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Beowulf – 3: Grendel by John Gardner

A year ago I posted my first piece about Beowulf. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves at that time, two of which were designed for children: versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

A few months later I reported on a feminist version of the ancient tale. It is called The Mere Wife and is by Maria Dahvana Headley. She suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way, giving a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and telling a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

The traditional story is quickly told. Beowulf, from the kingdom of the Geats, in present-day Sweden, brings his warriors to help the Danish king defend his beautiful great hall from Grendel, a blood-thirsty monster who terrorises the hall at night. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing his arm off. The monster’s mother wants vengeance and Beowulf follows her into a deep, dark lake where he kills her too. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in the battle to protect his people that is his last. 

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power, and it is a story told by men about men for men. For this third Beowulf post I have read Grendel by John Gardner. As the title suggests, his rendition casts Grendel as the main character. When I first read it in the ‘70s, I was entranced. On re-reading it I find it rather overblown. 

Grendel

The story is narrated by Grendel. The monster is a lonely creature, unable to communicate with others; his mother has no language and the humans he encounters do not see beyond his monstrous body. He retells the story of the Danes, from the landscape of war lords, the accumulation of territory and power by Hrothgar, the celebration of Hrothgar’s achievements by the Shaper, including the building of the great hall.

I could have called this post Beowulf meets Jean-Paul Satre, but this would have invited ridicule and mocking accents of Monty Python; and it would have overloaded the interpretation of the story with existentialism and other philosophical references. See Wikipedia, which tells me that John-Paul Satre was a strong influence on Grendel. Judge for yourself.

What John Gardner does is retell the Danes’ heroic history, and Beowulf’s killing of Grendel in a way which subverts the widely known version reproduced above. The mocking reports by Grendel of his alternative version reminds us that victims have a story to tell that is seldom heard.

Grendel is bemused by the people on whom he feasts and not above random acts of cruelty himself. He is maddened by the hypocrisy, the vainglory and the boastfulness of the great hall and its thanes. As we are entirely within the head of Grendel we are privy to his reasoning and responses to those he meets: his mother (a mewling incoherent hag crazed by mother-love), the dragon (a nihilist of great greed), the Shaper (who sings songs of the Danes’ heroic past), the hero Unferth (a coward who is easily outwitted) and Ork the priest (who is deluded by his contact with Grendel). Of Beowulf he has nothing but contempt, seeing him as insane, but able to defeat him in the end.

The reader sees an outsider trying to make sense of a world that is antagonistic to him and offering a counter-version to the truths of great literature and myth. This alternative view was very refreshing in its time. People were revising all kinds of shibboleths and suggesting that some of the ways that were seen as taken for granted may have been illusions, sleight of hand to maintain power.

‘A surprising novel,’ said the editor Diana Athill in Stet (2000)She was recommending a number of novels she had come across and suggested her reader should seek them out, Grendel among them. 

‘If I hadn’t [sought it out] I would have missed a great pleasure – a really powerful feat of imagination.’ (93)

I agree that the imagination revealed is impressive, but I found it overloaded and in the end I tired of Grendel’s obsession with himself.

John Gardner

The author was born in New York state in 1933 and killed in a motorcycle accident in 1982. He taught Creative Writing and wrote other novels. The Art of Fiction and On Being a Novelist were both published in 1983.

This version of the Beowulf myth generated some spin-offs: a film in 1981, voiced by Peter Ustinov; two versions by rock bands, also in 1981; and an opera with dance more recently.

Grendel by John Gardner, published in 1971. I used the Picador version which I bought for 40p. 120pp. This edition contains the illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Related posts

Beowulf – 1 (February 2021)

Beowulf – 2, in which he meets a feminist (June 2021)

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Beowulf – 1

The Anglo-Saxons have never left us: swear words, place names and the foundation of our language. We have some great archaeological Anglo-Saxon finds including several hoards containing jewellery, such as the Staffordshire and Lenborough Hoards – hidden and never reclaimed – and the magnificent Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. And there is Beowulf. Beowulf’s story has survived for about 1500 years, composed around the 6th or 7th centuries and written down in the 10th or 11th centuries. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library and tells the story of the hero Beowulf and his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon.

Beowulf, from the kingdom of the Geats, in present-day Sweden, brings his warriors to help the Danish king defend his beautiful great hall from Grendel. Grendel is a blood-thirsty monster who terrorises the hall at night. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing his arm off. The monster’s mother wants vengeance and Beowulf follows her into a deep, dark lake where he kills her. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in a battle to protect his people that is his last. His body is set alight in a funeral pyre and a barrow made in his honour, high on a cliff to warn ships of the rocks below.

Origially the story would probably have been told in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Some of the There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations and retellings.

When I taught history in Coventry, many moons ago, I used to love the unit on Anglo-Saxons as it enabled me to retell the story of Beowulf and Grendel, and to explore the Sutton Hoo Ship burial. After the tale of heroic actions, in which Beowulf’s arm was claimed to have the strength of thirty men, he survived almost a day under water and he died fighting a fire-breathing dragon, after retelling his adventures some child would always ask, ‘is it true? Did it really happen?’

The story of Beowulf has been retold many times, in translations, novels, films and other adaptations. In this and further posts I plan to look at the enduring appeal of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and its retelling in books. In this post I look at some of the straightforward renditions of the poem. In future posts I’ll consider some more imaginative versions and the attraction of the Anglo-Saxon tale.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney 

This recent translation was the work of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. We get the whole poem including quite a bit of elaborated history, moments of glory, family events, repeated account of the heroic deeds, and interludes. Heaney has concentrated on telling the story, finding many synonyms for the characters and repeating the reminders that all this was done by God’s power.

In off the moors, down through the mist-band
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. (24)

Many of the characters are introduced by their reputation before we actually meet them: Beowulf, Grendel and his mother as well as some of the kings that Beowulf serves. The verse story confirms the two children’s versions I read.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber in 1999106pp

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff 

As you expect from this great writer, this retelling of the story is very accessible and full of the details for which she was famed. It is helped by Charles Keeping’s illustrations, which while being of their time add considerably to imagining this tale of impossible heroics. As in so many of her stories Rosemary Sutcliff stresses the loyalties that tied together the royal houses of the Danes and the Geats, respected by the kings, seafarers and warriors, as well as the debts that must be repaid when demanded. 

In the great hall of Hygelac, King of the Geats, supper was over and the mead horns going round. It was the time of evening, with dusk gathering beyond the firelight, when the warriors called for Angelm the king’s bard to wake his harp for their amusement; but tonight they had something else to listen to than the half-sung, half-told stories of ancient heroes that they knew by heart. Tonight there were strangers in their midst, seafarers with the salt still in their hair, from the first trading ship to reach them since the ice melted and the wild geese came North again. (8)

Illustrated by Charles Keeping

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1961 and reissued by Puffin in 1966. 108pp

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo 

This is a more recent version than Dragon Slayer, and is written for slightly younger readers. The story is faithfully told, but without all the genealogical detail of the original and its many diversions. I find the illustrations by Michael Foreman to add less to the retelling than those of Charles Keeping. In this retelling again the  emphasis is on loyalty, courage and indebtedness. 

Hear, and listen well, my friends, and I will tell you a tale that has been told for a thousand years and more. It may be an old story, yet, as you will discover, it troubles and terrifies us now as much as ever it did our ancestors, for we still fear the evil that stalks out there in the darkness and beyond. (13)

Michael Morpurgo notes his debt to other translated versions, including Rosemary Sutcliff, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Michael Alexander. 

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, published in 2006 by Walker Books. 150pp

See also Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf  by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

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