Monstrous Humor: A Review of John Gardner’s Grendel
John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel is more than just a prose rehashing of the plot of Beowulf, the eighth- to tenth-century poem on which it’s based. Beowulf follows the Geatish hero as he arrives to aid the Danish king Hrothgar, whose people suffer from attacks by the savage monster, Grendel. Beowulf spends most of the poem showing off his strength by doing seemingly-impossible deeds in order to boost his reputation. Gardner’s adaptation undermines the gravity of Beowulf by narrating events from the first-person perspective of the monster, Grendel. Seen from the eyes of an outsider, the humans’ seriousness about reputation appears overblown and almost ridiculous—reputation is not inherently meaningful, as the Beowulf poet might lead you to believe.
Coming into Gardner’s Grendel, I expected to feel alienated from a creature who, in Beowulf, ravages the meadhall Heorot and kills the Danes. In his novel adaptation, Gardner turns Grendel into an engaging and sympathetic character who is both consciously funny and unwittingly amusing. He might commit destructive acts but it is because he’s lonely and he questions his existence in an all-too-human way, making it impossible for me to read him as mindless beast when I return to Beowulf. Gardner’s Grendel grows up alone but for the company of his mother in the wilderness near constantly-warring Scandinavian tribes. The novel is narrated from Grendel’s first-person perspective, opening with a powerful example of Grendel’s frustrated voice and unintentional humor:
The old ram stands looking down over rockslides, stupidly triumphant. I blink. I stare in horror. “Scat!” I hiss. “Go back to your cave, go back to your cowshed–whatever.” He cocks his head like an elderly, slow-witted king, considers the angles, decides to ignore me. I stamp. I hammer the ground with my fists. I hurl a skull-size stone at him. He will not budge. I shake my two hairy fists at the sky and I let out a howl so unspeakable that the water at my feet turns sudden ice and even I myself am left uneasy. But the ram stays; the season is upon us. And so begins the twelfth year of my idiotic war.
The pain of it! The stupidity!
“Ah well,” I sigh, and shrug, trudge back to the trees. (5-6)
This opening paragraph provides insight into the character of Gardner’s Grendel and foreshadows his later interactions with humans. The old ram can be understood as a representation of the hoary Hrothgar, who Grendel perceives as the “slow-witted king.” There is something silly in the way the old ram ignores Grendel’s almost childish temper tantrum. The tone reflects how Grendel sees his destructive streak as “idiotic” but also his resignation as he continues on this streak nonetheless. Where the Beowulf poet somberly narrates Grendel’s twelve-year assault on the Danes, Gardner depicts a Grendel who can’t take the raids seriously because he believes they are pointless. The unexpected reversal of Grendel’s mood, combined with the ridiculous image of the proud old ram, solidly establish Grendel’s frustrated and sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously humorous personality.
Reviewers of the novel observe that the monsters in Grendel act more humanely than do the humans. Matthew Scott Winslow says, “Grendel is not a monster, he is all mankind” while Charles McNair asks, “Don’t we all have some monstrousness to battle?” The blurring of the line between monster and hero is a common theme among both popular and scholarly criticism of both the novel and the poem, and Gardner highlights this theme through the novel’s narrative strategy. In the poem, Grendel exists as an intruder, appearing only to cause havoc before disappearing out of the reader’s view. The novel allows a glimpse of Grendel’s interiority by narrating events through him in first person; we follow Grendel before and after the raids and feel the effects of events as he does. Gardner’s Grendel feels as deeply as any human–he is pained when the humans reject him and he laughs at the humans’ utter belief in legends they created. As a reader, we are led to laugh at the humans’ ridiculousness, causing us to reevaluate our own previously-unquestioned beliefs about the stories we tell ourselves.
Gardner’s adaptation provides a new perspective on the issue of heroism versus monstrousness. Through Grendel’s eyes and in Grendel’s voice, we see the ridiculousness of other creatures, and none more ridiculous than the humans. Upon venturing out of his cave, Grendel becomes stuck in a tree and is discovered by a band of humans that includes a young Hrothgar. The humans decide that Grendel, to them an unrecognizable furry creature, must be a hungry tree-spirit:
[The human] smiled suddenly, as if a holy vision had exploded in his head. “He eats pig!” he said. He looked doubtful. “Or maybe pigsmoke. He’s in a period of transition.”… It filled me with joy, though it was all crazy, and before I knew I could do it, I laughed. They jerked away and stood shaking, looking up.
“The spirit’s angry,” one of them whispered. (26)
Grendel laughs at the utter ridiculousness of the humans’ belief in their hastily-constructed explanation for his presence. The humans’ inability to distinguish between the sounds of laughter and anger creates confusion throughout the novel. Grendel frequently laughs, but the humans, who take every sound as a serious threat, believe he is angry and respond with violence and fear. The seriousness with which the humans take their belief—as well as their complete inability to decipher laughter from anger—is what leads them to try to kill him. It is the humans–not the monsters–who are unable to read emotions accurately and react appropriately because they allow their fear to dictate their responses.
This seriousness on the part of the humans is the result of the work of a Shaper, or scop, the Old English storyteller. Robert Merrill interprets the scop as representative of the “widespread desire to rationalize life’s apparent evils by means of saving fictions” (165). In Grendel, the scop of Hrothgar’s meadhall, Heorot, shapes tales only loosely based on past deeds in order to glorify values like reputation. Without a scop, Grendel must search for alternative guidance, which he finds in the dragon (Grendel’s mother is present but nonverbal in the novel). The dragon is capable of seeing past, present and future time, and this ability has led him to become a strict materialist. The dragon insists on the meaninglessness of everything—especially human values—and advises Grendel to “seek out gold and sit on it” (74). Gold, not reputation or glory, is a tangible substance and the only source of meaning for the dragon, who attempts to convert Grendel to his materialist viewpoint. The dragon in Grendel becomes a kind of scop, a storyteller who presents his claims as truth. The dragon’s influence excuses Grendel’s bloodthirstiness because by the dragon’s philosophy, life is meaningless, so the loss of life doesn’t really matter. By finding no meaning in life, the dragon represents one extreme while the humans, who create too much meaning, present the opposite extreme. The reader sympathizes with Grendel, who is caught between the two poles, as he struggles with his desire to find meaning and his rejection of the meanings that both the dragon and the humans create. Through Grendel, Gardner challenges his readers to undergo the same philosophical struggle as his protagonist.
While Grendel insists on his belief in the meaninglessness of human values, he still wants to find meaning in his own life. The dragon brings attention to Grendel’s saving fiction, saying:
You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves. (72-3)
In criticizing the meaning the humans invest in heroic values, Grendel both becomes the humans’ saving fiction and embraces that role as his own saving fiction. His initial interaction with the young Danish hero Unferth demonstrates the pleasure Grendel takes in restructuring the humans’ worldview. The first time Grendel meets Unferth is during a raid on Heorot, in which Grendel experiences his usual “rage as meaningless and terrible as everything else” (82). But then Unferth, a young wannabe hero of the Spear-Danes, arrives and proclaims that “This one red hour makes your reputation or mine!” (83). Unferth, another example of a human invested in his own legend, stakes the gain or loss of his reputation—his standing in his own eyes and in the eyes of his fellows—on the confrontation. Grendel could ignore Unferth and injure the man’s reputation that way. Certainly this, or eating everyone in the hall, would be the dragon’s response. Grendel’s narration calls attention to the silliness of Unferth’s bravado:
He took a tentative step toward me, then paused, holding his sword out and shaking it. “Tell them in Hell that Unferth, son of Ecglaf sent you, known far and wide in these Scanian lands as a hero among the Scyldings.” He took a few sidesteps, like one wrestler circling another, except that he was thirty feet away; the maneuver was ridiculous.
“Come, come,” I said. “Let me tell them I was sent by Sideways-Walker.” (82-3)
By giving Unferth a nickname, Grendel points out Unferth’s awkwardness, which disrupts Unferth’s belief in his own heroism. As the battle unfolds, Grendel pelts Unferth with fruit and thoroughly embarrasses the young warrior, “half burying him in apples as red and innocent as smiles” (85). Jokes undermine assumptions and change worldviews by usurping what’s expected. Grendel upends Unferth’s expectations about fights between heroes and monsters, turning him into an ineffectual boy by defeating him with so inane a weapon as fruit. The “red hour” that Unferth claims will make his reputation is undermined by the red apples with which Grendel responds.
By belittling Unferth’s battle-boast and humiliating him, Grendel is technically following the dragon’s philosophy. Grendel’s comic response to Unferth’s serious challenge shows that he doesn’t share Unferth’s investment in the meaning of values like reputation. Yet to do this, Grendel uses a form of imagination—humor—that makes him sympathetic to the reader. Later in the novel, when Unferth fights his way through a lake of fire-snakes to challenge Grendel in his den, the hopeful hero is too tired to pick up his sword and he falls asleep in front of the very creature he intended to kill. Grendel, in an amusing reversal of the expectation that he should kill the helpless sleeping man, instead “picked him up gently and carried him home” (90). Grendel’s dark but imaginative humor shows when he describes Unferth’s bitterness during later raids:
I laugh when I see him. He throws himself at me, or he cunningly sneaks up behind, sometimes in disguise—a goat, a dog, a sickly old woman—and I roll on the floor with laughter. So much for heroism. (90)
Unferth expects a vicious beast and receives a taunting, clever enemy. Grendel’s criticism of the young warrior’s seriousness about reputation is better served if Unferth is alive to recognize and be enraged by that criticism. Unferth demeans himself by dressing up as animals and old women in his futile attempts to become a hero, amusing Grendel because—in Grendel’s mind—Unferth is proving the meaninglessness of a value that requires debasement to achieve glory.
This encounter is representative of the power of Gardner’s adaptation to challenge the theme of heroism in Beowulf. In the poem, Unferth is criticized by Beowulf because “Unferth himself did not dare to risk his life/ under the waves’ turmoil to attempt noble deeds” (1471-2). If Unferth were a stronger, braver warrior, he would have followed Grendel under the fiery lake and tried to kill him. In Grendel, Unferth does—he arrives half-dead in Grendel’s lair and is, humorously, returned to Heorot by the monster without further injury. Gardner inserts an episode that has the power to undermine Beowulf’s challenge in the original poem. In the poem, Beowulf assumes that because Grendel is a monster, and monsters kill indiscriminately, Unferth could not be alive if the young warrior had confronted Grendel. Instead, Gardner narrates a scene in which Unferth is brave enough to attempt to kill Grendel–the warrior simply fails. This reversal calls into question assumptions about the black-and-white nature of monsters and heroes. Unferth is heroic in his efforts but not in the result; Grendel is monstrous in that he poses a real threat to human society and not monstrous in his playful mocking of Unferth.
It’s difficult not to be amused by the humor of the monsters in Gardner’s adaptation, especially when Grendel acts the part of the angsty teenager and laments, “Ah, the unfairness of everything” (8). While the humans in Grendel endlessly scramble for power and pound their chests, Grendel watches, at first longing to be included but then critical of their boasts. Grendel acts like he wants to reject all meaning but instead he creates a kind of meaning with his criticism. Humor is a natural form of imagination that makes Grendel seem all the more human to us. When juxtaposed next to Unferth’s awkward and artificial belief in heroism, Grendel becomes all the more likeable–he is real and organic where Unferth is stilted and unoriginal. Because of our sympathy with Gardner’s Grendel, the inevitable ending seems tragic rather than heroic. Returning to the poem, Beowulf doesn’t seem like an unquestionable hero and his boasts feel more like the product of ego than of selflessness.
Gardner uses some of the same literary techniques as the Beowulf poet, albeit to criticize rather than laud heroic values. Grendel participates in alliteration like “walker of the world’s weird wall” and includes kennings, word combinations that stand in for other words, such as “tribute-taker” to refer to the king (7; 39). One reading of Grendel isn’t enough to catch all of the small ways Gardner alludes to the original poem while making the plot and characters his own. Certainly if the reviewers are right and there is a bit of the monster in all of us, we could do worse than to have Grendel’s humorous outlook on life.
Grendel is not just a rote adaptation of an old poem, and certainly the issues it deals with are not relegated to the past. It’s about monsters and how people treat beings they decide are monstrous. The Danes and Geats don’t have a monopoly on alienation. Gardner uses their example as a way to talk about how tightly people hold to their convictions even if those convictions are created in a few seconds, at first sight, because we have an overwhelming tendency to believe that we are right in all things. Hrothgar and his people label Grendel as a monster and hold to that belief so strongly that they interpret Grendel’s laughter as anger, and Grendel’s attempts to reach out as assaults. Gardner deals with the power of fear to shape our perception in ways that hurt rather than help. Imagine if the humans in Hrothgar’s band recognized Grendel’s laughter and welcomed him as a fellow sentient being when he approached them. The war would be avoided—a war Grendel himself calls idiotic. Instead the Beowulf poet praises people like Beowulf for recognizing and cutting down a threat. The poet dismisses Grendel as the product of evil, a son of Cain. Gardner shows that this kind of typecasting sets Grendel on a track where his only choice is to be evil because he’s given two options—to be evil, or to be alone. The novel identifies and questions assumptions that the poet of Beowulf and many modern readers make about the certainty of monstrousness and the appearance of heroism.
—Sara Ramey ’15 is an English major and Western European Studies (classical track) concentrator. She has taken as many classes on old literature and culture as possible, including Ancient Philosophy and Classical Mythology. Her love of horror movies and anti-heroes makes it all too easy for her to sympathize with dragons and ambiguous monster-people.