Norma L. Hutman
[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....
(The entire section is 2982 words.)