Completed 3/8/2014, Reviewed 3/12/2014
“Grendel” is a retelling Beowulf myth from the point of view of the monster from the epic poem. Not simply a dark fantasy, it is a character study of a monster, an existential exploration of the meaning of life for an evil being. Sometimes tragic, sometimes hysterical, sometimes over-the-top philosophical, it is a wonderful read that takes you into the soul of a monster. And here’s a bonus: you don’t have to read Beowulf first to understand get. A word of caution, however, as there is a spoiler in my review. I discuss the ending, but I’m going to assume that reader knows something about the story and already knows, or at least, can guess the ending.
Grendel tells his story in the first person. You get to see the world through his eyes. First you experience his relationship with his mother. She’s also a monster, perhaps with some human in her, but so old she can barely communicate. He often has to lift her to move her around. Her attachment to him is powerful. She cries and moans, and expresses her fear for Grendel’s well-being with arm-waving and grunting. When he is distraught, she nearly suffocates him when she pulls him to her breast, trying to comfort him as if still trying to nurse him.
You also experience Grendel through his relationship with nature: his futile attempts to scare away goats, the repetitive onslaught of a bull attacking Grendel while he is stuck between two trees. These seem to help Grendel understand the futility of life and how over and over again, life will pummel you unless you can figure out how to avoid the onslaught and just let the horns graze you. Eventually, you will be saved, but even an overprotective monster mother will not always be around to help you out of life’s scrapes.
Lastly, there’s Grendel’s relationship with humans. At first it’s not a hostile relationship. Grendel often hides near the meadhall, listening to the harpist play and sing ballads. It mesmerizes Grendel. He longs for the companionship of others and the enchantment that music puts over the harsh reality of life. With music, everything seems better. Through music, you can believe anything. Eventually, of course, Grendel is misconstrued as a killer, making his relationship with humans adversarial.
Another encounter that should be mentioned is with the dragon. The dragon is not just another monster. The dragon is a mentor, if a cynical one, expounding on his philosophy of life and the nature of monsters. In the most comical scene in the book, Grendel, like the reader, is utterly confounded by the dragon’s ranting. What he takes with him is that evil gives meaning to goodness. Without the monsters, there would be no heros. So Grendel has a purpose in life, to be the monster he was born to be.
All the prose that gets you through Grendel’s exploration of himself, his nature, and the world is simply beautiful. The book is short and it is told from only one perspective, Grendel’s. And with a literary novel, that’s a great thing, because it makes the reading of the prose so easy, and it gives you the time to really focus on Gardner’s elegant choice of words.
I only had one problem with the book, the end. It seems like Gardner had to find a way to make the story end the way it’s supposed to. And that’s fine, but it happened quickly, almost clumsily, like it was written when Gardner was in a different state of mind and was just trying to finish the book. But even as I reflect on this, I have this itch that tells me I’m wrong. Maybe the point of the end is to signify how abrupt and shockingly reality can destroy our life-lie, the belief system we create to give meaning to our lives, the thing that makes us feel invincible. One minute, we revel in the illusion of invulnerability which has gotten us this far in life. Then reality finds our one weakness and brings us to our knees in an unbelieving stupor. Wow, I think I just had an epiphany.
This book is an incredible read. It’s a gorgeously written, extremely intimate piece of literature. It’s a little like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But instead of pitying Grendel, you come to identify with him and his angst, and your heart breaks in the end. Five stars.