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Watershed Book Cafe: A Quiet Place to Read

Cover Image of GrendelA Response to Grendel    

by Linda Tiessen Wiebe


"HOW DO WE know anything is real?" My friend puts down his teacup dramatically and looks at me anxiously. "What if we are isolated bubbles moving pointlessly through time?" I know my friend wants to live a compassionate and honest life,but his post-modern philosophy won't allow him to recognize these motives. He's caught in continual analysis, afraid of deluding himself, afraid to act. It makes me sad because he doesn't see that his philosophy undermines his best intentions, and that if he'd follow his intentions he would discover the meaning he craves. I wish I could help him see the end game he's placed himself in, but discussion and argument just continue the game. He needs to be inspired.

John Gardner, author of Grendel
, invites his readers to move backwards to our first example of English poetry, Beowulf, in order to stand against the despair of modern meaninglessness. Beowulf is a Danish epic, probably written around 800 C.E., that tells the tale of king Hrothgar who has built up his kingdom, but now is stymied by repeated onslaughts from the hideous monster Grendel. For 12 years Grendel, a descendent of the biblical Cain, wages a guerilla-style war with Hrothgar's thanes. He seems immune to their attempts to repel him. Then a stranger, Beowulf, boasting heroic feats of strength, appears from the land of the Geats. Beowulf eventually kills Grendel, as well as Grendel's mother and the dragon who besieged Beowulf's home in Geatland.

Gardner picks up the tale in the twelfth year of Grendel's battle with the Danes. Grendel tells the story as he looks back over his life.  He is torn between two worlds: drawn by poetry and beauty to the world of humans, but unable to escape his monstrousness. When the Shaper, a poet who shapes the Danes' world view through evocative poetry and music, first joins Hrothgar's men, Grendel is almost persuaded by his heroic ode to hope. Like the rejected monster-child of Victor Frankenstein, Grendel naively opens his arms to human embrace and is rebuffed. His alienation leads him to solipsism, but he is still tormented by the Shaper's vision of Hope.

When Grendel meets the dragon, these seeds of hope are withered by a scathing nihilism. Grendel becomes the destroyer and begins his assault. As he progresses towards dissolution, he is constantly confronted with meaning. Hrothgar ages and weathers Grendel's repeated attacks, becoming humble and noble instead of bitter. Wealtheow, the beautiful young queen given to Hrothgar to keep the peace, bears the alienation from her people with grace. Her suffering becomes a healing balm both for Hrothgar and his people. Unferth is the imperfect hero; he has the right idea about inner heroism, but cannot get past the opinions of others. The priest Ork, with a theology reminiscent of Paul Tillich and Teilhard de Chardin, modern exponents of hopeful theological belief, utterly believes in a God who harmonizes all tensions and grounds human existence in purpose and morality. Although he becomes increasingly savage, Grendel cannot destroy these harbingers of meaning. They anticipate Grendel's meeting with Beowulf, who embodies all of their qualities and who kills him with an utter confidence in Hope.


Gardner transforms this ancient tale of battle to wage war against modern cynicism, using imagination and art instead of argumentation. His first weapon is Grendel's self-deprecating humour and aesthetic sense. We identify with his longing and alienation, and recognize our own violence in him. Having identified with Grendel, what are we to make of his demise? The dragon is a second weapon, and a dangerous one. In him Gardner reflects back to us the banality of post-modernism, when taken to its logical extreme. "Since nothing changes and time is meaningless, why do anything?" This is a handy license to indulge selfishness. The dragon opts to hoard gold. Grendel's motto becomes, "I destroy, therefore I am." Perhaps bland, self-destructive truthfulness is not truth at all. And thirdly, Gardner uses the novel itself. Beautifully written with haunting imagery and ironic language, its creativity undermines the cynicism it describes. One image that stands out is the goat that insists on climbing towards Grendel's cave, even after Grendel has smashed its head in.

The poetry, structure, and theological hope all build toward the final chapter when Grendel and Beowulf fight. Or rather when Grendel, Beowulf and you fight, for by this time Gardner has sufficiently involved you, the reader. Beowulf is never named, and in fact is almost not a character: "as if the body of the stranger were a ruse, a disguise for something infinitely more terrible." Having spurned his longing for meaning, Grendel is terrified every time it appears, and the Stranger is the epitome of meaning. He has complete confidence in his hope, does not need another's approval for his heroism, and is willing to die for it. "Time is the mind, the hand that makes (fingers on harpstrings, hero-swords, the acts, the eyes of queens). By that I kill you." Ontology overcomes nihilism, the impulse towards regeneration swallows decay.

As I look over at my anxious friend who is flirting with the dragon, I wish I could, like the Stranger, dispel his cynicism with beauty, meaning, hope and courage. Taking my cue from Gardner, the way to help my friend is to embrace life for its own sake, in its beauty and suffering. I can make choices rooted in hope and trust myself to the Ground of Being. I can turn away from my own selfishness and rejoice in creativity I see around me, wherever I am. And I can love those who are in my life, which includes my friend.

I think I'll give him this book.

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage Books, 1971. 174 pages.


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