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The first and most terrifying monster in English literature, from the great early epic Beowulf, tells his side of the story in a book William Gass called "one of the finest of our contemporary fictions."

174 pages, Paperback

First published August 12, 1971

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About the author

John Gardner

182 books382 followers
John Champlin Gardner was a well-known and controversial American novelist and university professor, best known for his novel Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf myth.

Gardner was born in Batavia, New York. His father was a lay preacher and dairy farmer, and his mother taught English at a local school. Both parents were fond of Shakespeare and often recited literature together. As a child, Gardner attended public school and worked on his father's farm, where, in April of 1945, his younger brother Gilbert was killed in an accident with a cultipacker. Gardner, who was driving the tractor during the fatal accident, carried guilt for his brother's death throughout his life, suffering nightmares and flashbacks. The incident informed much of Gardner's fiction and criticism — most directly in the 1977 short story "Redemption," which included a fictionalized recounting of the accident.

From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gar...

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,472 reviews
Profile Image for karen.
3,976 reviews170k followers
August 18, 2018
this review may or may not contain spoilers. i assume that most bookish people are familiar with the basic plot elements of beowulf, either through high school required reading or that video-game-looking movie, or cocktails at the heaney's. if not - this could ruin everything! but it won't. ah, existentialism... when i was a young lass with my fontanelle as yet unfused; when i still liked the doors and books about manson, i dabbled briefly and emotionally in existentialism. "l'enfer c'est les autres"...it just sounds so good, doesn't it? and not just because it is french and therefore inherently sexified.but it sounds so romantically world-weary and byronesque. and when you work retail, the surface of that statement rings true every single day. but at its core, it is of course infantile and selfish. and this book was where i first realized this.what i love about this book, beyond just the gorgeous simplicity of gardner's prose (and, for some reason, the font) are its hidden depths. it isn't just a retelling, it isn't an apology or explanation - it does smooth out the rough warrior edges of beowulf (the work, not the character) and gives great powers of articulation to grendel with his almost genteel existential worldview, but there are subterranean caverns of philosophy tucked away in here. and i am not someone who digs on philosophy, but i do love the way it is explored here. there was some interview with gardner - must have been in the seventies, and someone was asking him about this book and "what it meeeeeeans", and gardner just sighed and said "there are twelve chapters. there are twelve zodiac signs. you figure it out". which is douchey, yes, but it makes me laugh. and, yes, of course there are the zodiac elements, and the nihilism of the dragon and so many other things happening in this tiny little book. but what stays with me, besides grendel's whole "i alone exist, i create the universe blink by blink" speech, is of course poor existential grendel losing his comfortable childish worldview and "growing up" as he is beaten with his own arm (why are you hitting yourself??) and being shouted at. "sing of walls, bitches!!" there are of course other stages of development at work here, but the one that affected me most powerfully at 17 was this renunciation of existentialism. i think it marked my entrance into womanhood, and it had nothing to do with menarche or penetration or tax forms. for me, the adult world became mine when i set aside childish things unexpectedly (and incompletely) in the wake of a monster's arm. grendel's had an accident. so may you all.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,517 reviews10.9k followers
July 29, 2011

If I could ADOPT that big, lug of a monster, I would be signing the papers right now because Grendel really, really needs a friend something awful. That lonely, melancholy maneater gave my soul a migraine and his final "haunting" words spent me like loose change from the sofa. I can't tell you (though I'm still gonna try) how much I loved this book. It is definitely being added to my list of ALL TIME FAVORITES.

I have rarely fallen so completely into a narrative as I did from the very first words of this retelling of the epic of Beowulf from the unique perspective of Grendel, to wit:
The old ram stands looking down over rock slides, stupidly triumphant. I blink. I stare in horror. ‘Scat!’ I hiss. ‘Go back to your cave, go back to your cowshed--whatever.’ He cocks his head like an elderly, slow-witted king, considers the angles, decides to ignore me. I stamp. I hammer the ground with my fists. I hurl a skull-size stone at him. He will not budge. I shake my two hairy fists at the sky and I let out a howl so unspeakable that the water at my feet turns sudden ice and even I myself am left uneasy. But the ram stays; the season is upon us. And so begins the twelfth year of my idiotic war.

The pain of it! The stupidity!

‘Ah, well,’ I sigh, and shrug, trudge back to the trees.
Grendel had me at hello "stupidly triumphant" and I was toast.

Despite being less than 200 pages, this baby is multi-layered and subtle and is one that you will likely want to spend some time getting to know and savoring each delicious nuance of Gardner's poetic prose. The two overarching themes that Gardner raps about through his moody, meditative monster are: (1) nihilism & cynicism vs. optimism & belief and (2) the immense power of the artist and their art to shape humanity and give it the will to stretch beyond itself towards greatness. Gardner’s handling of both of these subjects is nothing short of breath-stealing.

The story is told in non-linear fashion and uses a series of flashbacks to show the reader Grendel’s progression from an unthinking brute through his evolution as a philosophizing “reluctant” nihilist and finally to his embracing the role as “the monster” as a means of defining himself in the world around him and ending with his fateful encounter with Beowulf. (NOTE: In order to fully appreciate Grendel, you should be familiar with the story of Beowulf as Gardner assumes the reader’s familiarity with the original epic.)

Gardner’s writing is so vivid and colorful and Grendel’s worldview and “voice” are so unique, that it's hard to convey the impact of the experience other than to say, it a one of a kind. Here's the not so skinny.

Early on in the tale, Grendel develops the capacity to perceive the world around him as being separate and apart from himself. This is Grendel's “I Am” moment and it is where I took the quote at the top of the review. Once he's able to establish this distinction between himself and the rest of the world, Grendel begins trying to make sense of the world around him. However, he is continuously frustrated by what he experiences which appears to be nothing but a series of random, meaningless events without any deeper meaning.

This budding nihilism is later intensified and given shape by Grendel’s pivotal encounter with a dragon (yes, the one from Beowulf but with a much bigger speaking part). The dragon has the ability to see and know the future and experience “all time, past and present” at once and this "gift" has given him a unique, and decidedly pessimistic, perspective on existence. According to the dragon, the entire span of human existence is so fleeting and unimportant in the grand scheme of the universe that man’s endeavor to give meaning to life through religion, poetry, history, etc., are meaningless. He ends his lecture by saying to Grendel, “My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.” I thought that was a great line.

The dragon’s words resonate with Grendel but he continues to hope for a sense of meaning to the world. This conflict eventually comes to a head when Grendel encounters the blind story-teller (“the Shaper” as Grendel names him) who has arrived at Hrothgar’s hall seeking employment. In the Shaper, Grendel sees man’s ability to create reality and impose order on the universe.

The Shaper, in trying to win a place at court, flatters Hrothgar with tales of Hrothgar’s ancestors and the great deeds they performed as well as the still greater deeds that Hrothgar is destined to accomplish. Grendel has seen the events that the Shaper speaks of and knows them to be false and yet the Shaper’s words are so passionate and convey such certainty that Grendel finds himself believing them. So he turns away, confused.
Thus I fled, ridiculous hairy creature torn apart by poetry—crawling, whimpering, streaming tears, across the world like a two-headed beast, like mixed-up lamb and kid at the tail of a baffled, indifferent ewe—and I gnashed my teeth and clutched the sides of my head as if to heal the split, but I couldn’t.

This frustration and conflict between what Grendel perceives and the reality that man creates for himself through his art remains the fundamental conflict throughout the story. Even Grendel’s acceptance as the personification of the evil man is meant to destroy is largely based on Grendel deciding that, in fulfilling that role, he will at least find a purpose, a meaning.
I had become something, as if born again. I had hung between possibilities before, between the cold truths I knew and the heart-sucking conjuring tricks of the Shaper; now that was passed: I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings!
All these events culminate in Grendel's epic meeting with Beowulf (who is actually never named).

I loved this. Gardner has created an entertaining, beautifully written and powerful statement on the universal theme of “what’s it all about.” This one was a “life changer” for me. 6.0 Stars. HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION!!

IMPORTANT POST SCRIPT: I listened to the audio version of this story read by George Guidall and his narration was the PERFECT compliment to the prose and I strongly recommend to those who listen to audio books to seek out this version. It is among the best productions I have heard and I have listened to quite a few.
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.7k followers
January 9, 2019
Grendel, the famous monster from Beowulf, tells his side of the story here. Philosophies clash, along with monsters and men.

This story of Grendel, told from his point of view, is an unusual amalgamation of Grendel's stream-of-consciousness thought (which becomes more clear and organized as Grendel grows and develops) about his loneliness and self-centeredness, his attempts to make sense of the world, and his cruelty and hatred toward men, while being drawn to them at the same time. Grendel watches the Danes at Heorot at night, eyeing the old king, his young wife and family, and his thanes (warriors), and listening to the heroic songs sung by a bard.

Grendel seems to toy with different philosophies: nihilism, religion, existentialism, and solipsism all seem to be part of his worldview at different times in the story. It helps - a lot - if you're familiar with these and other philosophies. I'm really not; the only reason I can throw all those words around in my review is because I've been doing a little studying the past few days and reading some of the analyses of this book. :D I could tell a lot of the writing was going over my head. More erudite readers than I will probably get a lot more out of this book than I did.

It will also help if you're familiar with Beowulf, or at least the first part of that old poem. I re-read it (well, the first 40% of it) in preparation for reading Grendel, and being familiar not only with the plot and the characters, but with the way people spoke and thought back then, was tremendously valuable in helping to understand and appreciate this book.
But I still think that knowing more about various philosophical ways of thought would have been even more helpful.

One cool thing was that each of the twelve chapters of this book takes as its theme the signs of the zodiac. A ram appears in the first chapter, a bull in the second. In the third chapter (Gemini) there is talk of animal twins and a two-headed beast, along with more symbolic discussion of double-talk and the bard's creation of a second (and false) reality through his songs. Along with re-emphasizing the cyclical reality of Grendel's life and life in general, it was just plain fun to track how each zodiac sign appeared and was handled in the text. It helped to amuse me when I was getting bored with the philosophical discussions. I'm kind of simple that way.

I feel a little guilty for giving this book three stars.* It's a brilliant book in a lot of ways; I appreciate it but I just didn't particularly love it. If this sounds like it might be your cuppa tea, though, I strongly encourage you to read it.

* ETA: A funny thing happened. A week or so after finishing it, Grendel is still creeping around in my thoughts, lurking in corners and jumping out occasionally to surprise me. And his final words continue to haunt me. So I've decided it deserves 4 stars.


Content advisory: Lots of violence (it's Grendel, people). One or two F-bombs. Some crude sexual talk.
Profile Image for Arianne Thompson.
Author 4 books106 followers
August 5, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Tom Quinn.
536 reviews141 followers
December 19, 2022
My senior year in college I tried NaNoWriMo and my big idea was a thing about an evil magic sword and I had just re-read Beowulf for a student teaching lesson plan so I decided it would be Beowulf's evil magic sword and I felt supremely pleased with myself for the wholly original angle of telling this major story from some other point of view and then I started doing some research whereupon I found out almost immediately that John Gardner had already done just that.

5 stars, purple prose and hammy angst and melodrama and all. It blew my 21-year-old mind and burned a sacred space into my heart.
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,372 reviews1,420 followers
October 9, 2017
Grendel is the ill-fated monster from the ancient story, Beowulf. This is his tale.

There are very few details shared about Grendel in Beowulf. I thought that this story would be an opportunity for the reader to get to know him.

Unfortunately, we spend most of the time in Grendel's mind, circling endlessly around the ideas of time, brutality, nature and the meaninglessness of existence.

I wanted to know more about Grendel's mother, but there was very little about her.

John Gardner wrote her as some kind of void-filled slug monster: "Behind my back, at the world's end, my pale slightly glowing fat mother sleeps on, old, sick at heart, in our dingy underground room. Life-bloated, baffled, long-suffering hag. Guilty, she imagines, of some unremembered, perhaps ancestral crime. (She must have some human in her.) Not that she thinks. Not that she dissects and ponders the dusty mechanical bits of her miserable life's curse." pg 10, ebook.

Not like Grendel does, endlessly.

"I understood 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." pg 17, ebook.

I think that was the biggest reason I didn't enjoy this read. I believe every moment in life is, or can be, filled with purpose, meaning and happiness. Grendel falls on the exact opposite end of the scale.

In that way, Grendel is one of the biggest downers you could ever read. He believes that life means nothing. He acts and kills from this empty center.

Out of this morass, the one part I kind of enjoyed was Grendel's conversation with a dragon in its hoard.

The dragon lives for millennia and sees the world from a view so wide that it is almost outside of time. Again, there's a nihilist bent to his view, but the dragon brought a weird bit of humor to an otherwise bleak story.

"Don't look so bored," he (the dragon) said. He scowled, black as midnight. "Think how I must feel," he said." pg 43, ebook.

Yeah, think how I must feel. All I wanted was the story of Beowulf from a unique perspective and what I received was a vague feeling of depression about the meaninglessness of it all.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
308 reviews172 followers
December 12, 2007
I feel a little ambivalent about this book. It was definitely intellectually appealing, and the conversation that Grendel had with the dragon was very well done. But Grendel didn't really do what I expect novels to do: it didn't make me care about anything. Part of that may be because it's only a meager 174 pages - probably technically a novella - but I think even in 174 pages Gardner could have engaged the reader more.

While I was able to scrape away a few enjoyable bits from this book out of sheer force of will and years of experience reading novels that take themselves too seriously (and my love of Beowulf helped, too), I definitely feel that this is the type of book that makes students hate English classes. Gardner's language, while sometimes engaging and original, usually sounded pretentious and deliberately mystifying to me.

It didn't help that Grendel was completely unlikable. Not because he ate people or because he was the "bad guy," but because he was so whiny, narcissistic, and weak. He was also, to use one of his own phrases, "tediously poetic." Perhaps Gardner wanted to make Grendel unlikable, but I have the feeling that that wasn't what he was aiming for. He seemed to want Grendel to be some kind of profound, outcast poet-philosopher, but instead Grendel just came off as a cannibalistic English professor from the 1960s or a Beat poet who happened to occasionally go on murderous rampages. If I wanted to read about a character full of self-doubt, self-loathing, and pretentiousness, I'd read some Nabokov and have a better time of it.
Profile Image for Timothy Urgest.
489 reviews256 followers
October 21, 2018
We know Grendel’s ending, but what of his beginning? Who cares, life is meaningless.

Grendel follows the nihilistic ramblings of the self-proclaimed monster, and it turns out he’s a sad boy with an attitude.

The existential philosophies are compelling in the context of the novel, but I’ve seen humans far more vile and far less intelligent than Grendel. It would be interesting to explore his mind further. I want either more philosophy or more story from Grendel. I’m left with the feeling that something is missing. But maybe that’s the nihilism speaking.
Profile Image for Mon.
235 reviews219 followers
February 9, 2022
Grendel es una más de las docenas de adaptaciones que existen del poema épico Beowulf, la diferencia radica en que aquí todo es visto desde el punto de vista del monstruo y no del héroe.

Me gustaría decir que de pronto he desarrollado gusto por los libros pretenciosos, pero no, y difícilmente lo haga alguna vez. Adquirí este libro porque la portada me recordó a una película que vi de niña y ya luego entendí porqué me parecía tan familiar el título.

En una nota, el editor dice que en cierta ocasión Gardner describió su obra más reconocida (o sea, este libro) con la siguiente frase: «Grendel es como una película de Disney a la que se hubiera eliminado todo el sentimentalismo». Y yo concuerdo. Sí, tenemos un montón de filosofía, pero si todo eso te importa poco y solo quieres saber lo que puede impulsar a un villano, este libro es perfecto.

Como aspectos positivos tenemos que el autor, de hecho, deja a un lado el sentimentalismo; tenemos a un villano en toda la regla, es malo malo y dentro de su maldad, todo tiene un propósito y un sentido según sus propias ideales. Esto no es lo mismo que una justificación, porque Grendel no intenta justificarse y mucho menos lo hace el autor. Hay escenas explícitas sobre la violencia que ejerce sobre aquellos que son más débiles que él y cómo lo disfruta, también hay capítulos donde se narra el cómo llegó a odiar a los humanos y por qué los acosa. Básicamente, ya sabemos cómo acaba el libro porque desde el principio se te dice, sabemos que va suceder una "tragedia" e incluso tenemos el conocimiento de lo que le pasará al dragón pese a que eso no se nos narra. Los personajes secundarios no están muy bien desarrollados pero eso es porque, como dije, el libro está narrado por Grendel y este no tiene ninguna relación cercana a excepción, quizá, de la que tiene con el dragón.

Ahora, es cierto que el dragón es un personaje genial y logra trasmitir ese aura de grandeza e infinidad que, supongo, el autor quiere que percibas. Pero sus diálogos son taaan densos que me llevó horas lograr acabar esa parte donde le explica a Grendel cómo funciona el "yo" y el mundo. Y la verdad es que algunas partes ni siquiera las entendía xD también creo que, aún con lo corto que es, le sobraron páginas.

En resumen, Grendel es un libro interesante, bien escrito (según su época) y del que puedes obtener muchos mensajes si tienes ganas de interpretarlos, si no, pues igualmente obtienes un gran libro sobre un villano.

Comprendí que el mundo no era nada, tan sólo un caos mecánico de hechos violentos y azarosos al que estúpidamente imponemos nuestras esperanzas y miedos. Comprendí —de forma absoluta y definitiva— que yo soy lo único que importa. Todo lo demás, supe, sólo es lo que me empuja a actuar, o contra lo que yo reacciono ciegamente, de la misma forma como el mundo reacciona contra mí.

Oh, lo olvidaba: el editor se lleva gran parte del mérito por el trabajo que hizo en la versión al castellano. Gracias a sus aportes el libro se siente más íntimo.
Profile Image for Joshua Nomen-Mutatio.
333 reviews875 followers
February 25, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Vivian.
2,839 reviews389 followers
July 10, 2018
An existential crisis told from the monster's point of view. Grendel tells of everything before Beowulf, a prequel. This was far more abstract and philosophical than I expected incorporating Grendel's arc from fumbling child learning his environment to elder bored with existence.

"I understood the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears."

"Then the wars began, and the war songs, and the weapon making. If the songs were true, as I suppose at least one or two of them were, there had always been wars, and what I'd seen was merely a period of mutual exhaustion."

"But they were doomed, I knew, and I was glad. No denying it. Let them wander the fogroads of Hell."

I enjoyed this a great deal, especially the interlude with the dragon. 3.5 stars rounded up.

"Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things. No wind. No light. Nothing stirring, not even an ant, a spider. A silent universe. Such is the end of time, the brief, hot fuse of events and ideas set off, accidentally, and snuffed out, accidentally, by man. Not a real ending of course, nor even a beginning. Mere ripple in Time's stream."
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,633 followers
October 26, 2019
This is a clever little novel, letting the monster in Beowulf tell his own story.

Truthfully, I hadn't thought about Beowulf since world lit class in high school, so I had to Google a quick recap of the poem. I did appreciate reading about Grendel's loneliness and angst, but I think I would have enjoyed this book more had I spent more time reading Beowulf first.

Recommended for those who like literary perspectives.

Favorite Passage
[the dragon's advice to Grendel]
"You improve them, my boy! Can't you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shrink from — the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment — that's what you make them recognize, embrace! You are mankind, or man's condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain. If you withdraw, you'll instantly be replaced ... My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it."
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 7 books593 followers
May 21, 2008
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.
Profile Image for Warwick.
812 reviews14.5k followers
December 21, 2012
This smallish book, published in 1972, is an interesting exercise in examining a well-known story from an unexpected viewpoint – in this case it's Beowulf retold by the monster Grendel. It could have been a bit naff, like one of those awful ‘reinventions’ that certain novelists seem to knock off every couple of months, like Hamlet narrated by Ophelia. And actually I didn't really like it at first, for exactly the reason that it seemed a bit gimmicky. But by the end (and it's not a long book), it becomes clear that this has more substance than that, and the book's stayed on my mind since I finished it a couple of days ago.

It's not a total success by any means. Gardner clearly knows the original poem well, and expects his readers to, but his attempts to adopt an Old-English alliterative stylee are not very convincing. His sense that he is working from an epic poem also tempts him to get a bit overblown at times:

Space hurls outward, falconswift, mounting like an irreversible injustice, a final disease.

Blimey – it's just the sky. But if the language isn't quite there, it does at least have its own sort of momentum, so that by the end it's started to sound more reasonable, and build up some force. More to the point, Gardner's grasp of what Grendel means in the world of Beowulf is excellent. One by one, we see a series of descriptions or explanations of what it means to be a human being, with Grendel always used to provide a logical opposition to every aspect of ‘humanity’. Men seek companionship and sexual partners; Grendel's all alone. Men worship gods and invent abstract moral codes; Grendel, a born nihilist, sees that the world is meaningless.

If that sounds a bit cerebral, it's really not. It's actually quite tragic – Grendel can't help being the way he is. He hates humans primarily because they have hope for the future, whereas he does not. The more he kills them to try and break down their naïveté, the more they continue to put their faith in things like heroic ideals and the power of love – things which, to Grendel, are patently absurd. The fight with Beowulf himself – who is never named in the novel – is a clash of ideas for Grendel. He doesn't want to die exactly; but if a hero defeats him, then maybe it would mean humans have a point, after all, with their talk of heroism and justice? And secretly, wouldn't he love for them to be right and him to be wrong…?

The end, which we all know is coming, proves to be unexpectedly moving, and the last lines of the book linger. I would definitely recommend this one if you can find a copy of it.
Profile Image for John Farebrother.
114 reviews25 followers
September 3, 2017
A curious yet compelling read. It tells the story of Beowulf, but from the perspective of the monster, Grendel. Grendel, whose only companion is his taciturn mother, is a lonely creature, and each chapter is an excerpt from his solitary musings as he attempts to make sense of the world and his place in it. As such he is psychotic, but he is also very young, an adolescent, which elicits a reluctant sympathy in the reader. He is fascinated by the world of men, with their coordinated purposeful activity and gregarious existence, and finds himself drawn to them despite himself. Thus his ponderings on the meaning of life are punctuated by violent episodes as the legend plays out, and he finally meets his match in his nemesis, the hero Beowulf. The author himself was killed in a motorbike crash, which I found influenced my reading of the book. Was he a loner, attempting to engage with an unwelcoming world by living dangerously? I found the book also challenges the assumptions we have about our world view being right. There are always at least two sides to every story, yet a single narrative tends to dominate society, irrespective of social media. Perhaps the message of the novel is that it's important to look beyond the official received wisdom, even if that means entering the head of a monster.
Profile Image for MK.
279 reviews61 followers
March 26, 2019
Unusual. Simple and straightforward at first. Then ... philosophical when Grendel met the dragon. Then, I guess, unusual for the latter half. Interesting, in any case!
Profile Image for Jordan.
25 reviews
January 17, 2009
After reading "Beowulf" in my Brit Lit class, I was turned onto "Grendel", by my English teacher. I truly love this book, and the way that John Gardner plays with the character Grendel, and the humor within the writing. After all Grendel was just a misunderstood pagan monster. What's a monster to do? : )
223 reviews195 followers
July 10, 2012
Beowulf is a an 11c heroic epic poem, written in England, in old English, by newly Christianised monks, but set in Scandinavia. If one can’t handle the Nowell Codex, the film does a pretty good raconteur job.

Grendel (1971), of course, precedes both the film and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) which subsequently utilises similar techniques: interweaving highly theoretical discourse with quotidian and utilitarian undertakings.

Effectively, Gardner takes up Beowulf a millennium post-partum and manages, without altering the ‘historical accuracy’ of the poem at all, to distil it through a 20 c kaleidoscope of notionality. This can be very dangerous territory for any author, but Gardner pulls it off with aplomb.

In a ‘Thus spoke Grendel’ first person narrative, Gardner approaches what are essentially two dimensional characters in the original poem and plots them sensitively, and sympathetically, on a 3D narrative grid. Actions are parsed out and framed in an intricate network of emotional and philosophical weave.

Grendel and his prey (the Danish thanes) transubstantiate from their black-and –white victim/perpetrator cardboard cut outs into a complex, symbiotic intra-dependence. They need each other in an achingly horrifying way, imbue meaning in each other’s existence. The destruction of either party would skewer the Gaia balance, and they seem to know it instinctively: men need heroes and just causes to fight for and monsters need to be acknowledged, if not worshipped.

In this fracas its becomes difficult to discern who is man and who is monster and who is god. These three seem to conjoin conceptually in some grotesque Siamese Holy Trinity, with lashings of mutual adulation acting as the gelling agent.

This is ultimately an intelligent, philosophical exploration of the dichotomy of life, poignant and hyperbolic in its own way.

Profile Image for Zach.
121 reviews4 followers
April 4, 2013
Grendel can't settle on a single idea or voice. Whiny, self-involved and "tediously poetic," this retelling of the epic Beowulf from the monster's point of view is full of existentialist pity-parties (the dragon gives a tiresome lecture on the brevity of the universe) and anachronistic outbursts (Grendel suddenly gives the empty sky an upraised middle finger). Eventually the rapidly shifting topics and themes blurs together into an unholy literary drone. Blah blah blah nihilism blah blah blah mythology blah blah blah monsters can have mommy issues too. I wanted to sympathize with the creature Grendel, but while some "monsters" can inspire awe (Milton's Satan) or terror (Frankenstein's creature), Gardner's Grendel inspires nothing but disdain; one of the original monsters reduced to a collection of petulant tantrums and tenuous philosophical claims. Thankfully, this terrible book only lasted 170 pages; unfortunately, that is the best thing I can say about it.
Profile Image for Terry.
40 reviews77 followers
February 9, 2008
(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.
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,666 reviews440 followers
September 7, 2014
"Grendel" is a retelling of the epic poem "Beowulf" from the point of view of the monster, Grendel. The poem was written in Old English sometime between the 8th and 11th Century. The monster had been attacking the Scyldings in the mead hall of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. The hero Beowulf, a Geat, destroyed Grendel. Although the poem "Beowulf" also tells of further adventures of the hero, the retelling ends with the death of Grendel.

In "Grandel" the narrator-monster has been living in a cave with his mother. He ventures out to observe the savage humans populate the area, and finally form a complex civilization. He hears the Shaper, a blind harpist-poet, tell beautiful mythical tales about ancient warriors, which inspire Hrothgar, although the stories have little factual basis.

When he reaches adulthood, Grendel asks philosophical questions of the Dragon, who has a fatalistic view of life. This confuses Grendel who has been hearing the Shapers' imaginative heroic view. The Dragon gives Grendel a magical gift--weapons could no longer penetrate Grendel's skin.

The Shaper tells the tale of the two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Cain is the ancestor of Grendel, while humans are the descendants of Abel. Although they look different, Grendel and the humans had a common language, common ways of thinking, and a shared heritage. Grendel felt isolated and lonely, and found life tedious because he had no companions to talk with.

Grendel would spy on the Scyldings in the night, and attacked them for twelve years. Boewulf and a group of Geats eventually arrive by boat to help the Scyldings destroy the monster.

The story was written in beautiful poetic prose. Even though Grendel committed terrible deeds, he also had a sympathetic lonely side to him and an appreciation of beauty. One could see life through the monster's eyes. The book was also nicely illustrated by Emil Antonucci with wonderful woodcut prints of Grendel's head.
28 reviews2 followers
November 8, 2007
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.
Profile Image for Alex O'Brien.
Author 2 books48 followers
October 19, 2017
'Grendel' is a brilliant retelling of the Old English poem 'Beowulf' from the perspective of the monster. Immediately, Gardner's first person voice enticed me into the story, and his lyrical prose, poetic sensibility, and articulate language kept me reading, as did his breath-taking existential meditations on the nature of good and evil, the power of art and story-telling, our constructions of religion and heroism, and the meaning of life. This short book has jumped onto my list of favourites, and it has inspired me to read Gardner's 'The Art of Fiction,' which I have often heard quoted. I definitely want to learn more about writing from someone who creates such wonderful prose.
Profile Image for J.
730 reviews430 followers
December 10, 2017
The early chapters of this are great. Gardner just perfectly nails down this caustic, inhumanly sophisticated perspective that's weaving through a lonely, pagan world where human conquest is just starting to take shape.

But then he wrecks that setup by injecting a laundry list of 'experimental' flourishes and techniques that he half-asses so badly, they just bog everything down and make the whole book lose focus. There are lame attempts to play around with different literary forms that add nothing, cringe-worthy blocks of pseudo-philosophical dialogue, sham attempts at profundity (get it? Grendel is humanity, man), and sly attempts at anachronism that probably made people role their eyes even back in 1971 when this first came out.

It's a shame too, because there is so much interesting potential in the set-up of this, but instead we end up with some early postmodernist weak-sauce. Just go read Beowulf instead, it's far weirder and cooler than this is.
Profile Image for Avaciavolino.
2 reviews1 follower
October 1, 2017
John Gardner's Grendel dives head first into the world of existentialism and attempts to answer the age old question of what is the meaning of life. Readers are taken on a journey to seek this answer through the epitome of an outcast, the monstrous Grendel, who wrestles with grasping his own identity in the world. The struggle between nihilism and the existence of a meaningful purpose in life is clearly on display through the trials and tribulations of Grendel's life. While the premise of Grendel's search for an identity is an excellent topic of discussion, I felt that at times the way in which Grendel contradicts himself over and over can get quite exhausting. I do commend Gardner for tackling such a complex theme and presenting it in the way that he did, however, I feel that Gardner could have framed the story of Grendel with less contradiction because i feel like the constant tug of war took away from the actual ideas that Grendel viewed. With the overstated war between philosophies, there wasn't as much description as to what Grendel felt, it was more just the bare expression of nothing or just the notion that maybe there is meaning, but no explanation of the meaning. I do believe this is a good novel nonetheless because it creates for interesting discussions.
Profile Image for Peter Watson.
6 reviews
October 1, 2017
Grendel is John Gardner’s endeavor to squeeze as many schools of thought (nihilism, existentialism, solipsism, you name it) into 174 short pages. The result is an intense and quirky philosophical treatise on beauty, evil, culture, love, and humanity’s search for meaning (or meaninglessness) that raises several uncomfortable questions — why do I feel compassion and empathy for a bloodthirsty monster? Why are some people “good” and others “evil”? What makes an action or character moral or immoral? What gives life meaning? The book doesn’t quite answer all the bewildering questions it raises. Instead, it asks the readers to look within their own souls and find their own answers. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys experimental narrative structures, alternative perspectives on well-known stories, and/or heavy philosophical conundrums.
Profile Image for Stuart.
708 reviews262 followers
May 13, 2022
A Nihilistic Monster Seeking the Meaning of Life and the Power of Art, While Eating a Lot of Oafish Danes Before Meeting his Nemesis Beowulf
The slim little book packs in a huge amount of philosophic musings in the guise of the story of Beowulf as told by the monster Grendel. It's a really unique book in so many ways, with sly humour and fierce intellectual speculation, something that high school and college English teachers seem to like foisting on unsuspecting students to see what they'll make of it. There is plenty to unpack in such a short and memorable book, but I imagine it won't be everyone's cup of tea. I enjoyed it though I found Grendel' omniscient narration implausible as he seemed to know everything about the lives of the silly, violent, and foolish humans just from observing them from his tree, but that's quibbling.
You'll get a lot more from the book if you are well-versed in philosophy, ancient English epic poems, and the zodiac - so basically everyone, right?
Profile Image for Arun Divakar.
796 reviews375 followers
April 28, 2012
History could very well be interpreted as a stream of stories penned by victors. There have been battles,coups and epoch changing events and almost all of which have been stories told by those left alive or those left on the winning pedestals. Did anyone tell us much about Ravana's thoughts as his entire kingdom was ground to dust by a man and his army of simians ? What of Ernst Blofeld whose plans were doused in hot water by a dapper Brit ? I could go on but the point I want to convey is that everyone is a hero to him or herself ensconced when they are in their little worlds. This could be the premise where John Gardner began to base his work upon.

Gardner chooses a very fertile landscape to base his story upon : The myth of Beowulf & Grendel. One of the most ancient hero-quest legends (I borrow this lovely phrase from Joseph Campbell!) is taken and is twisted to a different shape with the monster named Grendel occupying the center stage. Grendel makes a very interesting character study for he is quite obviously a monster not at peace with himself. He is a creature prone to depression which fuels illogical acts of violence and destruction. These bouts of depression seem to trace their beginnings to a fateful run in with human beings and the increased encroachment of man into the forest where the beast makes its home. There are countless things that drive him over the edge almost all of which has to do with human beings. Ah ! Humans, those apes that walk on two legs who drove Grendel away like a penguin in a land of peacocks when he approached them as a friend ! Things go hurtling past then and the inevitable outcome which any one can easily guess comes into being.

These being said, I must say that my reading experience was greatly enhanced as I have not read Beowulf. The most interesting fact is that someone by the name Beowulf never appears even once in the tale. There is but Grendel, a deeply flawed and close to human monster. A bundle of angst,depression and murderous levels of psychotic rage and at the same time a lonely and wretched lifeform. His loathing and subsequent extinguishing of humanity is very methodical for if he kills them all off, then there would be nothing left to live for. Here we find the hunter and the hunted interlocked in a danse macabre which builds all through the seasons of the earth. And...Oh yes, I must not forget the dragon ! He is a magnificient creation and Tolkien's Smaug seems to pale in comparison here. Gardner's dragon has a mind sharper than many I have come across in the literary world and a wisdom worth many generations. He has seen civilizations rise & fall, he can read your mind and he knows the future, even his own and all these make him cynical beyond measure. I must also add here that his dealings are as straight as a hairpin bend on a mountain trail. I loved this character !

Coming to the writing style, it takes some time to get used to. It's like water flowing down a path paved with pebbles and while at some places the liquid flows quick, at others it slows down to a crawl. Not exactly my favorite kind of a writing style. Also evident is his effort to bring in the icons of modern life into a pre-medieval tale. His characters talk of police & the army, his monster mouths the word fuck you and there are discussions on the relative merits of an agrarian society and how the working class can overthrow the ruling elite. We must not forget that this story happens in a time when man was learning to organize into a society and live an organized life ! I believe Gardner was an atheist or he had an axe to grind against organized religion. There is too much bashing of religion and icons throughout the tale and so is there a very concentrated effort on dismantling the entire gamut of heroism and noble ideals.

While the work shows flashes of brilliance at a lot of places, I could equate this to the mutterings of a very bitter man. Also for a tale of fantasy, there is far too much philosophical gore spattered on the pages !
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