This is one of the strangest books I have ever read. And I've read a lot of books. Perhaps it seems strange to me because I never read Beowulf in any class, nor had I read this before now; I don't know. But it's really, really weird.My book club read this last year (or the year before), and I was out of town during that time, so although I had the book, I'd never read it. The whole time I was reading it, I wondered if I had the right book. For a time I thought maybe I was reading a YA book (because of the cover and the size of the print), but I'm pretty sure I read the right one. Sadly, I was also (in my head) connecting it to Beowulf, but the writing seemed so (semi-) modern that I finally had to check the copyright date. OH! 1971. Well.Isn't one of the main deals about a book supposed to be that somehow, some way, the author makes you care about something? Well, here's a rare novel where I cared about pretty much nothing. Not the poor, sad, lonely monster, not the self-centered Hrothgar nor his marauding sycophantic hordes. Now that I think about it, the only character I wanted to know more about was the poor Wealtheow.I can't help but wonder if I'd have liked this book better or at least found it less weird if I'd read Beowulf. However, if that's a prerequisite, I wish it would say so!Other than Wealtheow, the other character of interest was actually the dragon. The dragon actually has the best line of all: My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.And now I have to ask the book club what they thought about this!P.S.
The Dragon in Grendel is possibly my all-time favorite literary character. This book was one of my largest influences in writing "Cassie Draws the Universe."Michael
Every once in a while a book comes along that is so beautifully written it shames me to think I should ever consider putting verse to paper. This is one such book. -mDracostellarum
I'm not sure of what to think of this book. The style shifts a lot, and clearly Gardner put a lot of work and thought both to its narrative construction and to the themes he was covering in the book. That being said, I was more aware of how the book was written rather than why. The words and the construction of the narrative got very much in the way; I was too aware of them. It seemed very skeletal, not a whole lot of flesh or life to it. There is a lot of philosophy, and its introduction seems forced. It would be a fascinating book to sit and pick apart for hours and hours, but as its value as something readable...not entirely sure of that.Izzy Spigel
I hate this book for making me pity this confused monster who spends his free time slaughtering humans, killing them in creative, but gruesome, ways. In Beowulf, there was no reason to feel bad for Grendel. His regrets including wishing he "cracked [a man's] skull mid song and sent his blood spraying out" and kills helpless townspeople and royals. John Gardner takes us on a trip through Grendel's life, and throughout the book we begin to understand why Grendel is as bloodthirsty as he is. This novel require total focus and understanding of what is being said as it includes many psychological questions. With a lot of thought and discussion with other readers, every little sentence Gardner wrote throughout this book ties together. Everything makes sense. Even though I am not a hairy monster and I don't kill hundreds of animals and people, I can apply his thoughts and questions to my own life. I never thought I would be taking life advice from a monster. Gardner earns my respect for giving this originally one-sided creature a mind that speaks to mistakes, regret, and questions more complicated than the human race.Allie
Grendel stumbles through life in philosophical mumblings, searching for the tiniest shred of joy in every adventure he journeys. His mother has loved him in a way animals love their young. She helps him survive, but she doesn't nurture him. The humans, in which he placed his trust, laughed and mocked him out of fear. Their minds would not let them understand that Grendel was not out to hurt them. Grendel softens the hearts of readers as his life folds out in a heartbreaking tale. He reaches and reaches for a hope of a happier, more fulfilled life. An unattainable goal.karen
this review may or may not contain spoilers. i assume that most bookish people are familiar with the basic plot elements of beowulf, either through high school required reading or that video-game-looking movie, or cocktails at the heaney's. if not - this could ruin everything! but it won't. ah, existentialism... when i was a young lass with my fontanelle as yet unfused; when i still liked the doors and books about manson, i dabbled briefly and emotionally in existentialism. "l'enfer c'est les autres"...it just sounds so good, doesn't it? and not just because it is french and therefore inherently sexified.but it sounds so romantically world-weary and byronesque. and when you work retail, the surface of that statement rings true every single day. but at its core, it is of course infantile and selfish. and this book was where i first realized this.what i love about this book, beyond just the gorgeous simplicity of gardner's prose (and, for some reason, the font) are its hidden depths. it isn't just a retelling, it isn't an apology or explanation - it does smooth out the rough warrior edges of beowulf (the work, not the character) and gives great powers of articulation to grendel with his almost genteel existential worldview, but there are subterranean caverns of philosophy tucked away in here. and i am not someone who digs on philosophy, but i do love the way it is explored here. there was some interview with gardner - must have been in the seventies, and someone was asking him about this book and "what it meeeeeeans", and gardner just sighed and said "there are twelve chapters. there are twelve zodiac signs. you figure it out". which is douchey, yes, but it makes me laugh. and, yes, of course there are the zodiac elements, and the nihilism of the dragon and so many other things happening in this tiny little book. but what stays with me, besides grendel's whole "i alone exist, i create the universe blink by blink" speech, is of course poor existential grendel losing his comfortable childish worldview and "growing up" as he is beaten with his own arm (why are you hitting yourself??) and being shouted at. "sing of walls, bitches!!" there are of course other stages of development at work here, but the one that affected me most powerfully at 17 was this renunciation of existentialism. i think it marked my entrance into womanhood, and it had nothing to do with menarche or penetration or tax forms. for me, the adult world became mine when i set aside childish things unexpectedly (and incompletely) in the wake of a monster's arm. grendel's had an accident. so may you all.Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
During a routine walk from the kitchen to the main room, he stopped mid-stride and suddenly realized that no actual speech had escaped his mouth in what was, sadly, many years. And even very few non-lingual sounds aside from occasional coughs and heavy, anxious breathing ever passed between his lips and the world. He scrolled through his long-term memory for the last time he'd spoken and before reaching a definitive answer he interupted himself with the realization that no matter what the specifics, it had been a very, very long time. This made him feel unspeakably dreadful. He decided that words needed to come out of his mouth right then and there. He parted his lips, did something instinctive with his throat and a little staccato "Ah!" sound sputtered forth and immediately halted. It was then that he grimly realized how foreign the process of speaking had become. Something within had atrophied. Suddenly he felt about as intelligent as a tree stump. This compounded the misery. This was supposed to be effortless but it no longer was. Then, as the purpose of language took hold, he expressed his fear, sorrow and frustration with perhaps the oldest language of all: unfettered screams and moans. All manner of such sounds came rushing out of him. Bellows, wails, shrieks, unhinged cackles, hoots, feral pitch-shifts, agonized AHHs and sickly, tattered OOOHs. Lunging and stumbling around the cavernous main room, he indiscriminately hurled the products of his rumbling diaphram and vocal chords at objects, at space between objects, at the thoughts piling up inside himself, sometimes feeling as if he might knock them over or obliterate them with the force of his emotions-becoming-sounds. He briefly envisioned himself as some monstrous, insane version of a symphonic conductor. He caught a glimpse of himself in a distant mirror on the other side of the room and this only amplified the tremendously unnerving cycle of storage and relief that was moving through him. He felt possessed by the sound. He felt that he possessed it. These alternating currents of channeling and being channeled through carried on for some time. His throat had become raw and sore, his lungs ached, felt aflame. He slumped upon the floor, back against the staircase. He heaved atop the first few steps with his eyes closed. He felt like weeping but no tears would approach. He decided that getting noise out of himself was something he'd need to do more often. He didn't exactly feel pleasant, but his head felt clear and his body lightened in a way it never had before and this was vastly superior to the alternative. It wasn't until then that he realized just how backed up with words he'd been. How much of an island he truly was. All he could think of after a while of laying there--covered in evaporating sweat, finally regaining a steady heart rate, now feeling happily emptied--was how he could make his noises louder.Spuddie
I actually "read" the downloadable audio version. Narrated by the incomparable George Guidell, this is the Beowulf story told from the point of view of Grendel, the monster. While it is, indeed, ‘just a story,’ it’s also a commentary on the basic nature of humankind, about the darkness (and the light) that resides within each of us. I listened to this on the heels of reading The Book Thief, so it was a very contemplative week at my house. ::grin:: Guidell does a stellar job with the narration (as always!) and the story provides a different, and quite interesting spin on the tale of Beowulf, Hrodgar, Grendel and the Dragon, although of course if you’ve read the original, you know from the get-go how this is going to end. Well worth the few hours of listening time! A.Lillian Dinkins
Grendel is a book that gives you a true insight into the life of Beowulf's monstrous enemy and a chance to learn about both sides of the story relating to Beowulf and Grendel. I enjoyed reading Grendel because it helped me understand what happened in Beowulf. Not only did it help me understand, but it reinforced the idea that no matter how bad someone's actions might be there are always two sides to a story, though the actions still may not be justified. Despite the fact that Grendel cleared up some confusion about the story of Beowulf, I found this book confusing as well. Grendel's thoughts jumped from one idea to another. Sometimes he would go off on rants about random things that I did not find relevant to the story. He often argued with himself about different topics such as his mother and how she treated him. Overall Grendel was a helpful, graphic, and thought provoking story. Even though I do not think it deserves five stars, I am definitely glad I was able to read Grendel.Matthew
My favorite thing -- not book, thing! -- in the entire world is Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, which takes the myth of the Herakles-slain monster Geryon and turns it on its head, creating an epic romance instead of an epic myth. Consequently, I've always had a soft spot for mythical monsters turned into protagonists, and I've wanted to read Grendel for a while... and I finally did. Thank God! I've also had the joy of reading Gardner's The Art of Fiction, and something from that book that has stuck with me is Gardner's emphasis on the sound of prose lines, which he scans as if they were poetic... and it's so obvious in this book that he walks the talk, too. Some phrases in this book -- like "this one frail, foolish flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity" -- literally make me pause to savor their sounds. Grendel is your typical monster, complete with unabashed killing of various living things, though he's also well-educated, introverted, sensitive, and Existential. This may perhaps say a bit more about me than I should, but I really identified with him, perhaps even more than with Geryon -- except on the killing people thing, you know. Ultimately, Grendel won't replace Autobiography as my favorite anything, but I will have to get two cats now, once I officially become the local crazy cat lady gay man -- one to name Geryon and one, of course, to name Grendel.Why I Finished: Uh... because it was freaking awesome?!? And way too short. And tragic at the end, since I liked Grendel more than anyone else in the thing... though I always tend to like the villains better in the books. That's why they're villains.Rob
Something I had forgotten in the 20 or so years since last I'd read Grendel, was that it is not a necessarily a book about the solipsism of "the monster". No, Grendel is largely unconcerned with whether/not the Scyldings exist; his struggle is not with existence  but rather one with alienation and isolation. In some ways, he is the ultimate outsider: not human enough for the Scyldings, too human for the animals -- the only ones that will speak with him are an aloof dragon  and a senile/deranged priest.  Grendel is not evil so much as he is an introspective nihilist.--- Making it "not really" an existential novel? Who further isolates him by granting him an apparent albeit apparently tenuous invulnerability. It is hard to count the conversations with Unferth and "the stranger" (Beowulf, the Geat); those challenges are more like lop-sided dueling soliloquies.===original mini-review, per original reading (approx. April 1997):Incredible work. Helped shape my goals as a writer at a pretty early age. For better or worse.Grace Cothren
To enjoy this story, you must understand the main character, Grendel. If you have read Beowulf, you will probably see Grendel as a self-centered, man-eating, ruthless monster. But reading Grendel, you will see his life through his eyes rather than the eyes of the innocent humans he has murdered. Reading Grendel helps explain the back story and explain why Grendel is the way he is. With his mothers only words being "dool dool," Grendel had no one to look up to. Grendel learned how to treat people by the way he was treated. He didn't have an easy time communicating with people, so humans saw him as a threat. He wasn't a vicious monster. He was a confused and alone creature, trying to find his way. This story was a steady read, not having a true climax until the very end. The whole story was Grendel's everyday struggle with communicating with others. I went into the book thinking of Grendel as a brutal murderer but finished the book seeing how truly alone he was. I think this was the authors intention, to not tell you your opinion of Grendel, but to let you form one on your own.Ben
"My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it."This is one of those books that you can pretty much devour -- I am tempted to say, like a tasty thane, drunkenly asleep on a warm summer's night.Strange to say, I liked the middle of the book the best. (When does that ever happen?) That is the point where the pathos reached its pitch and where, interestingly enough, the book is least laced into the structure set by Beowulf.Grendel is, of course, a riff off of Beowulf. Technically speaking it belongs to a sort of sub-genre of works that re-tell classic myths from the villified enemy's viewpoint. But disregard any negative associations you might have with that premise (never mind that it must have been one of the first) -- Grendel is generous with compassion and understanding on all sides.This book was clearly written out of deep-seated love for the original text, and it reminds me in many ways more of the Bhagavad Gita, as companion-narrative and philosophical meditation.And there is philosophy. And emotion. And love of language. The author doesn't merely riff on the old, Anglo-Saxon poetic form, but on the dry rattle of theory, the wheezing of political rants, and the supremely adolescent turmoil of Grendel's own inner monolog. This swelling and surging and seaspray crashing of language is at least half of what made me love the book.I have some theories about Grendel. For one, I think a strong parallel could be drawn between Grendel here and Frankenstein's monster in Frankenstein. Not only are they monsters outside -- that is, barred from society, but that they are only monsters on their outsides. In both are poetry, rational thought, and fully human hearts. In both books the monster spends a good amount of time peering through a chink on a scene of warm humanity -- and falling in love with it, but being barred from entering because of their monstrous appearance. The result for this rejection is bloodshed.I think that John Gardner is doing something else with the character of Grendel here. This thought begins with a memory I have of reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in college (in middle English!). There's a passage in it that takes a moment to describe a palace rising grandly out of the wilderness. The contrast is potent and symbolic: our professor reminded us that the equation was reversed then, with nature predominant and civilization isolated in small islands, stable and safe places, shelters from the storm. In Grendel, through Grendel's long-lived eyes we watch this process of the human-made world pulling itself out of the savage and wild. And Grendel is the counter to that. But as I read the book, I felt a suspicion stealing over me with greater and greater strength that from this view, Grendel was not a symbol for "man vs. nature," but instead for the destructive nature within humankind that has ever obstructed its own progress. Humans don't come off looking so good in this book. But of course, it's the jarring paradox of humanity, that we are so full of vices and so full of virtues, that entrances Grendel and draws him closer and closer into the tapestry of Hrothulf's petty kingdom of Spear-Danes.And, I should mention, the book does a lovely job of painting a sense of the petty and meager way of life that humans led back then. The people are colorful, interesting, and full of human faults. But then, all the characters are wonderful and alive... except for Beowulf, who, I suppose for the sake of literary structure, becomes a bit of the cardboard villain here. But I think John Gardner very much intended that, and intended that the reader take note of the contrast.I found the end of the book, I'll confess, a hair anti-climactic. As I mentioned, I found myself wondering if the fact that the story had to fit itself back into the framework of Beowulf is at fault. Although, it's strange, because the book plays a lot of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern -style games with introducing the extra characters and setting up the situations and events that the old text mentions off-handedly, non-discursively. But I think it may be true.I find myself wondering, too, how different the experience of this book is for someone who knows Beowulf and liked it, versus didn't like it, versus doesn't know it. That question I am not prepared to answer. I only know my own experience of the book.Arianne "Tex" Thompson
Look, I'll be honest: I'm never going to win a triathlon. Yes, scrubbing floors and wrestling dogs keeps me stronger than your average sedentary librivore, but my ecological niche is definitely chair-shaped.Even so, I was surprised at how challenging this book was. Take this sentence, for example:I am aware in my chest of tuberstirrings in the blacksweet duff of the forest overhead.The first time is pretty much "bwah?" The second time, your brain starts to adjust to higher-altitude reading. You say, "okay, tubers are basically ground-plants, like yams and such, and maybe I only understand 'duff' as Homer Simpson's favorite beer, but the only place tubers can stir is in the dirt they live in, so he must be saying that he can feel the roots moving in the ground above him." The third time, you've done all the heavy lifting, so you can sit back and admire how pretty the sentence is, and pat yourself on the back for being such an enlightened reader.But let me tell you, doing that for an entire novel wore me right out.And maybe that's because I'm too long out of college, with Dostoevsky and the less-punctuated parts of Faulkner's oeuvre now six years in the rearview mirror. Maybe it's because so much of the rest of the great American bookshelf is the equivalent of a nice, leisurely walk, where we waddle along enjoying the scenery and congratulate ourselves for being so far superior to those teevee-watching schlubs who are even now forming covalent bonds with the butt-groove in the couch. Regardless, this book was a 200-page stairmaster marathon. I'm glad I read it, and I know it was good for me. If I read it another couple of times, I'd probably really enjoy it (I see it does not lack for enthusiastic praise from truly erudite readers!) But at the end of the day, my to-read pile is growing ever taller, and there wasn't anything in Grendel that makes me want to go suck out the marrow and wear its skin on my face.But let me not discourage you from doing exactly that: even my corn-fed intellect can tell that there is serious meat in these bones, for anyone willing to break a sweat cracking into them.