(my thanks to Rich for the Christmas gift)It's sort of weird that I've never read this book before. Having grown up with an English teacher for a father, I've known the story of Beowulf ever since I watched an 8mm film project one of his students made, the chief special effect of which involved flushing a yearbook photo of the boy who played Beowulf down the toilet in order to simulate the hero's diving into the haunted mere. I've known about John Gardner's retelling of the story from the monster's perspective since studying the Anglo-Saxon epic in high school. I've been teaching Beowulf almost every year since Heaney came out with his translation, and every year I've thought of reading Grendel, but for some reason I hadn't until this year.The problem with reading a book that you've been hearing about for twenty years is that you think you already know what it's going to say. And maybe one of the reasons I'd never got around to reading Grendel is that I was afraid it would turn out to be one of those by now trite demonstrations that all monsters are really just the misunderstood victims of the majority's prejudice. Since Gardner came out with his book, there is almost no literary monster--from the big bad wolf to the wicked witch of the west--who hasn't had her case re-examined and the evidence against her overturned.But Gardner's Grendel is more than just a victim pleading for our sympathy. His sense of alienation has passed beyond blame to a kind of existential indifference that is more like Camus' Stranger than the Cookie Monster. The result is an enemy who is no less frightening for his being rendered more human. In fact, everything becomes more frightening: King Hrothgar, heroic Beowulf, the relentless progress of a barbaric civilization. Such depiction doesn't so much turn Beowulf inside out as reveal what has always been implicit in this most pessimistic of epics: the relentless way in which violence begets itself, the sense that chthonic forces hover ever at the margins where the firelight fades into darkness, the understanding that enemies are complicit in creating one another.This last insight seems particularly relevant in our current context: a lesson for presidents and political rivals and archbishops alike to consider.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.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.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. -mIrene Lê
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. Have you ever feel that life is absolutely meaningless? The struggles you are facing - money, college, family problems, friends, relationships, shits and fuckeries, are all mere accidents produced by misunderstandings between people and random chances? Have you ever convince yourself that you don't give a shit when people decrease your self-esteem and comment snidely about your hair whatsoever? Yet even though these struggles and discrimination are meaningless - because well hey, we are all going to fade into dusts anyway, who cares what our hair looks like - we are still depressed and gnawed by it. There seem to be a thirst, a desire in human to create a meaning out of this pointless existence, a desire for hope (even went so far as fabricating up false hope when none exists), a desire for self-revolution and infinite capacity to do good. This theme plagued Grendel.As a monster, Grendel was an outcast in the society of men. He tried to communicate to them, to smile at them, to help them - his intentions were originally innocuous (Resemble that of ours when we are little children), but men pushed him away because of his differences . Then he realized men are so cruel, they wage war against their own kin, they slept and cheat on women, they sing of great deeds of which they never actually do- "no wolf was so vicious to other wolves". He felt enraged. Are Gods real? if they are real why they create death and diseases? what's the point of universal creation only to inflict pain? should we pretend that life has a meaning or accept that it doesn't? This is pretty sophisticated for a monster [ lol, I would definitely adopt him as a pet ], but sadly, Grendel descended to the road of evil, galvanized by nihilistic ideology and his simplistic viewpoint of men. Out of isolation and madness, Grendel started to ravage, kill, murder. Out of this purposeless existence, he became a monster, formed his own identity, adopted the role of evil, because he can't be good, because biologically he was born for murder, because he is had anguish to join mankind but it wasn't fulfill. He used purposelessness as a justification of harm. He savages society for its imperfection, but failed to realize the importance of acceptance, rebirth and creation. Then Beowulf arrived [epic music]. "Sing walls" Beowulf said, as he smashed Grendel's head into the walls .This puzzles me at first - like hello, I never see an action movie where the hero makes the monster sings before he kills him .But in his letter, Gardner explains its metaphor: "What Beowulf says, in effect, is this: one looks at the world--bangs one's head against it--and one has two choices, to accept it as it is or to transform it, shake it to life by imagination. ("Sing walls," Beowulf says. He means, of course, not just the wall Grendel's head has just banged but all life's walls--the walls which lock us away from other people, finally the great walls birth and death.) Grendel has asserted a dead, mechanistic world of brute accident; but by the accident of meeting Beowulf he's forced to discover how accident can be turned into a good, how imagination can reshape and ultimately improve the world--at least for the lifespan of a given civilization." Grendel seems to understand this at he stands on the edge of the cliff - Is it joy I'm feeling? and launched himself into the abyss. He welcomed death as a relief from a hellish, lonely existence. This is why this motherfucking book deserves zillion stars!!!!!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.Dracostellarum
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.Ryan H
Grendel was one of the most interesting books I've read. I found myself scratching my head after the first page, wondering what the heck was going on. As the book went on, I found it a little easier to understand. It was just very hard to follow Grendel's thoughts. His whole living situation was perfect for this book, all secluded from people and away from everything. I found myself in the beginning hating Grendel because of his thoughts and actions. Some things he said were so gruesome and grotesque that I had to put the book down. He also was malicious when he killed people, at one point snapping a mans head off and “sucked the blood that sprayed like a hot, thick geyser from his neck." Chapter by chapter my passion for hating Grendel grew, both in the character itself and being forced to read it. I did appreciate the authors vivid imagery about scenery, and his love of animals. I can't stop thinking of what a fire snake would look like. And that poor ram that was brutally beaten by Grendel for no real reason. Then with a dramatic twist the reader has to wonder well maybe Grendel isn't the only bully. Grendel, at times, almost seems to reach out to the town people only to be shunned and almost killed. The town people would not give him a chance, which you could then see why he had some much hatred toward them. As the book came to an end I was, hate to say it, glad it was over. I know the historical aspect of why we read it, but besides that point I would go out of my way to make sure people didn't read it. Grendel's thoughts and actions are so disturbing that it seems like the book should have a rated R sign on the front. In the end I still disliked Grendel, even seeing it from his side. I was also really missing action throughout the book. I mean there was a lot of fighting, but the majority was deep philosophical thoughts of Grendel, which left me making my head spin. I rated the book two stars just for the imagery and the historical reference. I would unfortunately have to advise anybody I knew not to read this book, not because I didn't like it, but because it was so disturbing that I don't know how anybody could like it.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."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.Pat Pat
I really enjoyed reading this book. While Grendel's thoughts were all over the place at some points in the book, John Gardner included some really philosophical messages. I thought his writing style was interesting. There's a lot of jumping around in the style to match Grendel's thoughts as he goes a little bit insane. It is hard to follow at some points but overall the characters are easy to understand.After reading this book, my point of view of Beowulf has changed. Though Grendel was a monster, he had feelings too. He started out trying to be friends with the humans but they rejected him. He tries to be the monster they think he is, “But I was less sure of myself than I pretended." I would really recommend this book because it's a great companion for Beowulf.My favorite quote of the book would have to be the following: "Dool, dool." This will make sense after you read it. Good day.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.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.Antof9
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!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.