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.
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.
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.
Beowulf – 1 (February 2021)
Beowulf – 2, in which he meets a feminist (June 2021)