Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Twenty-Century Death for Grendel (Annotation G3-8/Goddard)

John Gardner’s Grendel, published in 1971, is a great case study of plot, and use of the first person narrative. Grendel tells his side of the Beowulf story, and the plot is a generous use of Fictean Curve Gardner discusses in his Art of Fiction. Aside from being a well crafted and exciting novel, Gardner successfully places Grendel in the hands of twentieth century readers. In this accessibility, Grendel and his thanes have a bit of the twentieth century to them. The peasant and Hrothulf, the conversation between the priests, and the ultimate death of Grendel are the superimposed examples of the modern world on an old story.
Hrothulf, the nephew of King Hrothgar, finds himself talking angrily to an old peasant. The old peasant yells in disgust at the state of affairs: “The total ruin of institutions and morals is an act of creation,” (Gardner 118). A cultural anthropologist would be able to ascertain the level of social and political thought in the days of middle Earth, perhaps the old peasant is fashionably accepted in his day. However, the thought of abolishing the system is strikingly apt in the climate of United States of America during Gardner’s day in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Later, the old peasant claims:
“What is the state in of domestic or foreign crisis? What is the state when the chips are down? The answer is obvious and clear! Oh yes! If a few men quit work, the police move in. If the borders are threatened, the army rolls out. The state is an organization of violence, a monopoly in what it is pleased to call legitimate violence,” (Gardner 119).
How different are the rants of the old peasant to the subversive thought of youth during the height of the Vietnam conflict during the publication of Grendel?
Slight digs at the “state” are not all the social thought in the book. Religion comes into question too. Later, during the dark nights of December, Grendel lurks on the outskirts of town in the circle of idols. When the monster is joined by Ork, the eldest priest a conversation of theology develops between them. The old priest falls to his knees and tells Grendel the basis of current spiritual beliefs. The degradation of religion in the novel comes clear when the other priests join Ork. Gardner makes use of a chorus-type, or play punctuation and gives the priest numbers. Priest number one is dogmatic, believes Ork should follow protocol and get out of the night. Priest number two only has concern for the physical well-being of the old priest. Priest number three worries about what others think of the group of them, and knows ravings of old priests is not favorable financially. Whereas the actions of the three priest are human, they each represent a view of the organization of religion tightly wound to a modern world where priests are more concerned with market share rather than the spiritual wellbeing of parishioners.
Moving from government to religion and lastly to literature, the death of Grendel comes at the end of Gardner’s novel. The gruesome death at the hands of the Geats in the final chapter is erroneous. Grendel, who has admired the Shaper, the king of the poets, knows his death is tightly wrapped in the death of the poet. Grendel feels fear when the strangers come, because he foresees his death in the pyre of the poet in the previous chapter. Books and heroes as well as monsters die when people no longer care to read or think about them. By no means does Gardner accept the death of Grendel as a violent end, perhaps in the Shaper he alludes to lack of readership Beowulf is essentially dead.
Grendel is well worth the read as the unique shift in point of view, or as a modern introduction, preamble or prerequisite reading to Beowulf.

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

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