I just finished reading the novel Grendel by John Gardner.
Now that I am teaching 12th grade English in addition to creative writing, I am trying to build a viable syllabus and am now tweaking this year’s for next year. The previous teacher had suggested that, like her, I teach the novel Grendel alongside “Beowulf” but I declined since I wanted their conceptions of the Old English poem to come from the actual poem, not from 1971 American novel that provides a twist on the original poem’s antagonist. “Beowulf” is thought to date back to a story from about 500 AD, while the writing of it may have occurred around 700 AD. Gardner’s novel came out more than twelve centuries later, and I didn’t want the two cultural contexts commingled in my students’ minds.
As for the novel Grendel, I enjoyed it on two levels. My first reaction comes as an avid reader of literary writing, and Gardner’s interpretation and personification of the archetypally evil monster gives him life and vitality in a way that the original poem did not. The storytelling was also quite strong, and Gardner’s use of a multi-genre style was impressive in places though a little bit confusing in others.
My second reaction comes as a reader interested in multicultural ideals. Recreating Grendel’s persona as a confused, misunderstood and highly intelligent creature searching all alone for Truth changes him altogether as a puzzle piece in the Western consciousness. Grendel’s yielding to fate and to inevitable flux – in the end when he shows up to face Beowulf even though he knows he will lose and die – makes him an advocate and an example of the dragon’s naturalistic philosophy, in which no individual thing matters and nature basically composts us all. Instead of being evil, Grendel becomes another conscious entity, shut out of and confused by a world that makes no sense.
I have offered this novel to my seniors for their final project of the year. Rather than teaching from the textbook to cover the modern era, I gave them a choice of eight novels that connect in some way to British or World literature, and they will read one and blog about it. Grendel is one of the eight choices, alongside such novels as The Buddha of Suburbia, Siddhartha, and Miguel Street. The project’s main foci are examinations of post-colonial multiculturalism and iconoclasm in modern Birtish and World fiction. Of the eight choices, I had offered, Grendel was the only one I had not yet read.