Friday, February 10, 2012
Grendel by John Gardner
Grendel by John Gardner is the second of the G's. It's a rather interesting and unusual book.
As the title suggests it's related to the old English epic poem Beowulf. It takes the interesting approach of using the monster of Beowulf; Grendel, as the narrator.
Readers are privy to Grendel's thoughts and observations as he watches the people he torments. There's a lot of philosophising, most especially when Grendel meets a dragon. Whether this is the same dragon from the Beowulf legend is never explained, although it seems reasonable to think it may be, that is if it's not a figment of Grendel's active imagination, which at times is quite childlike.
The story covers what was happening with Hrothgar prior to Beowulf's arrival. The only warrior who really challenges the monster is Unfreth, but Grendel humiliates and makes fun of him. The book ends with Beowulf inflicting the mortal wound that killed Grendel.
It may have been intended to portray Grendel as somewhat sympathetic, but it didn't really work for me. I never bore Grendel any great animosity in any case, I just assumed that to a large extent he was simply following his nature. It's a clever idea and handled very well by Gardner. I found myself liking the character of the dragon most although he appeared only briefly. I liked his portrayal of the powerful, dangerous, gold loving creature as a rather cantankerous professor type. Gardner spent most of his life in academia and I do wonder if the dragon was based in part on an old teacher, one for whom he had a healthy respect and fear, of course when your teacher can breathe fire that would have the tendency to breed respect from their students.
For something similar you could try Beowulf, I believe there are translations or recreations in the old English, although these days that's uninteilligible unless like Professor Tolkien you have studied it. Beowulf was a huge influence on Tolkien and he studied it at length. I don't know if he ever read Grendel, it would have been interesting to find out what his thoughts were. It came out two years before Tolkien's death, so he possibly could have read it, although I find it unlikely. Roger Lancelyn Green did some great collections of myths for younger readers and he covered the Legends of the Norsemen, which is the type of thing Beowulf and therefore Grendel were based on. Curiously another work that I tend to liken to this one is Mark Lawrence's 2011 debut Prince of Thorns, that too is told from the point of view of a very unsympathetic protagonists, and I'm sure you could argue that in his own way Prince Jorg Ancrath is every bit as much a monster as Grendel is.