Book Review: John Gardner’s Grendel

When I was in high school a friend of mine was gushing about a novel called Grendel. “It’s Beowulf, but from the point of view of the monster!” The rest of us, who had read Beowulf in class a couple of weeks before, laughed at him for enjoying what must have been just another sentimentalist young adult fantasy about a misunderstood outcast. How could a smart kid be wasting his time on that kind of pulp garbage? (Of course, I spent my hard earned lawn-mowing and pizza parlor money on The Amazing Spider-Man comics, but that was different. Somehow. At least I didn’t brag about it.)

A few months ago I read and enjoyed the novel Nickle Mountain, and was surprised to see that the author, John Gardener, had also written Grendel. Hmmm. Maybe I had been wrong all those years ago. I decided that when I had the time I would read it.

I’ve just finished it, and it is not sentimental teenage anti-hero stuff. Grendel is of course a bit misunderstood by humans, but that is not what drives him to murder and mayhem. Grendel lives as he does because of the meaning he chooses to give his life.

Young Grendel starts out behaving more or less as a monster should, giving free reign to his predatory impulses until a brush with death at the hands of a wild animal convinces him that life is meaningless interplay of accidents and animal instincts. When he encounters humans, however, he is fascinated by their capacity to tell stories that give meaning to the world. Human bards sing of noble kings and just wars, but Grendel has observed men long enough to see that kings and wars are anything but noble and just. Still, he is overcome by the beauty of the songs, particularly the song about God creating of the world.

Grendel is caught between two visions of reality: one that life is inherently meaningless, the other that the world is created, ordered, and inherently moral.

Then Grendel encounters the dragon, the same dragon that Beowulf would one day kill, who teaches Grendel the cosmic perspective: the universe is an accident; life, a product of chance encounters and eons of evolution which will one day grind to a silent halt. The stories men tell are foolish, but the dragon suggests that Grendel should tell his own story, make his own meaning as the destroyer of men.

So he does. Grendel, blessed (or cursed) by the dragon with immunity from human weapons dedicates himself to terrorism. He kills and plunders, but in such a way that his motives can never be nailed down: he eats one man, but spares another. He humiliates the uueen, but does not kill her. The point, he tells himself, is to confound all human stories.

But this is a cursed existence: it gets boring, dragging on for twelve years. The meaning that Grendel creates for himself turns out to be more monotonous and empty than the meaninglessness he lived before. At times he suspects the dragon had been lying to him.

For a short book, it has some long philosophical discussion I had to read twice to understand. I suspect that Gardener was imitatingsome popular thinkers. Grendel’s soliloquies sound like the philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre. Does that make Sartre a monster?

Do I look like a monster to you?

A face only Grendel’s mother could love. 

Anyway, here is a cheat sheet for some of the philosophies of life expressed in the book:

  • The Dragon: The whole Universe is futile, and human stories ridiculous, but you can make your own story. (Grendel takes this to heart.)
  • Unfreth the Warrior: Life is meaningless, but the self-sacrifice of the hero gives it meaning. (Grendel responds by refusing to fight him, robbing Unfreth of the chance to be heroic, condemning him to a living hell.)
  • Beowulf: The hero creates reality for himself.
  • The Bard: Men are called to be noble. The stories, even if not true, help them achieve this. (Grendel never kills the Bard, though he thinks about it.)
  • The Blind Priest: God is unknowable, but his existence is the only thing that makes meaning possible in a world marked by opposition and decay. (This mystifies Grendel.)

One thing that still confuses me is the role of the dragon: in Beowulf, he is the final enemy the old hero must face, and in Grendel the dragon hints at this fate. Only after his conversation with the dragon does Grendel start his war on humanity, and Grendel is frequently haunted by the smell of the dragon. (The author never tells how Grendel came to the dragon’s lair). In the end the hero Beowulf quotes the dragon word for word (describing the meaningless universe) and in his agony Grendel sees Beowulf breathing fire and growing wings.

In the Western tradition, the dragon represents Satan, Father of Lies. Certainly the things he tells Grendel do not do Grendel any good. Grendel eventually sees the dragon’s words as a curse. Is the dragon a real person or something in Grendel’s psyche?

Why is Beowulf, the dragon slayer in the original story, identified with the dragon in this one? Again, is Grendel projecting something onto Beowulf? Or does he see something dragonish in Beowulf’s character? I will be thinking about this for a while.

Anyway, Grendel drives to the heart of what I think is the basic problem of being human: what relationship is there between the stories we tell to give meaning to the world and the world itself? Is meaning something we create, or something we discover?


  1. “Is meaning something we create, or something we discover?” — Was that an aut / aut or a vel / vel question?

    1. Whoops… did I step into an Aristotelian semantic triangle? My Latin is very rusty, but I would say that quidquid recepitur receptus secundum modum recepentis. (Feel free to correct my grammar.)
      Applying this axiom to the matter at hand, we could say that if there is an inherent meaning to the universe, humans know it in a human way: by analogy. So in a way we discover meaning, in a way we create it.

      1. Distinctions, distinctions… Sorry! It was the picture of Grendel-Sartre that brought out the pedantic philosopher in me. I can’t argue with your well reasoned answer. Thanks for the insightful book review. I might have otherwise bought a copy.

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