Review: ‘Grendel’



by John Gardner

  • Date finished: March 16
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1971
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Spring 2013
  • Grade: A-
  • Thoughts upon finishing:

I decided to read this book not necessarily because of anything I heard about it, but because it was sitting our shelf, unread…at least by me. Apparently, Joel read this book in 11th grade English and even though we went to the same high school and had the same 11th grade honor English teachers, I did not read it. Lame.

But I’m glad I did. Grendel parallels the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, telling the story instead from the point of view of the man-eating antagonist, Grendel. This is a fascinating idea, and entire book is a brilliant reflection on art, myth, religion and culture. Really, I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about this. Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention?

Anyway, Grendel is the ultimate outsider and even though his tale concerns the plight of Hrothgar’s Danes, Grendel could be battling any human society in history. Grendel, who is represented in very mechanical — instead of human — terms, is frustrated by the way humans cling to myth-making and lies, especially as they form societies. It’s Grendel who watches the Danes for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years, when they were first roving bands of hunter-warriors, slaughtering each other in the snow out of fear. Once the roads were paved, kings established and kingdoms formed — well, “They could map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories!” one dragon says.

Grendel sees through this mess, knows that humans are animals just like him, and thus the reason for his hate, his rage and his desire to terrorize Hrothgar’s court. At one point, he almost wants to join them — he becomes mesmerized by the music of “the Shaper,” the court musician and weaver of Danish myths. However he is spurned and instead of being defined by history, and music, and stories, and ideas of nobility — like men — Grendel has to define himself, alone.

All of this is a tiny part of what you could talk about with Grendel, which is why I liked it so much and read it one day. I gave Gardner an A- because sometimes the language was difficult to slog through; if I slowed myself down, perhaps, it wouldn’t have given me so much trouble, but I wanted to finish.

Other than that, Grendel represents, for me, the reason why classics are important. The classics are more than just the books we read in 11th grade; they are inspiration for all kinds of thought and contain the messages and meaning we crave even in modern society. Who would have thought someone like Grendel could represent loneliness, isolation, misunderstanding, terrible childhood and uncontrollable rage — and don’t we all know a few people who could use a character in literature like that to relate to? This is a wonderful book and if you’re worried it’ll make you look like a high school student, don’t. This is worth it.


One thought on “Review: ‘Grendel’

  1. Pingback: Sunday Notes: March 17, 2013 | Paperback Fool

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