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.
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.
Here is one amateur's way of coping with the dizzying array of characters, philosophies, and terms that our sad monster throws at us.
The Ultimate Spoiler
In a letter to a teacher and some eager students who sent analytical papers for review, John Gardner reveals his intentions about the role of philosophy and the characters in Grendel.
Walls! Sing of Walls!
Grendel as an opera? The opening of this adaptation was plagued by—of all things—the malfunctioning of an enormous wall. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should, we guess.
Grendel + Beowulf
Okay, okay: Beowulf and Grendel is a version of Beowulf and not of Gardner's novel. But we defy you to prove that director Sturla Gunnarsson did not have Gardner's psychological sketch of the monster in his head when creating this film.
Grendel x 3
Grendel Grendel Grendel is an adaptation of Gardner's novel with Peter Ustinov as the voice of our beloved monster. This animated gem was printed in 1981, just one year before Gardner's death.
So blogger Michael Sporn is actually the first person who got the rights to animate Grendel in the late '70s. He tells the story of how Alex Stitt actually brought the project to completion. Of interest: still images of Grendel Grendel Grendel and a response from Paddy Stitt, Alex's companion.
Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask...
After this 9+ minute interview with Gardner's latest biographer Barry Silesky, you'll know more than you ever thought you could about Gardner and his art. Tune in to find out about how Gardner managed to alienate every major author of his day, about the tragic incident that motivated him during his life, and about what his ex-wife thought of him. You'll also get to hear him read the passage where Grendel meets the dragon.
You've Got to Hear It to Believe It
We know you're wondering what Grendel would sound like as a well-trained baritone, so you're welcome. These interviews from NPR give you a glimpse into Julie Taymor's operatic "translation" of Gardner's novel. An appealing twist? The monsters sing in Modern English, while the human characters speak Old English. Also, Denyce Graves (as in the glamorous opera diva) plays the dragon.
Get Down with Your Bad Monster Self
English progressive group Marillion performs an "epic" song based on Gardner's conception of Grendel. Grab a drink and some chips: this is a long one.
Not Your Saturday Morning Cartoon...
Thanks to the miracle that is YouTube, you can sample the '80s fantasy that is Grendel Grendel Grendel. It even comes complete with a melodramatic '80s female soloist in the opening credits.
Gardner and His Kin
A short presentation about Gardner as a teacher, featuring the two people who are most qualified to speak well of him: his son and daughter.
The Life of an Artist
This NPR report on Barry Silesky's biography of Gardner includes snippets of interviews with Gardner and—the best part—the author reading Grendel's first meeting with the dragon.
What's Opera, Doc?
An interview with Eric Owens, voice of Grendel in Julie Taymor's operatic production of Gardner's novel.
It Takes a Deviant to Know One...
Robbie Lawrence is a professional artist in L.A. who uses deviantArt's digital gallery space to display her work. Take a look at her dark renditions of Grendel, his mother, and the dragon.
Grendel the Cuddly Animated Monster
This one may be a simple publicity poster for the 1981 animated version of Gardner's classic, but the punch lines are murder ("He'll break your heart... and maybe your bones"). Not to be believed until seen.
Colors! Sing of Colors!
Filmwalrus gives a lovely, snarky review of the animated film, but offers a nice array of still shots so we can really see what this intriguing adaptation looks like.