In A Nutshell
Now is the time to ask yourself what you really know about heroes. No, really: what do you know to be true about them? Got it? Now collect all that up into a little mental sack and chuck it from your mind.
In this Grendel, Gardner—a pretty challenging guy in real life, too—forces us to look closely at what we've believed about noble behavior since the earliest of times. And what better way to do this than to go back to Beowulf, the earliest epic poem written in (what passes for) English?
But this time, the boasters have to step aside and make room for the real star. In this book, Grendel, Stalker in the Night, Mere Stomper, Slurper-Downer of Thanes, and General Terror to all Humanity gets a major makeover. As he tells the story from his point of view, we see more than just a miserable, cave-dwelling creep of a monster. Grendel is really just a sentimental, misunderstood bully who shows us that the "heroes" of the story are a pack of ignorant, wasteful, violent, vengeful, superstitious bottom dwellers.
Whew... yeah. All that in one experimental, wickedly funny, awfully tragic narrative. We watch Grendel as he meets the cast of characters from Beowulf and tries to define himself in relation to these people who are everything he isn't. That's a tough run for a tender young monster. All the people he wants to admire behave in disappointing ways; not only that, they also misinterpret his every little missteps (you know, like eating the humans who threaten him) as sure signs that he doesn't belong.
Grendel quickly learns that he's going to be excluded from of all meadhall action forever. So what's a monster to do? Sulk in his cave all day? Or take action and create some "fun" for himself? Thus begins 12 years of war against King Hrothgar and his thanes. If you've read Beowulf, you know how it ends.
But what you can't see from reading Beowulf—at least not as clearly—are the challenges to what we thought we knew about some heavy issues: the nature of heroism; what it means to be monstrous; how society and family work; what existence really means. This book has it all: life, the universe, everything. Gardner puts these issues front and center as he refocuses the narrative on what's supposed to be the dark side.
You'll be surprised who you find there—and who you don't.
Why Should I Care?
Hold the popcorn, folks, because things are about to get real.
No, seriously: it doesn't get much more real than Grendel. John Gardner uses this weird story about a monster to tackle some huge issues, including, you know, life, death, and the nature of the universe. Our monster hero is just trying to figure out who he is and what his life means. Those are the same big issues we all have to deal with every day—but Grendel deals with them hard, maybe so that we don't have to.
What does this mean in regular terms? Well, have you ever taken a look at your parents (or your sibs) and thought, "Are we really the same species?" Have you ever questioned the motives or characters of authority figures?
Still not feeling it? Try this: ever wondered about your purpose in life or place in the universe... or if the universe is just an absurd joke? Ever looked in the mirror and seen a huge, hairy beast with out-of-control B.O.? (You know who you are.) If you answered yes to any of the above, you'll find Gardner's work easy to relate to.
But there's something even better in store: Gardner also delves into the minds of ancient storytellers and creates a new fictional world that weaves together everything the Beowulf-poet ever said with philosophical theories and modern angst that the Beowulf-poet could never have known. And that's not only cool, it's way hard to do. The result is nothing less than sheer geeky brilliance.
We can't ignore the elephant in the room, either. Fact: Grendel is a monster. So is the dragon. They are undeniably charming, and some of their ideas may hit the nail on the head. But regardless of what drove them to monsterhood, one devours humans, and the other is a fountain of cynicism and despair. The ultimate question that Gardner asks his readers is both simple and complex: whose side are you on?
This novel is meant to make us uncomfortable and put us to the test. It's also meant to put us in a tight spot, because neither the human nor the monster side is 100% appealing. As a novel, this is totally a twofer: morality and entertainment wrapped up in one slim, sleek book. Just try to pass it up.