Probably one of the greatest questions of the 19th century comes directly from John Gardner’s novel Grendel. Given a world with no inherent meaning, how should one live his or her life? Grendel lives in a world that he is not supposed to be in, acting out on emotion. Grendel represents the animalistic traits of humans. His actions are primitive and based around society’s acceptance throughout the novel. Grendel portrays a ridiculous character that is convinced we are born a certain way, and no matter how badly it will never change. Being that Grendel is a ridiculous child-like character there are two points of view in this analysis.
The analysis of Grendel, and his actions against humanity that is ridiculous in nature. As well as John Gardner’s assimilation of the late 1960’s to early 1970’s with Grendel representing the minority that was fighting for acceptance during the Civil Rights Movement. Viewing Grendel in his youth, it is repeated throughout the novel that Grendel is alone- lost in the world. This feeling of alienation started at a young age with his mother who doesn’t respond to Grendel ever, but only embraces him into her mass as a motherly instinct. Grendel is born into a world that pays him no attention.
Realizing this world is what he makes of it, what pushes him is time spent alone exploring the world around him. When Grendel reaches the lake of fire snakes, he is hesitant about the voyage across for fear of what is on the other side. This is the step that launches Grendel into adulthood. When Grendel crosses he begins a war with the Thanes that continues on for twelve years. The first example of Grendel being a ridiculous character begins with the realization during the twelve years, that the humans are defenseless when it comes to protecting their mead halls.
During the spring when Grendel crosses over he laughs manically as he eats the humans, and causes chaos. Grendel spends a great deal of time watching the Thanes rebuild their mead hall, and sing of glory. Grendel does not understand why after such a tragedy the humans can rejoice together. Grendel begins to understand that the humans are together as one entity, and will be his most worthy adversary. The idea of Grendel always having enemies is something that is repeated throughout the novel. Grendel comes across a man whose body has been robbed, and neck slit.
In an attempt to draw some sort of understanding Grendel brings the man to the hall, and begs and pleads for the Thane’s acceptance. The Thanes do not understand Grendel, and chase him out of the Hall. Grendel understands now that he will never be accepted into the world. Chapter five explains the ridiculous nature that Grendel accepts as his purpose in life. When Grendel meets the red and gold scaled dragon the first relatable character is revealed. The dragon laughs at Grendel’s discomfort, just as Grendel laughs at the humans for their discomfort when he is around.
This reaction angers Grendel, he reaches for an emerald to throw at the dragon until the dragon reads what’s on Grendel’s mind. Grendel at this point is now having some self-realization about the world he lives in, and is considering trying to assimilate into Anglo-Saxon culture (to not be feared). Grendel wants to stop scaring the humans for merely sport. This is the first time that Grendel has this ridiculous characteristic (scaring for sport) weakened from his original view on the world.
The dragon scoffs and says, “Why not frighten them”. Grendel learns that this all knowing dragon is much wiser than the child minded Grendel. While questioning the dragon about the world he lives in Grendel is taught that nothing will ever change his animal nature. Grendel is “man’s brute existence”, the “reason for man’s pursuit of religion, organization, and science. The dragon poses existential nihilism on the impressionable Grendel and convinces him that life is without meaning, and he is rather replaceable in the world.
John Gardner uses this chapter to show the minority at the time that were complacent with the world they lived in, and didn’t fight for the same rights as the other Americans. Grendel is a perfect example of the minorities who received guidance from people who didn’t want change to happen even though they were being out casted as well. On the other hand chapter six brings someone with compassion into Grendel’s life. Unferth son of Hrothgar witnesses Grendel attacking the mead hall, and starts to challenge Grendel very vocally “QUOTE” Grendel responds with hildlike sarcasm, and begins to show Unferth his capacity for language, and pities Unferth for his courage, and the belief in heroism. Grendel doesn’t romanticize about heroism the way Unferth does. Grendel does not kill Unferth, and curses him with never taking his life during any of his raids on the mead hall. Further on the next ridiculous event in Grendel happens as Grendel watches as Hrothgar confronts the Helmings, as they surrender apart of the agreement becomes The leader’s daughter Wealtheow.
Hrothgar takes Wealtheow as his wife, and Queen of the mead hall. Captivated by her presence Grendel envisions child-like fantasy of hanging on to her dress as she embraces him just as she does with the children in Hart. Wealtheow is a representative of a strong woman who is beautiful, and can stop an argument between thanes with one word. Because of Wealtheow’s presence Grendel distances himself from the hall for a little while and becomes bored with himself.
Until fifteen Geats arrive by sea, and although the name is never present in the book we all can assume Beowulf is the person John Gardner is talking about. With the arrival of a new possible enemy Grendel waits with anticipation, and watches as the Thanes boast of glorious battles they have fought in. There is a celebration for the new warrior (Beowulf) that mocks Grendel, and angers him, which leads to Grendel attacking late at night once the festivities are all over. John Gardner brings the last moment of ridiculousness with the battle between Beowulf and Grendel.
As Beowulf awakens, and begins to fight Grendel Beowulf shows him the importance of hard walls, a direct reference to lack of order and structure in Grendel’s life. Once Beowulf got the upper hand on Grendel from slipping on a pool of blood, Grendel begins to laugh in his own defeat. Letting Beowulf know if it was not for the ironically placed puddle he would have won. Beowulf talks to Grendel about a time approaching of regeneration, but with Grendel being so set in his monstrous ways, he refutes the idea and Beowulf rips his arm from the shoulder.
Grendel goes to the same cliff he rose upon from the beginning to die. As he dies on the ledge it will be a forever symbolic moment that he wasn’t comfortable with dying alone in the abyss. John Gardner took a classic Anglo Saxon story, and told it from the side of the nemesis, and what it must be like to live under those circumstances. With this over ridiculous character that will not accept that life does have purposeful meaning. John Gardner’s Grendel represents a ridiculous character, born into ridiculous circumstances looking for a purpose in the world.