Grendel ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
If you majored in English in college, as I did, you will remember Beowulf, the anonymous epic poem, written in Old English almost a thousand years ago. Beowulf is one of the first literary works in English, even though it’s an English nobody today would identify or understand.
The story of Beowulf is set in frozen Scandinavia around 1000 A.D., and it concerns a small groups of Danes (or thanes) ruled over by a king named Hrothgar. When these thanes are not fighting wars and conquering their enemies, they sit around in the Meadhall where they drink mead, swap stories, have sex, listen to music, fight and have a good time until they drink themselves to sleep. They seem to have an enjoyable life, but there is one fierce and vicious enemy that might show up at any time and spoil their good times. This enemy is the manlike monster known as Grendel.
Grendel kills as many thanes as he can by picking them up and biting off their heads and generally spreading terror and mayhem whenever and wherever he can. No matter how much the thanes fear him and do battle with him, they can’t seem to prevail over him because, early in the story, he is made invincible by a dragon. (An invincibility that, in the end, seems to wear itself out.) This background sets the stage for the 1974 novel, Grendel, by John Gardner (1933-1982).
Grendel is told in Grendel’s own first-person voice. He lives in a cave that has an underground lake with his blob of his mother who doesn’t speak. We (the reader) never learn anything about where Grendel came from or how he came to be. He just is, that’s all, like the universe.
We see that Grendel isn’t really such a bad fellow. He’s lonely, unhappy, unloved, misunderstood and an outcast. He kills because it is in his nature to kill. There are times when he could kill but doesn’t. He has a sensitive spirit and never fails to appreciate the beauty of nature. He spies on the thanes as they party in their Meadhall because, in reality, he would like to be one of them, to be accepted by them. He just can’t always resist the urge to kill them.
Grendel takes the story of Beowulf a little farther. It’s a psychological examination of a monster and an outcast. No matter how despicable a person or a thing is, we must realize that he (it) always has his (its) own story with which we might sympathize if we could but know the details. It’s been many years since I’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but the astute reader will, I think, see similarities between the two monsters.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp