Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Context


Grendel is based on the epic poem Beowulf, the oldest known epic written in Old English, the language of Anglo-Saxon England before the 1066 Norman invasion and the precursor to modern English. At more than 3,000 lines, Beowulf may also be the longest poem written in Old English. The poem's medieval manuscript is estimated to be around 1,000 years old, but scholars believe the epic was passed down orally for many generations before it became a written record. Today, the manuscript is housed in the British Library in London.

Beowulf details the heroic acts of its title character, starting with his defeat of the monster Grendel, who periodically attacked the court of the Danish king Hrothgar for 12 years and is possibly the oldest villain in English literature. After Beowulf engages in hand-to-hand combat with Grendel and tears off the monster's arm, Grendel retreats to his cave and dies. Seeking revenge, Grendel's mother attacks Hrothgar's court. Then Beowulf enters Grendel's cave, kills his mother, and departs with Grendel's head. Beowulf then returns to his homeland, where he rules as king for 50 years. When a dragon terrorizes his kingdom, Beowulf fights and defeats it; however, he is mortally injured in the battle, and he dies a hero.

Two points drew Gardner to the story of Beowulf: the sensual visual images of the monster and the dragon, and the thematic link between humans and their inner monsters. Gardner's Grendel serves as a kind of prequel to Beowulf, describing how Grendel came to be at war with Hrothgar and his court. Grendel's mother and the dragon play prominent roles in Grendel's development, but Grendel's story ends essentially where Beowulf's begins, with the fight between the two that results in Grendel's death.

In 1971, when asked about his choice of subject matter for his seminal novel, John Gardner told an interviewer for the Paris Review,

There is no way an animator, or anyone else, can create an image from Grendel as exciting as the image in the reader's mind: Grendel is a monster, and living in the first person, because we're all in some sense monsters, trapped in our own language and habits of emotion. Grendel expresses feelings we all feel—enormous hostility, frustration, disbelief, and so on, so that the reader, projecting his own monster, projects a monster that is, for him, the perfect horror show.
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