Fiction Reviews


(1971/2015) John Gardner, Gollancz, £9.99, pbk, xxiii + 125, ISBN 978-1-473-21201-5


A bold reworking of Beowulf from Grendelís point of view that is also a study of the Sartrean philosophy of Existentialism. This is clearest in the creatureís cruel torment of a young warrior (not Beowulf) who feels a compelling need to be a hero. The young fighter boasts of a heroic death and longs for a place in sagas for challenging the monster, but Grendel doesnít kill him, just to humiliate him. The poor manís life is reduced to bad faith as he tries desperately to be something he is not. His drive to be a hero is a career choice Ė not who or what he is. He has confused existence with ambition. His misguided notion that heroism even unto his own death is the purpose for his life ruins him. Itís a theme with echoes of Sartreís novel Nausea.

Originally published in 1971, there are two introductions to this 2015 edition: one by Adam Roberts and the other by Jeffery Ford. They serve different purposes. Adam Roberts emphasises that while sharing Tolkienís status as a professor of Middle English Literature, Gardner does not offer a dwarf and elf infested fantasy realm, and the story is very much the sympathetic villainís story. Imagine The Lord Of The Rings as told by Sauron.

Jeffery Ford writes of the struggle to draw the work back into copyright eventually supported by Gardnerís widow (the author died in a motorbike crash in 1982). He also asks if Gardner truly regarded himself as a fantasy / SF author, fortunately concluding that he would appreciate his place in the Gollancz canon.

Gardner made enemies in literary circles for writing damning critiques of many of his associates, which may have led to a reluctance to promote his work. He found too much cynicism in modern writing to his tastes. He felt as alienated from the literati as Grendel feels from the natural world in which he walks. He compares Grendel to Miltonís Satan in Paradise Lost, which is a better comparison than my reference to Sauron.

Grendel fares well in academia as many see it as a companion text to Beowolf itself, but it is a very different story. Beowulf barely appears until the closing chapters and he is never named.

Grendel hears a blind Bard making legends of nothing and realizes the humans are deluding themselves. His random attacks on the mead hall are meant to shake them out of the delusions but they fail to achieve anything, and Grendel becomes increasingly aware that he too confuses a need for meaning in life with simply being alive. The monster is intensely lonely for feeling utterly detached from the world around himself: it can hurt him but he is always apart from it, and wishes otherwise.

Grendel faces frustrations of his own. His mother becomes increasingly monstrous and incommunicative even to him. The dragon, (possibly but not explicitly the one from the third part of Beowulf) convinces Grendel that he is immortal and indestructible, paving the way for Beowulf to destroy him.

The monsterís explorations show him that he is not of the landscape he so admires, but alienated from it by his ability to choose, think and feel. He craves an equality and acceptance he can never experience. He tries to communicate with men when he gets ensnared in a rotting tree stump, but unable to tell if he is animal, mineral or vegetable they torment him until his mother comes to the rescue. Grendel resents humans boasting of their simplistic exploits in their mead hall, so his attacks on them begin Ė he becomes a reminder of their transience and mortality. Scenes in which he watches events in the Mead Hall through windows are reminiscent of the Frankenstein creature observing human families in Shelleyís original novel.

Grendel becomes an increasingly pitiful but never less than monstrous entity. He is an ill-formed baby struggling to comprehend a meaningless cruel World. The men fight, drink and die but Grendel seeks reasons for it where none exist.

As he dies Grendel simply wishes similar Ďaccidentsí on all, in a grim parody of Tiny Timís Christmas message, but is the accident he wishes on us death or life itself?

The short novel was filmed as Grendel Grendel Grendel in 1981 with the monster voiced rather too sweetly by Peter Ustinov. Gardner appears in a live action introduction lecture at the beginning of the film, which can be seen on Youtube.

Arthur Chappell

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