The first monster of english literature to haunt us, terrifying and brutal, Grendel has stalked the nights for centuries. Despite his brutality, we have always wondered how Grendel become the heartless, merciless monster Beowulf fought? How did he come to hate humanity, to start the ritual of attacking Heorot each night? John Gardner attempted to answer these questions in his beloved novel named after the first monster himself. Usually I gifted you with a lengthy synopsis, but in this case there is an exception, I can’t really prattle on about the basic plot, since there is no real plot other than Grendel becoming Grendel. Grendel by John Gardner was poetic, deep, philosophical, and entirely too complicated to follow without re-reading…several times.
I had heard really great things going into this book, I had had several personal recommendations, as well as just reading several reviews about how Grendel was so relatable, and fabulous, I really need to stop getting my hopes up. However, this time I don’t think it was me having overly high expectations, this book was just really not my cup of tea, which is so strange in someways. I enjoy thought provoking books, I like speculative works, I like having to think and ponder, for my views and opinions to not exactly be questioned but tested. To think about what this story means, and what lesson can be learned. Yeah, Grendel was definitely thought provoking in a “what the hell is happening” kind of way. It was too deep for me, I felt like every chapter was some sort of deep speculation about the universe and exsistence and politics and etc., which I like thoughtful speculative stories, but this was just over the top and complicated to me.
The story is hard to follow, the tone twisted and unclear, told in a stream of consciousness style. It’s true, however, that as the story grows, and Grendel does as well, his thoughts becoming clearer and more complex, until they once again sink into convoluted obscurity. It’s like Grendel is riding this great wave, and as it crests his thoughts are clear and we understand him and then it crashes and we are caught in the swirl of the undercurrent confused and unable to righten ourselves.
I also found the Gardner was unnecessarily vulgar at times. Which was an extreme turn off for me, I find that mature details have a time and a place, and that they do in fact add something to the story depending on the situation, Gardner had no such situation, just uncomfortable scenes, that you couldn’t decipher the purpose of. Which was made even worse by the fact the writing style was confusing, and I had to read and re-read. I didn’t particularly want to re-read those weird unnecessary details. Thankfully Gardner didn’t go over the top, and it was more just strange little details he added, to specific scenes and it wasn’t all over the place.
The chapter about the young Unferth challenging Grendel was by far the best part of the book, and that chapter specifically by itself I think was worth close to four stars. The screwed up hero versus villain relationship they formed was really quite fascinating, and Gardner’s speculation on what a hero was, particularly in the context of the Anglo-Saxon culture, was actually quite interesting and a bit easier to follow. Their relationship was hilarious and yet heartbreaking, and the background of how Unferth came to be the way he was in Beowulf was interesting and the best part of the story for me.
Also the work Gardner did in reference to the Dragon was rather interesting, though confusing in it’s relevance in someways and how it came to be.
“I understand that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly – as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink.”
I found Grendel unlike what others had told me to be, unrelatable. So many people had commented on how your heart softens towards the great creature upon reading this book. Some saying they just wanted to give the big lug a hug. Yeah, I felt like slapping him in the face, not in a cruel way, but in a “pull your shit together” loving way. Unlike the creature from Frankenstein, whom Grendel shared a few characteristics with, I was not drawn to sympathy and compassion for him. Like the creature, he is dismissed and cast out for his appearance, for his monstrous form, unlike the creature, he never tries very hard to form relationships with the humans, to be good, and do good and earn respect and love. Instead he figures the world is cruel and why not fill the role they had cast him in, which again is actually a rather understandable conclusion to reach, but somehow he did it in such way that just did not affect me positively. I think the issue was Grendel was incredibly self-centered, and even as he was drawn towards humans, he had this underlying feeling of superiority and hatred.
Beowulf was really strange for me. I did not enjoy his portrayal, at all. Which was a huge disappointment. I went in incredibly excited for the end, for when Beowulf appeared, when our great hero emerged, and then when it happened I wished it hadn’t. It was definitely a new take on the hero and I guess that holds merit in itself, it just wasn’t a take I found appealing.
Parental Rating: 18 and up, for weird vulgar details, and general complexity to follow.
General Rating: 2 stars, maybe 2.5 for Unferth.
Grendel by John Gardner was a deeply speculative work, in a stream of consciousness style attempting to answer the age old question of how Grendel came to be. It reached it’s goal, but in a convoluted, unenjoyable way. Please leave your opinion and thoughts on Grendel in the comments below. Maybe you enjoyed the novel, or I missed something, I’d love to hear. Feel free to ask questions about the novel or offer a differing opinion. If you are interested purchase a copy of the novel, here. If you enjoyed this review read my others, here.