John Gardner was born in Batavia, a small town in western New York, on July 21, 1933. His mother was an English teacher and his father was a lay minister, so his childhood was steeped in academic influences. Another pivotal influence was the loss of his younger brother, Gilbert, in a farming accident; Gardner was at the wheel of the machine involved. Many of Gardner's thematic explorations in Grendel are linked with this incident, such as the examination of the monster inside everyone.
Gardner enjoyed a distinguished academic career. Although he planned to major in chemistry, he gravitated toward literature in college and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1955. He then attended the University of Iowa, where he earned a Master of Arts degree in 1956 and a PhD in medieval literature and creative writing in 1958. He taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Oberlin College in Ohio, Bennington College in Vermont, and the University of Rochester. But writing, not teaching, was his greatest calling; he once observed, "It's as if God put me on earth to write."
He published two novels, The Resurrection and The Wreckage of Agathon, before Grendel brought him fame in 1971. He published four more novels after Grendel, including October Light, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He also released translations of the classical epics Jason and Medeia (1973) and Gilgamesh (1984). He studied Old English and Middle English literature, which likely provided the background and inspiration for Grendel, and he also produced a children's book, Dragon, Dragon and Other Tales (1975), which included adaptations of other medieval stories, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Additionally, Gardner wrote three books addressing the process and practice of writing that have become staples in creative writing instruction. The first, On Moral Fiction (1978), criticized contemporary literature for its pessimistic bent and for lacking the depth that might inspire readers to pursue morality. While the monster Grendel cannot be considered an optimist, his character reflects both negative and positive qualities rooted in several different philosophies.
By the time of Grendel's publication in 1971, Gardner had developed a strong reputation in academic and literary circles for writing that combines eloquent narrative, Gothic elements, and philosophy or intellectualism. His protagonists are said to be characters whose free will is subverted by myth. However, neither of his two previously published novels was commercially successful. Perhaps Grendel's relatively familiar subject matter—the legend of a monster from the epic poem Beowulf—and the popularity of the fantasy genre and medievalism in 1960s' and 1970s' counterculture brought Gardner more mainstream recognition. Grendel's critical reception and sales were strong enough to earn Gardner a publishing contract and an advance for two more novels. Grendel remains the most famous of Gardner's works. In 1981, it was adapted into an animated film, titled Grendel Grendel Grendel.
Although Gardner's life and career were cut short by a motorcycle accident on September 14, 1982, he left behind a substantial body of work that reflects his commitment to language and writing and the diversity of his interests.