Thursday, March 22, 2012

Some thoughts upon reading John Gardner’s Grendel

I’m troubled, deeply troubled, by the extremes of existentialist, postmodern thought. The kind that gets put under the microscope in John Gardner’s fine little 1971 novel Grendel.

If the Dragon is right, Grendel cannot be morally condemned, and his actions are no better or worse than Beowulf’s, or anyone else’s. They are, like everything else, absolutely meaningless. The Dragon is the real horror of Grendel—a beast that adheres to hard, cold materialism. “It’s all the same in the end, matter and motion, simple or complex. No difference, finally. Death, transfiguration. Ashes to ashes and slime to slime, amen,” says the Dragon to Grendel. Nothingness awaits us at the end. The dragon’s speech is like Morgoth’s to Hurin; negating meaning, negating the possibility of a benevolent God, negating even an uncaring but eternal creative force in the universe. Certainly negating an afterlife or any possibility of escape.

Compare the conversation of Hurin/Morgoth in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Hurin:

“Beyond the Circles of the World you shall not pursue those who refuse you.”

“Beyond the Circles of the World I will not pursue them,” said Morgoth. “For beyond the Circles of the World there is Nothing. But within them they shall not escape me, until they enter into Nothing.”

…to Grendel/the Dragon:

“Nevertheless, something will come of all this,” I said.

“Nothing,” he said. “A brief pulsation in the black hole of eternity.”

We are just a cog in the wheel, part of the mindless machine. The Dragon recommends coping with this state by hoarding wealth and sitting upon it.

Postmodern thought of this sort has no clothes; we need a moral compass.

Even if the myths are lies, all the myths, we need them. We need stories. “If there were no God, it would have been necessary to invent him.” We need the Shaper, the bard in Grendel. To provide us with a model of how we should live. Even if we fall short--and we almost always do--we at least have a goal, and elevate ourselves in the attempt. Without the stories, we are all Grendel.

Like all good literature Grendel stands up to many different interpretations. Is Grendel reality, the real state of humanity, or does he represent the folly of postmodern thought? Either interpretation stands up, and a case can be made for both sides, but the last line of the novel seems to offer a clear warning from Gardner.

“Poor Grendel’s had an accident. So may you all” means that we all can succumb to this despair, arriving at the point in which all actions and thoughts are morally equivalent, and equally meaningless. But despair is a terrible thing, a state that Tolkien warned us about. It was the Ringwraith’s chief weapon.

Grendel scores points against humanity and for the postmodernists, denuding the manliness of Hrothgar and Unferth and exposing their glories and heroism as frauds. But Grendel adds nothing, except for rage and destruction, while Hrothgar and his followers contribute something to the world, even if just hollow principle and empty song.

Grendel is sympathetic because he does seem to have a purpose, and that is to be the monster, the Other, a wrecker of mead-halls and sewer of discord. The beast against which men strive. He was born to be a beast, and he never stood a chance of fitting in.

But his death at Beowulf’s hands is not an accident, as he would have us believe. It follows the law of cause and effect. Grendel brought his Doom upon himself, his rapine and savagery wrought its bloody end. He was mistaken, and so are all who follow his purely material, selfish path. If morality is just a personal choice, pure vapor, what do we do with Grendel? How can he be condemned for committing murder and atrocity? Does he even have free will?

Even if you are a religious skeptic or atheist, Grendel can be viewed as a warning, the danger of living a selfish life without purpose. Even if “There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story,” Stephen Hawking says that we should fulfill our potential on earth by making good use of our lives, to “seek the greatest value of our action.”

There's a ton of secondary literature on the web interpreting the various meanings of Grendel; I'm rather fond of this one:

Grendel is about ultimate choices—choices of real consequence.Grendel, the man-eating monster from Europe’s oldest vernacular epic, Beowulf, is a metaphor for what the post-modern writer (and post-modern man) has become: a word-spinning, conflicted, rationalist pseudo-philosopher, filled with dread, pain, and confusion; a brute, pretending to be a God in a world that will not have one—a world, ironically, of his own making—all the while wondering how things got this way, only to discover that it need not be so.


Keith said...

Well said. We do need a moral compass.

Tim Mayer said...

I tend to favor the final interpretation.

Fred said...


Have you read John Gardner's _On Moral Fiction_?

I think he directly addresses the issues you so rightly bring up.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Fred, I have not read On Moral Fiction but it is now on my to be read list... growing by the day!

Welleran said...

Thanks for the timely review. I picked this book up at a library book sale recently and, after rereading the cover, thought it was going to be some sort of postmodern drivel - apparently it gave me the opposite impression from the reality!