I read Beowulf in high school, as is the case for a great number of young adults, and was unlikely at that time to be able to appreciate it. The book is, after all, critically easy to misunderstand, misinterpret, underappreciate, or otherwise abuse. J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote that Beowulf‘s importance as a poetic work far outstripped its value as a historical work. Apropos of nothing, I love Tolkien’s succinct, acerbic summary of all Beowulf scholarship to-date:
“Beowulf is a half-baked native epic the development of which was killed by Latin learning; it was inspired by emulation of Virgil, and is a product of the education that came in with Christianity; it is feeble and incompetent as a narrative; the rules of narrative are cleverly observed in the manner of the learned epic; it is the confused product of a committee of muddle-headed and probably beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons (this is a Gallic voice); it is a string of pagan lays edited by monks; it is the work of a learned but inaccurate Christian antiquarian; it is a work of genius, rare and surprising in the period, though the genius seems to have been shown principally in doing something much better left undone (this is a very recent voice); it is a wild folk-tale (general chorus); it is a poem of an aristocratic and courtly tradition (same voices); it is a hotchpotch; it is a sociological, anthropological, archaeological document; it is a mythical allegory (very old voices these and generally shouted down, but not so far out as some of the newer cries); it is rude and rough; it is a masterpiece of metrical art; it has no shape at all; it is singularly weak in construction; it is a clever allegory of contemporary politics (old John Earle with some slight support from Mr. Girvan, only they look to different periods); its architecture is solid; it is thin and cheap (a solemn voice); it is undeniably weighty (the same voice); it is a national epic; it is a translation from the Danish; it was imported by Frisian traders; it is a burden to English syllabuses; and (final universal chorus of all voices) it is worth studying.”
Then, too, the monsters of the story, Grendel and his mother, are more illuminating than the story’s protagonists. My teacher’s emphasis on the rhetorical devices at play (more on this later) are probably a direct result of this intellectual tradition, although we focused rather less on the monsters than Tolkien probably would have liked. These Monsters, according to Tolkien, are critically underappreciated, historically relegated to two-dimensional foils for the heroic acts of the main characters, be they poetic or historical. Rather, monsters represent a fundamental part of the mythos from which the book was written; Tolkien specifically draws parallels between Grendel and the Cyclops of Homer.
To a reader in 2010, a book which tells a story from the perspective of a villain or antihero is rather blasé. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of books I’ve reviewed which do largely this: Gregory Maguire’s Wicked; Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible; Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro; perhaps anything by Chuck Palahniuk. But this was not always so; certainly not when Tolkien presented his groundbreaking paper in 1936, but not even when John Gardner published Grendel in 1971.
Grendel tells the story of Beowulf from Grendel’s perspective over a 12-year period. It does not, like Robert Zemeckis’ film, treat him like Gollum and reveal him to be a warped version of a human; neither, of course, can the story continue beyond Grendel’s own death, and does not cover the fight with Grendel’s mother or with the dragon. Fully expecting that his readers will already be nominally familiar with the story, Gardner includes a fair amount of foreshadowing that only really makes sense if you’ve already read Beowulf.
Grendel functions on a number of levels, and succeeds on a subset of those levels; namely, it’s a (a) textbook inversion of character to arouse our sympathies for the misunderstood villain; (b) a modern-day poetic paean to the rhetorical achievements of the original; and (c) a work of existentialist philosophy.
Grendel: Misanthrope or Misunderstanding?
In the original text of Beowulf, it’s indicated that his monstrous form is due to his direct lineage from Cain, the damned fratricidal son of Adam and Eve. Popular scholarship places this as an interpolation by Christian monks transcribing the text; I’m unaware what, if any, pagan origins are given for him, but it’s clear that he is by this time both non-human and terribly violent. Even in Gardner’s work, Grendel still begins as a monster, the offspring of an even more gruesome monster. Our indication that he is not entirely evil, however, is evidenced by the Danes—men, in other words—being the first to draw blood. Grendel, with the thought processes of a developed intellectual but the personality of wild animal, originally holds no particular ill will toward humans, until he is decided to be a monster and the Danes direct the full force of their violent horror at him. Gardner’s Grendel is inherently sympathetic then, like the Rambo of First Blood, pushed into action by the abuses of supposedly civilized men.
In fact, during Grendel’s first encounter with humans, he is mistaken for a tree spirit, but the Danes’ initial goodwill quickly sours, and they attempt to kill him instead. I could not help internally comparing Grendel to an Indian and the Danes to white colonists. Grendel is bound to nature, hunts deer, and despite a sort of native intelligence may be otherwise considered “savage”, and it would not be unfair to call him so. Similarly, however, the marauding Danes, while bearing the baubles of civilization, are only slightly less savage, and in some ways even more prone to violence that Grendel himself. One of the major themes of the book is that Grendel watches the rise of Hrothgar for a decade before the events finally catch up to those of Beowulf, and much of it is medieval squabbling between warring Scandinavian tribes. The irony, both stated and not, is that of a incomprehensible monster watching civilized humans kill each other in circles.
Sarte, Camus, Grendel
Either by his explicit belief, or the results of his actions as apparent to the reader, Grendel represents an existentialist view of reality. Though his interactions make him unsure of his role in the cosmic theme, the results of the novel ultimately convince him that regardless of good or bad, everything he has become is by and large self-determined. This is in direct contradiction to Grendel’s conversation with a sleepy dragon—the same one which Beowulf will eventually kill, years hence—who is a nihilist, and instructs Grendel to expend his energy finding gold and guarding it (as the dragon does). According to the fire-breathing fatalist, life is a succession of accidental moments with no purpose or meaning, but Grendel finds himself oddly at odds with this, even despite the dragon’s claim to omnipotence.
Grendel’s philosophy is mirrored in another—namely Beowulf himself, whose confrontation with Grendel at the end of the novel indicates. To wit: Grendel, whatever may have caused him or motivates him, is a rampaging monster—eventually he comes to realize this, actualized by the responses from the Danes. Beowulf by contrast is a hero, and knows it equally well. They both, by this logic, have roles to play, and subconsciously hold some mutant form of respect for each other, despite being sworn enemies.
Paradoxically, though one ultimately destroys the other, Grendel and Beowulf both define each other—that is to say, each respective role is predicated upon the existence of the other. A hero needs a monster, and vice versa. Grendel, the “Hrothgar-Wrecker”, is both a slave to and an escapee from his role as a mere foil to the designs of men, as we see elicited in his death1.
My English teacher’s favorite part about Beowulf were kennings and litotes. I wasn’t keeping careful track of Gardner’s use of litotes, but I know his use of kennings was not only prolific, but superb, as is his alliteration: “Such are the tiresome memories of the shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walk of the world’s weird wall” (p. 7). Gardner’s prose is not simply beautiful (and occasionally grotesque2 ). Gardner, in the spirit of Tolkien, is acknowledging the tremendous rhetorical import of the Beowulf story, what it tells us about the poetry of Old English, and its literary value in and of itself.
Thus, Gardner has constructed an indubitably pretty vehicle by which to translate/transmit the subtext of the original story—that such implications were a design of its authors, but as modern readers questioning the construction of monsters, we must invariably ask ourselves what engines drove their creation. Gardner realized not simply the mechanics of the Beowulf, but the cultural fear or need which drives our creation of monsters.