The Geat Generation
READERS WHO MAY have wondered ever since freshman English what it feels like to have an arm torn off by Beowulf in Hrothgar's meadhall can now relax. It hurts like the devil. "I bawl like a baby. I am slick with blood," cries Grendel in this splendid fiend's-eye view of an Anglo-Saxon epic. "My heart booms with terror." Yet as Novelist John Gardner retells the story, much of Grendel's pain is pure philosophical chagrin.
The poetic genius who originally shaped Beowulf around the monster and the Geatish champion was busy trying to blend heroism and history, pagan myth and Christian message. He had no time to empathize with the devil's henchman. So Beowulf's Grendel is beastly, God-cursed, a conventional scourge to man. Gardner's Grendel may look like a lump of earth with a hairy pelt, but (conveniently, yet convincingly) he throbs with primal rage, despair, collegiate idealism and existential inquiry. Gardner has also given him a gnawing sense of humor. "I have eaten several priests," Grendel reports. "They sit on the stomach like duck eggs."
Sallying forth from primordial chaos, Grendel watches the beginnings of human society coalesce in the twilit north: after all manner of killing and cruelty, blood feuds and stolen booty, raw power establishes a kind of order and piety around King Hrothgar's great castle, Hereot. Like Shakespeare's Caliban, Grendel has learned to swear from listening to men. But he is no premature ecology freak. It is not the way men ravage the land or each other that enrages him but how artfully and pretentiously they lie about it afterward. When Hrothgar's scops and gleemen sing of the past, quoting liberally from Beowulf, all those random bloody deeds are transformed into acts of loyalty, bravery, selflessness, steps to progress, and signs, even, of religious purpose.
Grim Illusion. Listening from outer darkness, poor old Grendel is temporarily taken in, even though in his bones he knows men as murderers, life as meaningless. "It was a cold-blooded lie," he groans, "that a god had lovingly made the world and set out the sun and moon as lights to land dwellers, that brothers had fought, that one of the races was saved, the other cursed. Yet . . . it came to me with a fierce jolt that I wanted it, yes! Even if I must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of his hideous fable." Grendel soon casts off this grim, comforting illusion. Thereafter John Gardner's own fable, by turns grisly, comic and curiously touching, follows Grendel's twelve-year-long crusade against the Danes—to force them into seeing "the mindless, mechanical brutishness of things."
It is doomed to fail. Grendel lays waste to Hereot, carves lines of care in Hrothgar's face. He reveals the priests as fools and hypocrites. He pelts with apples a futile existential hero who vainly keeps asserting that he can lend life meaning through heroic action. Nothing works. Grendel's victims perversely take these random torments as signs of divine and purposeful displeasure. They obstinately go on fooling themselves that man can shape the world. Years pass. Grendel grows bored. When Beowulf comes, powerfully secure in his delusions and with the grip of a steam shovel, it is almost a relief.
Gardner's book gives ample scope to the view that man is more naturally kin to Cain than Abel. Yet it is closer to a more entertaining tradition—the literary monster made real because he has been made so human. Variously and happily, Grendel suggests Caliban, grumping around Prospero's island like the first exploited colonial, Milton's Lucifer, that voluble, self-righteous rebel simmering eternally on a lake of fire, even King Kong on the Empire State Building, bemusedly plucking at those 30-cal. holes in his furry chest.