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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Prefatory Poem | Summary



John Gardner places this verse from William Blake's poem "Mental Traveller" at the beginning of the novel, before the chapters begin:

And if the babe is born a Boy
He's given to a Woman Old,
Who nails him down upon a rock,
Catches his shrieks in cups of gold.
—William Blake


Blake's poem "The Mental Traveller" is about traveling in the realm of the mind. A complex poem, it is often read as the cycle of a new idea from "birth" to the idea's persecution by society, it's triumph over society, to the idea's overripeness when generally accepted by society, to its transformation into a "renovated" idea, after which the idea begins anew and passes through the cycle over and over again. The poem is an exploration of how ideas and society interact on a grand scale, as well as the inner transformation ideas cause in individuals. By alluding to this verse from the poem in the preface of Grendel, the novel as a whole becomes intrinsically linked to Blake's vast mythology of symbols and characters. Grendel's relationship with his mother is given prominence, as the poem foreshadows their dynamic. The placement of the verse makes it necessary to interpret Grendel's journey on both a literal and figurative level: Grendel is a monster, yet he is also an idea moving through time.

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