John Gardner Gardner, John (Vol. 18) - Essay

Norma L. Hutman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Creative] vision extends truth, shapes … archetype in its own image, commenting imaginatively (and hence more than logically) upon its archetypal mother. This happens all too rarely, but happen it does in John Gardner's Grendel which illustrates the perfect rapport possible between two workings of a single myth. That it can stand beside the epic Beowulf is no small judgment on the achievement of the novel. (p. 19)

Central to the novel is the confrontation of chaos and order: Grendel sees chaos in all that occurs and indeed insists upon chaos as ultimate principle; man makes order in the unformed void and, immortalizing, the artist remakes reality from the same elements to his own distinct purpose. The world as given is the milieu of monsters: nature, forests, hostile cold, wild storms, the less than benign climate of Scandinavia. In this death wreaking void, man builds houses, groups them and organizes his society, erects kingly halls, fortifications, links his realms by roads. Out of the untamed world monsters invade the tamed and symmetrical world of man, entering the mead hall to leave, together with death and destruction, their chaotic mark upon the ordered universe. Gardner's Grendel sees man essentially as a maker of patterns: "They'd map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories," he says of them….

Roads concretize man's control over environment and the unity of a kingdom. Further they reflect, now in the order of intention rather than in completion, the role of volition as a motif of Beowulf and in general of Nordic society. Decision makes the hero: strength and courage in battle, leadership and generosity in governing…. On both sides of the social bond of king and subject, commitment is paramount: man gives his service and the king gives rich rewards. In this personal avowal of dedication as in the preeminence of personal valour, the Nordic mystic of unyielding will evidences close parallels with that of the Samurai. (p. 20)

To the hero's will to victory and the king's will to order, but above all to the poet's will to artistic reordering, Gardner's Grendel opposes his own absolute, "I knew what I knew, the mindless mechanical bruteness of things."… Even as Grendel in the poem is stirred to violence by the tale of divine creation, Gardner's monster opposes the vision of human purposefulness and historical continuity of which the Shaper sings. He endorses the law of violence which a rustic urges upon Hrothgar. He half grasps the Dragon's affirmation of an absolute law of entropy, random ordering and necessary dissolution. As the monster of Beowulf wreaks violence in reaction against the harper's tale of creation, so Gardner's monster opposes destruction to the Shaper's tale of order and to Hrothgar's vision of purposeful society. To Grendel this is illusion; "All order, I've come to understand, is theoretical, unreal."… Reality is nature: "The law of the world is a winter law, and casual."… (p. 21)

To this interpretation of existence poem and novel oppose several shaping forces: Hrothgar, who will fail; Beowulf, who too must fail, being mortal, and after him so too the Geats; God and the artist. Mortal man bears witness to his own finitude, but art tempts even the monster to accept "an illusion of order for this one frail, foolish, flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity."… The remark is dressed in its own irony, self-mockery. But it belies the temptation, just as an admission of response to order in the apparently indifferent universe—to stars which, as Grendel admits, "torment my wits toward meanful patterns that do not exist" … compromises the insistence upon brute chance.

God and the Shaper are kinsmen. Each makes the world: the first is sung in the prologue to Beowulf and the latter honored in the structure of the epic as in Gardner's implicit creative homage. The artist is he who "had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it."… Even Grendel perceives the nature of one who "reshapes the world" for he makes "the projected possible."… Whatever the truth of nature, vision will overcome that truth with the illusion of art and in this the chaos of the monster is ultimately and always vanquished. The Shaper of Gardner's novel is ultimately a surrogate for the unnamed author of Beowulf (the eternal type of poet) whose reorderings make meaning even as they make poem and novel.

Beowulf is, of course, manifestly grounded in order seen as dualities. These we can divide into inherent or natural dualities, which I prefer to term cosmic and which belong to the realm of chaos and order, and, on the other hand, archetypal or structural dualities which involve figures in the poem and novel in relationships which articulate the theme of each work.

In the kingdom of order and chaos we find light and dark, day and night, earth and underground, life and death. Grendel is a creature of a subterranean world, of the dark, who makes night attacks upon his prey. In Gardner's novel he is portrayed as a young monster, though the maturation of monsters apparently involves a lengthy time span far exceeding that of man. Accidentally he discovers the world beyond the mere and at first explores it only by night, fleeing at dawn back to his lair. He visits the meadhall only at night or under cover of winter storm. On the night when he goes to spy upon the nearly arrived Geats, "darkness lay over the world like a coffin lid."…

As he moves from mere to meadhall, Grendel moves from night to day or, more particularly, to twilight which is their meeting place and to the human illumination of the hall by which man endeavors to dispel darkness. (pp. 21-2)

Grendel's mother too is a subterranean beast to whose lair Beowulf descends in order to slay her. In like manner Beowulf goes to the dragon who is himself a creature of night….

Darkness, the universal unknown, is also the poet's metaphor for death…. (p. 22)

Darkness, night, depths and hiddenness stand through the epic in radical juxtaposition to the ordering, illuminating deeds of man, the openness and generosity of great kings and the fidelity of kinsmen and subjects. Man comes as man to that interaction which is society and to that light which is understanding.

This duality is played out not only in the sphere of symbols but personified in the relationships enacted by characters in poem and novel. Beowulf and Hrothgar embody the poem's preoccupation with the dichotomy of youth and age. By direct references to fate (or necessity, cosmic structure) and by linking images the authors juxtapose Beowulf and Grendel to the Dragon and Beowulf. Finally, in evoking the nature of the hero both works present a dichotomy which binds Grendel and Unferth on one hand and Beowulf and the poet/Shaper on the other. (pp. 22-3)

[The] dragon is Beowulf's fate as Beowulf was Grendel's. This Beowulf sees clearly…. "Fate," Beowulf acknowledges, "goes ever as it must."… When Beowulf rides to the dragon he is declared to ride to his death, with fate against him, and the dragon is identified as his fate.


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Brina Caplan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Nothing could be more obvious," says John Gardner [in On Moral Fiction], "than that art should be moral and that the first business of criticism, at least some of the time, should be to judge works of literature (or painting or even music) on grounds of the production's moral worth." Acknowledging our usual embarrassment in the presence of words like "morality," he sets out to demonstrate the practice of moral criticism. Gardner positions his moral telescope. He scans the contemporary literary scene as though it were a night sky. And he finds himself as distressed by its occasional cold dazzle as by its expanses of emptiness. Gardner admits outright that he is a constellation hunter in search of the human image writ large, the illuminations of world and self classically provided by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy. Our stars, he concludes, shed no radiance because they shine primarily for and upon themselves….

Gardner has an eye for those fine-line failures of concentration, commitment, and craftsmanship that widen out until they fracture a novel's foundation in illusion. Whenever he charges a contemporary with carelessness, he brings the novelist's fictional world sharply into focus, to show us the cracks and flaws. Since he sees so well, it seems peculiar to complain that he also sees badly. But he does. His perspective is inconsistent and shifts about disconcertingly. (p. 935)

The close-ups dissolve, replaced by ethical panoramas, by platonic vistas, by civics lessons. We have the watery sense of things looked at over eonic time and from very far away.

Gardner's sensitivity to craft is forever at odds with his grander purpose. Two distinct modes of vision alternate, each claiming to be the moral perspective of On Moral Fiction. His stated mode is teleological; vast and prescriptive, it points insistently heavenward:

… true art treats ideals, affirming and clarifying the Good; the True, and the Beautiful. Ideals are art's ends; the rest is methodology.

But another mode, narrower in scope, is also at work. This operational mode has but one moral imperative, artistic integrity:

The morality of art is, as I've said, far less a matter of doctrine than of process. Art is the means by which an artist comes to see; it is his peculiar, highly sophisticated and extremely demanding technique of discovery.

Here Gardner's concern is the small-scale exchanges between an author and his conception, his audience, and his text that permit a novel to...

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Marilyn Arnold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a recent essay, [John Gardner] deplores the "shoddy morality of much of our fiction" and insists that "instruction is art's most basic function, whether or not it ought to be." Hence, a great responsibility rests on the artist to "seek positive moral values, provide models of goodness." "Fiction," Gardner says, "should spellbind and inspire, though it should not lie."

Unlike Flannery O'Connor who was trying mainly to convince a hard-headed audience that the redemption of Jesus Christ is real, John Gardner prefers to seek out human models of goodness and suggest that they too have redemptive powers…. It is as if Gardner believes that by writing about redemption he can somehow make it real because...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is not surprising … to find Gardner publishing On Moral Fiction, a theoretical/critical book which will probably be quoted as widely as Gass's Fiction and the Figures of Life was a few years ago, not because Gardner's formulations of the new fictional conservatism are particularly brilliant but because he articulates feelings and tastes many disgruntled readers share. Gass's essays had an elegant uselessness; Gardner's appeal is plain talk and righteousness. I have heard "Kill the Aestheticians" murmured in my university library. Gardner responds to this kind of frustration with academic jargon by using words, such as Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, that most critics walked away from years ago. These...

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Robert Richman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Freddy's Book] is a well-written, persuasive, philosophically dramatic, and concise work in which Gardner brings into explicit, exciting battle the debilitating forces of the late 20th century existentialism and the right, or the will, to be happy, secure, and productive in life….

An admirably good, peaceful hero like Lars-Goring would be fictionally weak if the novelist considered his goodness as a Leavisian moral absolute; hence the battery of existential "tests" Gardner subjects him to. Such tests are the moral transcriptions of Gardner's intuition of real-life pressures. The qualities of endless conflict and dread, verifiable to the reader's own experience, renders the entire novel (and...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Freddy's Book," John Gardner's eighth novel, begins as a conventional horror story, with the familiar Gothic appurtenances. At a party in Madison, Wis., given to celebrate his lecture on "The Psycho-politics of the Late Welsh Fairy Tale," the narrator, a Professor Winesap, meets a "doll-like" "Scandinavianist" named Sven Agaard, who announces suddenly, "I have a son who's a monster." The following day, Winesap accepts an invitation to visit Agaard's home on the outskirts of town. (p. 197)

Agaard invites Winesap to … meet Freddy, the monstrous son, who, Agaard now explains, is a "fan" of Winesap's. Freddy turns out to be an 8-foot-tall genius of sorts, sickly and overweight, who spends his days...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Going strictly by internal evidence one might suppose Freddy's Book to be the work of the offspring of an illicit but delightful union between Ingmar Bergman and Isak Dinesen; but it was written by John Gardner (who, characteristically, insists that it was written by Freddy).

[The Devil in Freddy's Book] is one of the largest and most convincing devils to be found in modern literature; he is very stupid and very subtle; and his eventual murder at the hands and bone knife of the knight is an event of great dramatic power and originality and of most devious and echoing implications. The tale left me mystified and satisfied to the highest degree. Who could ask for anything more? (p. 1)...

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John Romano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is the interesting fate of "Freddy's Book" to follow John Gardner's critical essay "On Moral Fiction" on the ever-longer shelf of his books. Interesting because the new novel is a very enjoyable one, an entertainment high and bright, in every sense; and yet it can't expect to escape the dead-earnest question, is it moral? Its very structure—a novel within a novel, or rather, a fairytale-historical novella with a long fictional preface explaining how the subsequent narrative fell into the editor's hands—suggests the kind of literary game-playing against which the Gardner of "On Moral Fiction" has so much to say: it is a structure worthy of that "unmoral" novelist John Barth. "On Moral Fiction" itself is very...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The subjects of the debate between Lars-Goren and Brask in Freddy's Book]—art and language—are an authorial intrusion that spoils this book and points to the weaknesses of Gardner's recent work. A quite natural dialogue of hope and despair turns into an aesthetic argument between the knight of moral fiction and the bishop of empty rhetoric, a debate between communication and performance, substance and elegance, emotional response and dead perception, John Gardner and a "stylist" who might be mistaken for William Gass. The book's self-consciousness—its self-reference and its nervousness—is Gardner's fault, not Freddy's, because the same kind of defensive contentiousness mars October Light and...

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Marc Granetz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Freddy's Book is profoundly dissatisfying. I came to it as a great admirer of John Gardner's previous fiction—Grendel, October Light, the tales in The King's Indian—but as a disparager of his unscholarly Chaucer biography and his self-righteous critical tract, On Moral Fiction. In his fiction Gardner has been inventive, witty, and entertaining. In his criticism he has been plagiaristic, self-serving, and sanctimonious. Freddy's Book, a novel, shares more qualities with Gardner's criticism than with his fiction. (p. 36)

In On Moral Fiction Gardner claims that "Art … discovers by its process what it can say" (emphasis his). But in the first part of...

(The entire section is 563 words.)