is belittled as much as his conscious artistry. Instead of participating in a lord-retainer relationship with reciprocal benefits and dignity, the scop works simply "for a price,"… "for pay, for the praise of women—one in particular—and for the honor of a famous king's hand on his arm."… When he ceases to please or is displaced, the scop acts like any other entertainer out of work and looks for "refuge in the hall of some lesser marauder."… The superficiality of such motivation produces an expected result: he lies. (p. 52)

The changed character of Grendel, the treatment of the theme of war, and the small worth of the poet's art are sufficient indicators of the changes John Gardner has made. The original Beowulf has been classified in many terms, all serious, including Tolkien's "heroic-elegiac." Grendel is hardly susceptible to those classifications, precisely because it is much more than "the Beowulf legend retold from the monster's point of view," to crib from the cover of the paperback edition. Presented with Gardner's creation, critics have responded variously—understandably enough. (pp. 52-3)

Attempting to resolve, or at least to put into perspective,… diverse critical possibilities, a reader might well want to consider what kind of source or analogue provides a framework that can bear all that Gardner achieves and suggests. With a novelist-scholar like John Gardner, looking to the Middle Ages might be productive. Grendel is in many ways more like a medieval exemplum than anything else. But that label also says too little, for the contrasts already analyzed are complemented by a certain tone, a tone inconsistent with the simple and serious morality of a typical exemplum. This tone makes Grendel a work that eludes categorization. In tone and effect Grendel is like a later and very different medieval work, an elusive masterpiece itself, Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale.

The story of Chauntecleer and Pertelote, the fable of the cock whose prideful singing leads him into the fox's mouth, is merely the core for the exercise of Chaucer's high art of embellishment. The satire of traditional wisdom in the discussion of dreams, dreamlore, and Pertelote's prescription of a laxative for a bad dream; the absurdity of pride in a vulnerable rooster; and the limitation of a world view drawn not from Boethius but from a barnyard—all function together to jest with and undercut the seriousness with which man seeks to understand himself. Gardner's Grendel jests with the same seriousness in much the same way.

Traditional wisdom, whether presented pretentiously by the poet or uttered ironically by the dragon, does not help the inquiring Grendel, for it turns out to be neither consistent with reality nor wise. Grendel's struggle to understand this wisdom, judge it, and reject it indeed causes him pain, but it is the pain of a monster who insists upon knowing as truth what was constantly disputed by medieval clerks. The reader can sympathize, but always from a distance, which permits a concurrent smile. So too with the scop, or poet. Like Chaucer's Chauntecleer, Gardner's scop wants to sing with a sense of nobility and dignity, but like Chauntecleer he produces only the sonorous and evanescent, not truth—not even for himself. Further, the scop's desire "for the praise of women—one in particular."… is as overtly sexual as Chauntecleer's, and the scop's female audience is remarkably similar to Chauntecleer's entourage of seven admiring and willing hens and his love of one in particular, Pertelote. Finally, the barnyard setting which contains and constrains all this in Chaucer has a direct analogue in Grendel. When the monster ponders Hrothgar with amazement, he remarks, "His power overran the world," a questionable enough extrapolation for the greatest of kings, even without the rest of Gardner's sentence: "from the foot of my cliff to the northern sea to the impenetrable forests south and east."… Boethian limitations on worldly glory become delightfully amusing, though not necessarily less serious, when transformed into a few square miles of actual terrain and the naïveté of the untraveled observer. Not as strong as flat disrespect or as critical and incisive as satire, the effect of such toying with traditional wisdom is a slightly skeptical questioning.

A second aspect of the tone of Grendel grows from Gardner's self-conscious parody of rhetoric. The literary play in Grendel demands attention, but with an appreciative grin—unlike the serious rhetoric of the original poem, but very much like the overblown debate rhetoric, the mock-epic epithets, and the incongruous courtly descriptive detail in the Nun's Priest's Tale. In Grendel, alliterative phrases like "fire-forged" … and "squeal and screech,"… etymological reconstructions like "bone-fire" instead of "bonfire,"… and litotes like "I am no stranger here," referring to Grendel's eleven years of devastating visits to the meadhall …, contribute to the rhetorical density and Anglo-Saxon atmosphere of the work. But juxtaposed against the rhetoric are a reminder of the ignoble work it inflates and a confession of conscious artifice: "No more the rumble of Hrothgar's horsemen, riding at midnight, chainmail jangling in the whistling wind, cloaks flying out like wimpling wings, to rescue petty tribute-givers. (O listen to me, hills!)."… Intensifying the allusive richness of the lines is the reminiscence of Chaucer's "gynglen in a whistlynge wynd" from the portrait of the superficially attractive Monk, which serves to heighten the contrast between the splendid rhetoric and the self-gratification it admits. The same kind of self-conscious rhetoric undercuts the process of Grendel's learning. At one point he decides to kill the queen for pedagogical purposes, but reconsiders: "I changed my mind. It would be meaningless, killing her. As meaningless as letting her live. It would be, for me, mere pointless pleasure, an illusion of order for this one frail, foolish flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity. (End quote.)."… Occasionally proud, yet humorous admissions of conscious artistry force the reader to query the tone of all the embellishment in Grendel, and consequently to rethink what and how it modifies.

The skepticism resulting from the undercutting of traditional wisdom and from the self-conscious rhetoric, the questing character of Grendel, the antiheroic war theme, and the deception practiced by the poet are of a piece. Questions about truth arise and remain, since answers are at best temporary, but humor keeps despair in abeyance even to Gardner's masterful last chapter.

Grendel's fastidious decision to wear a napkin around his neck for what will be his final meal, his humiliating struggle with a Beowulf who demands songs from the monster tantamount to the schoolyard surrender of "enough," and Grendel's consciousness of dying in full view of animals "evil, incredibly stupid, enjoying my destruction" … are Gardner's additions to the Anglo-Saxon original. These scenes provide the background for Grendel's final assessment of his experience, the last lines of the book: "'Poor Grendel's had an accident,' I whisper. 'So may you all'."… Death without nobility, in fact with little more than a whimper, and evidently the result of the capricious goddess Fortuna, provides no answers for the inquiring monster. The curse, understated as it is, gives the reader nothing concrete to fear. Perhaps the final sentence is not a curse at all, but a Boethian observation meant to remind man that he is not in control. Whatever the case, the offhand presentation of this serious lack of resolution is striking. Yet it is perfectly consistent with what Gardner has created, even in the lack of an explicit moral, of clear "sentence." In its final elusive words, Grendel is again like Chaucer's masterpiece The Nun's Priest's Tale. After the playful telling of the cock-fox story, with its attention to fortune and free will, the Nun's Priest advises, "Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille." But Chaucer's tale and its embellishments have been jests, and so may be the directive to find truth there. We do not know for sure. John Gardner's Grendel, very much a Chaucerian achievement in narrative manner, humor, and rhetorical technique, leaves us in the same quandary—whether to delight in the literary art and not concern ourselves with the ambiguous and elusive morality, or to see our own inquiring minds through Grendel's. Perhaps the very quandary is the curse: "So may you all." The answer may be significant. (pp. 54-7)

Joseph Milosh, "John Gardner's 'Grendel': Sources and Analogues," in Contemporary Literature (© 1978 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 48-57.

Max Apple

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There is a paragraph toward the end of On Moral Fiction in which Mr. Gardner tells us about the kind of frustration which must have led him to publish his beliefs about art in this form.

… I've been in conversations where no one seemed to care about the truth, where people argued merely to win, refused to listen or try to understand, threw in irrelevancies—some anecdote without conceivable bearing, some mere ego flower. A thousand times I have heard some person—some casual acquaintance about whom I had no strong feeling—cruelly vilified, and have found that to rise in defense of mere fairness is to become, suddenly, the enemy. I have witnessed, repeatedly, university battles in which no one on any side would stoop to plain truth.

The strength of Gardner's argument comes from his conviction that this "plain truth" is before our eyes. It is the argument of the prophet, the one whose vision is not clouded by the ephemera of his particular time. And such righteous indignation is a strong rhetorical device. The mere force of Gardner's conviction carries a lot of weight. His model seems to be Tolstoy who also sought the "plain truth" and found it in what he called "Christian Art." Gardner has substituted the secular idea of the "moral" to salvage for art among other things, Tolstoy's novels….

He believes that there is some common understanding of how people ought to behave, an understanding that might as well be called "right reason" or "common sense" as any of the more elaborate philosophical terms. It is a feeling that is clear and "moral" and as "old as the hills." Thus Gardner is amazed that most contemporary art, especially fiction, strays so far from this "plain truth."

The particular enemies to the truth as Gardner sees it are the "merdistes," the nay-saying offspring of Sartre affecting nausea in the house of culture. After chastising the "existentialists" Gardner's anger moves to the "trivializers." In this category he seems to include most living fiction writers except John Fowles. (p. 462)

Because Gardner's anger is honest and wholesome the criticism of his contemporaries never descends to mere vindictiveness or gossip. He simply knows what he likes and why he likes it and is ready to share his beliefs. His straightforward sincerity mingled with his certitude make it difficult to detach oneself from his opinions. Here is a respected and popularly acknowledged novelist getting hold of you the way only a skillful essayist does, whispering the "truth" in your ear. It seems almost rude to reject truths offered with such enthusiasm and good intention, but when Gardner moves from the general to the specific it is sometimes as easy to say no to him as it is to the missionary on the street corner. When he tries to ground his argument in the framework of aesthetic theory he is solemnly tedious. When he uses the "touchstones" of Homer or Shakespeare to judge rightly a Ron Sukenick or a William Gass he is indulging in the sort of comic exaggeration he criticizes. Mr. Gardner has the big guns of antiquity in his hip pocket and is quick to use them. His essays on Homer and Dante are splendid interpretations quite apart from their argumentative use in the book. But it sometimes seems as if his admirable sense of the past has distorted his notion of time. The bulk of the argument on literary values concerns fiction written in the past fifteen years. Mr. Gardner is busy judging writers still in the midst of their careers as if they were the "mute inglorious Miltons" of Gray's Elegy.

Furthermore, we have the odd circumstance of a serious writer whose own fiction has received acclaim and wide popular acceptance finding threats to the nature of art in the mists of "experimental" fiction where the audience is small enough to fit under Mr. Gardner's fingernail. (pp. 462-63)

The main technique of the trivializers is what Mr. Gardner calls "texture," "fiction as pure language." They create what he calls "linguistic sculpture." They focus "their attention on language, gathering nouns and verbs the way a crow collects paper clips sending off their characters and action to take a long nap."…

The failure to see the reality within the exaggeration, the moral within the "trivial," may be Mr. Gardner's literary blind spot. No fiction writer ever has immunity from the charge of being a "trivializer."…

When Gardner is making the grandiose claims of art in simple language he is most eloquent. "Art asserts and reasserts those values which hold off dissolution … rediscovers, generation by generation what is necessary to humanness." He knows that often writers settle for the tricks of style, and that critics tend to fall into the bureaucracy of their diction. His indignation and the general truths he represents should shake us even when the specifics of his argument do not. (p. 463)

Max Apple, "Merdistes in Fiction's Garden," in The Nation (copyright 1978 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), April 22, 1978, pp. 462-63.

Webster Schott

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In On Moral Fiction Gardner pronounces virtually all contemporary art defective. To correct the situation he gives us this "attempt to develop a set of instructions, an analysis of what has gone wrong in recent years with the various arts." It's a thoughtful, amusing, and arrogant little book designed to pick fights, and may get more of them than Gardner can handle….

John Gardner is isolated, idealistic, and ever so gently totalitarian. There is more to art than is accounted for in his philosophy.

Gardner doesn't like what contemporary art does because it's not uplifting. It doesn't inspire. It doesn't celebrate….

Gardner operates a closed system of art. No darkness….

Gardner's attacks on dozens of writers, a particular sculptor, Rauschenburg, and one composer, John Cage, are pertinent chiefly because they show us why Gardner can't win his case.

Partly it's because he is uninformed. He knows a lot about European and American fiction. He knows little of painting, sculpture, and music. And he seems to know almost nothing about anthropology, logic, psychology, and sociology—or he forgets how they impinge on what we call art. How can you construct a field theory of art on such a foundation? Beyond recent literature, mostly in English, Gardner can't extend his proposition that "art instructs" and that "moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action."

But finally Gardner's proposition won't stand because he can't demonstrate it and history won't support it. Just the contrary, I think. Art does not change us. We change art. The Nazis who murdered Jews at Auschwitz listened to Beethoven at night after their day's work was done. The Russian aristocracy that read Gardner's beloved Tolstoy and Chekhov kept serfs and waged war for sport. Not artists but ideologists like Lenin and Trotsky altered Russian consciousness and social structure.

The way to read On Moral Fiction is as a statement of what Gardner likes to see in literature, what many of us wish were true and no one can prove. Art is the expression of the human imagination. It may affirm. More often it protests. It may exist only to be consumed. It may have no measurable utility. Art rises directly from the complexities of the culture that produces it. To assert a dogma of art as another form of religion is to throw history into reverse. Gardner can't give us a theory of art that rises from modern knowledge, so he makes one based on discarding the very art this knowledge has created. If you can't join them, beat them.

Webster Schott, "The Sound and the Fury," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 23, 1978, p. E3.

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