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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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John Gardner's 1971 novel Grendel is a fascinating retelling of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, which was believed to have been written between 700 and 1000 CE. While Beowulf tells the story of a hero's quest to slay the grotesque monster Grendel, Gardner's version focuses on the monster's perspective. The novel deviates from its influencing text in that, instead of a one-dimensional villain, Grendel is portrayed as an antihero burdened with the existential crisis of finding his place in the world. Gardner's Grendel comes across to the reader as more human than monster—even sympathetic at times—though he commits the same horrendous, violent actions as in Beowulf.

Whereas Beowulf was influential for its literary form as a quest narrative, Grendel's importance lies in its morally thought-provoking examination of a character previously considered to be a mindless, evil creature.

1. Gardner begins Grendel by referencing Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Instead of opening with a reference to Beowulf, Gardner begins his novel by quoting Chaucer's reference to the month of April. He excerpts,

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote/the droghte of March hath perced to the roote,/... and the yonge sonne/Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne.

These lines establish the motif of the zodiac with the reference to the ram, and they elicit a tension in Grendel, who rails against the symbolism of spring and sexuality. Gardner continues to begin each chapter with reference to a sign of the zodiac.

2. Each chapter in Grendel is linked to an astrological sign.

Gardner links the virtues and heroic ideals he explores in Grendel, such as love, heroism, and art, to the astrological signs of the zodiac. Critics have long been fascinated by his inclusion of this element, noting that it gives the text much greater depth as the skeptical monster is introduced to the essential ideas of Western civilization.

3. The 12 signs of the zodiac provide a structure for an exploration of the 12 main ideas of Western civilization in Grendel.

In addition to the inclusion of the zodiac signs, Gardner framed his narrative around pinnacles of Western ideology that he found to be the most socially fundamental, such as the question of creation and the philosophical debate of good vs. evil. In an interview Gardner stated, "In Grendel, I wanted to go through the main ideas of Western civilization—which seemed to me about... twelve?—and go through them in the voice of the monster."

4. The character of Grendel was inspired by the famous French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Grendel's encounter with the dragon is the most notable inclusion of Sartre's philosophy, which ranged from the field of phenomenology to Marxist thought. Critics note the creature is a "Sartrean Dragon" representing the evil and nihilism within Grendel. Thus, Grendel becomes a victim of his own hateful ideologies, personified by the dragon's counsel.

5. Gardner's philosophical ideas were shaped by a traumatic childhood event.

As a child Gardner witnessed his brother crushed to death by a tractor he was driving. Gardner said he had to make the split decision to stop the tractor, leaving his brother paralyzed, or allow it to kill him. Gardner believed his brother would rather die than suffer the maiming. Gardner later stated that this traumatic moment influenced his fascination with moral philosophy and literature, and that he'd questioned whether or not he made the right decision since that fateful day.

6. Gardner was accused of plagiarism for a book he wrote about Chaucer.

In an interview regarding the claims of plagiarism made by literary critic Peter Prescott in Newsweek, Gardner rebutted,

Besides using real people, as I've said, I get great pleasure out of stealing other people's writings. Actually, I do that at least partly because of a peculiar and unfortunate quality of my mind: I remember things. Word for word. I'm not always aware of it. Once in college, I wrote a paragraph of a novel that was word for word out of Joyce's "The Dead," and I wasn't aware of it at all.

7. Gardner was considered controversial in the publishing industry for his critiques of other authors.

In another of Gardner's books, entitled On Moral Fiction, he critiqued numerous contemporaries of his. He took shots at John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, John Barth, and William Gass, among others. He also slammed certain publications, claiming, "The New Yorker makes me furious. The magazine has gone cheap and New York fashionable, like New York painting."

8. Grendel foreshadows and satirizes monotheism.

When he encounters the priest Ork and his companions, Grendel pretends to be their deity, referred to as "The Great Destroyer." While conversing with Ork, Grendel makes numerous allusions to the Judeo-Christian God (a deity they are both supposedly unfamiliar with), such as asking Ork to "Speak to us concerning His unspeakable beauty and danger." Ironically, the cult of priests has reverted to pagan beliefs as a result of the futility of prayer in wake of Grendel's violent acts.

9. Grendel has been likened to several other famous literary antiheroes.

As a monstrous protagonist, Grendel has been compared to King Kong, Lucifer from Milton's Paradise Lost, and Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Much like these characters, Grendel's gruesome deeds contradict his somewhat sympathetic character development.

10. Rock bands have drawn inspiration from the story of Grendel.

The progressive rock band Marillion opened their 1988 album B-Sides Themselves with an 18-minute song inspired by Grendel. The band Sunny Day Real Estate also included a song entitled "Grendel" on their 1994 album Diary that, much like the novel, attempts to give the horrific monster from Beowulf a voice of its own.

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