Grendel and the Meaning of Existence
In the Old English epic poem, Beowulf, Grendel is described to be an inhumane, evil monster said to bear a curse as he is a descendant of Cain. He attacks the Danes during the night as a reaction to the joy that he cannot empathize with. His home is revealed to exist under a body of water that is littered with sea monsters and dragons, murky with blood. Yet his eventual death is avenged by the one with whose bond is strongest to ever exist: his mother, raising the question of whether or not Grendel was really a “monster.” John Gardner, in his retold story of the old poem from the monster’s point of view, called Grendel, humanizes the life of the legendary monster by taking readers through Grendel’s spiritual journey, answering questions that lie behind his alienation and outbursts that label him a “monster.” By giving Grendel a voice that was never heard of for centuries, Gardner proves to readers that Grendel’s struggles and spiritual journeys are no different than those experienced by humans, blurring the lines that differentiate human from monster. Grendel’s reflection of his existential view of life in parts of the story resonate with my understanding of what life means to me, opening the doors to many possibilities that exist beyond my scope of imagination: that life if simply what I make of it. For Grendel, it was his inevitable death.
Existentialism, as described by William Barrett in his novel Irrational Man, began after World War II, where disillusionment was rampant and post-war emotions included pessimism and hopelessness (Barrett). The term was first introduced by French writer Jean-Paul Sartre, turning into a “cultural movement that flourished in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s.” Existentialism is a philosophical inquiry that states that human beings cannot be described nor understood simply by “categories found in the conceptual repertoire of ancient or modern thought” (Crowell). The fundamental scientific concepts that seems to be understood by humans is therefore insufficient to describe the depth of the human existence; these tools can only achieve a limited amount of understanding of physical processes, but not the emotional ones. Existentialism concludes that current methods of rationalization and giving meaning to life and human existence are not enough to grasp full understanding (Crowell).
Existentialism was created with the underlying question of what it means to live. It recognizes the difference between human existence and existence in general, because generalities can be understood with knowledge, while humans cannot (Burnham). When one adopts existentialism as their way of life, they succumb to one of the following beliefs:
“Nature as a whole has no design, no reason for existing.” The sciences that seem to define nature do not actually explain the reason to why things occur the way they do, but are simply description of what is observed.“Freedom will not only be undetermined by knowledge or reason, but from the point of view of the latter my freedom will even appear absurd.” Every aspect of choice will have moments of absurdity, even when it seems that a path taken to arrive to a specific conclusion does not appear absurd itself.“Human existence as action is doomed to always destroy itself.” Actions are always bound to the world around them, and no action can occur independent of other factors. A “free” action, once done, is no longer free (Burnham).With these, existentialists arrive at the conclusion that human existence is what it is not. Existence is then separate from humans themselves, and in order to be “free,” one cannot be bound to the world of cycles. In short, existentialism is a representation of the choice one makes to live their life, regardless of whether or not that way is true. One can set their own value, and live to fulfill it. Such is the vagueness of the philosophy.
At the entrance of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is inscribed the phrase, “Know thyself!,” a saying attributed to Socrates in regards to the beginning of a philosophical journey: to know oneself first (Barrett). Grendel’s philosophical journey in attempts to figure out the true meaning of life revolved around understanding the world around him; he already knew what he was. The beginning of Grendel’s journey begins as an allusion to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which a group of men sat, chained, inside a cave, staring at shadows on the wall in which they perceive is reality. Only when one man breaks the chains and ventures into the outside world does he realize that the world is more than just a perception of what people think of it, although perception and truth may overlap. Grendel, in his journey, parallels this journey as he ventures outside his lair and breaks the physical barrier that exists between his world at the outside world, which was the body of water filled with sea dragons. During Grendel’s first encounter with humans, he realizes that he is very much like them, with the only differences being the way he looks and the way he grew up in isolation. It can be argued that the reason for Grendel’s anger and actions in the rest of the book can be rooted in the isolation and alienation he felt when the humans shut him out as he tried communicate, since they both spoke the same language. The humans’ instinctual expressions of hate towards the different creature may be the tipping point that catalyzed Grendel’s need to find out the meaning of his existence, as if it were different from anyone else’s. Hence Grendel’s need to find where he really belongs.
Grendel’s isolation allowed him to observe the world as a third party, as if his being was independent of the world’s mechanics. Multiple times in the novel, Grendel criticizes the cyclic nature of the universe, shown through his frustration with the ram that kept attacking him, the mountain goat that was determined to climb the mountain regardless of the impossibility, and the humans that killed for no reason. Grendel, preventing himself from succumbing to this cyclic nature, ventured to find meaning to his existence that had nothing to do with the stupidity, as he thought, of the world. The only thing he knew for certain was that he was alone. He says, “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” (Gardner, 22). This idea of existential absurdity allows for Grendel to define the values of his life that separate him from the rest of the world and its mechanics that others succumb to (Burnham). The only thing that matters to him is his own existence, as he is the only one that can shape and give meaning to his life.
Perhaps the meaning that Grendel gave to his own life was the determination to figure out why he existed. While Grendel felt confused at multiple points in the novel, the reason he kept living the way he did was because his goal was to figure out the meaning to his existence. Unlike the dragon, who retired from a normal life to “sit on gold” (Grendel, Chapter 5), Grendel kept observing the world to find the answers to his own life. Unlike nihilists, he had a reason to live and reason behind the things he did. For example, when Grendel wreaks havoc in the mead hall to encounter the Queen, a symbolism for innocence and faith, he did not kill her despite his ability to. He says, “I have not committed the ultimate act of nihilism: I have not killed the queen” (Gardner, 93). Grendel reflects on this possibility and concludes that there simply is no benefit to killing Queen Wealtheow. Killing her would prove acknowledgement in the faith that Grendel opposes, giving in to a nihilist nature that denies any reason behind the world. The recurring idea throughout the novel is that Grendel knows there is a reason to his existence, and he lived to figure it out.
Grendel recognized that the cyclic nature of the world was made up of actions and reactions; he made it a goal that his existence would not be a simple reaction to what the world made him face. His death, however, proved otherwise. Grendel fights Beowulf in the mead hall, believing he has won before the fight even begins. The lack of Grendel’s presence is what ultimately causes Beowulf to win the fight, taking Grendel’s arm as a trophy. Until his death, Grendel recognizes that the reason behind his loss was not a result of his weakness, but rather an “accident.” While he fights, he says, “My sanity has won. He’s only a man; I can escape him. I plan. I feel the plan moving inside me like that-time waters rising between cliffs… I have fallen! Slipped on blood. By accident, it comes to me, I have given him a greater advantage” (Gardner, 169). The ending lines of the novel also say, “‘Poor Grendel’s had an accident,’ I whisper. ‘So may you all’” (Gardner, 174). With Grendel losing the fight, readers realize that Grendel falls into the pattern of the cyclic nature that he tried so hard to dissociate from. His “plan” and the way he fought were simply responses to what he was given to face. While readers realize it, Grendel did not. Perhaps this is the way he fulfilled his existential life goal: to not be a part of nature, and die separate of it.
The beauty of existentialism is that is allows us to turn life into what it is not, allowing us to fill the pages of a book that is only known to us. In his vast sea of loneliness and the love that his cruel world deprived him of, Grendel found the reason to his own being, to not fall into the set path that nature guides for everyone else. Existentialism allows for one to define the meaning of their own life, allowing them to choose the way they live and create their own guidelines for their existence, aside from societal values and religious expectations. Disappointment and unhappiness is rooted in failure to meet expectations that are set too high in the first place; however, setting one’s own expectations of how they want to live solves the problem of unhappiness before it can even happen. While to a much lesser degree than Grendel’s, existentialism has solved the problems of many and given hope to many others. Life is not a one size fits all, but a creation of journey that one aims to achieve in a world made as their own.
Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.
Burnham, Douglas, and George Papandreopoulos. “Existentialism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.
Crowell, Steven, “Existentialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
Greenstreet, Stuart. “On Being An Existentialist.” On Being An Existentialist. Philosophy Now, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.
Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971. Print.
The Consequences of Grendel’s Solipsism
In 1971, John Gardner changed the way people think about the English epic Beowulf when he published his novel Grendel. In his retelling of the story from the monster Grendel’s perspective, he repeatedly makes references to the philosophy of solipsism: the belief that one’s self is the only thing that exists and matters. As Gardner’s narrative progresses, Grendel’s solipsistic perspective proves to be exactly the trait that leads him to commit awful and sometimes evil acts.
In the beginning of the novel, as Grendel sets the stage and explains how his battle with the Scyldings began, he also establishes his solipsism. He states that he, “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. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly — as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink” (22). This is a classic outline of solipsism. Grendel believes that the rest of the world he can see and interacts with only exists in relation to himself. In this way, the Danes only exist to provide Grendel with an enemy or with amusement and relief from his boredom. Grendel also believes that he has the power to control what exists around him, changing things into what he wants them to be by will of his mind. He says, “The mountains are what I define them as.” (28).
However, solipsism becomes a harmful life philosophy when it comes to how one interacts with others. Because solipsists believe that no one outside themselves truly exists or matters, they can reason that their actions against others have no consequences. In regards to others, Grendel says, “The world is all pointless accident,” (28) and “all that I do not see is useless, void.” (29). Since Grendel believes these things to be true, it does not seem morally wrong for him to torture and kill humans. After all, to him they do not really exist. It is morally acceptable to Grendel to terrorize them for his own gain and amusement because he is the only thing that really exists in the world. Therefore, can we really hold Grendel accountable for things that he did while only ever knowing and believing in a branch of philosophy that tells him it is not morally incorrect to do this?
In Chapter 7 of the novel, Grendel for the first time stops short of an evil act when he leaves Wealtheow alive after attacking her and intending to murder her. Grendel acts morally, leaving her alive because Wealtheow challenges Grendel’s solipsism, which is what leads him to commit immoral acts. In contrast to the belief that only oneself exists, Wealtheow is the picture of selflessness, putting others before herself. Wealtheow has willingly agreed to marry her brother’s enemy in order to save her own people. She acts with kindness towards Hrothgar’s people, even serving them in their meadhall. Her actions confuse Grendel and, though subconsciously, cause him to doubt his own beliefs. This is why he allows her to live, even though solipsism tells him that her life does not matter.
In the final stages of the novel, Grendel is forced by Beowulf to reject his solipsism. After Beowulf slams his head into a wall, forcing him to admit that the wall exists outside of him and that he did not create it, Grendel says, “Every rock, every tree, every crystal of snow cries out cold-blooded objectness…I understand” (172). In his last moments, Grendel accepts that his solipsistic view of the world is incorrect. He is aware that everything and everyone he has encountered throughout his life actually does exist. He says, “Animals gather around me, enemies of old, to watch me die. I give them what I hope will appear a sheepish smile” (173). Now that Grendel has rejected solipsism and understands the existence of those around him, he has a chance to understand morals and to not act as a monster. However, because Beowulf has torn off his arm, it is too late for Grendel.
The motif of Grendel’s solipsism appears repeatedly throughout the novel, giving the reader a way to understand why Grendel commits the horrendous acts he does. This is important to the novel, because one of the main things the novel aims to do is turn a character who was previously seen only as a villain into one towards whom people can be sympathetic. Readers understand that Grendel’s solipsism is what causes him to lack a moral compass, giving more insight into the iconic character from Beowulf.
Astrological Signs as Symbols in Grendel
In the novel Grendel, by John Gardner, the author associates each chapter with a different astrological sign, such as Aries, Gemini, and Sagittarius, not only to enhance the role of nature in the story, but also to better chronologize Grendel’s growth and retreat in his philosophical development. Furthermore, this designation even mimics that which he struggles to grasp: the knowledge of the continuation of the universe without him after his death, even though his world has come to an end.
Beginning the novel with the first sign, Aries, Gardner introduces the stereotypical trait of cyclical thinking. The ram, which is the symbol for Aries, indicates another spring coming around, spurring Grendel to lash out as he finds himself trapped in an “endless progression of moon and stars” (p.5). Not only does the “cyclical” trait indicate that Grendel is frustrated with the never-ending loop he feels stuck in, but it also, along with the mention of “moon and stars”, clues the reader in to the use of the signs as a vehicle to communicate Grendel’s own cycle from existentialist on to empiricist on to nihilist and back once again. In other words, the affirmation that Grendel’s own existence is, in itself, the very circular, repetitive process that he abhors.
The reader travels along with Grendel through his experiences and phases of philosophical thought. From him realizing that he “alone creates the universe, blink by blink” (p.22) after being attacked by the bull of Taurus— ushering in his stay in an existential mindset —to his head “splitting” (p.44) into dual realities under Gemini. That split within him— a creation of Gemini’s symbol, twins —is used to illustrate the fervor and inner turmoil he feels as he is torn between that newfound existentialism and the inviting lies of religion that the Shaper brings along. The Shaper, a harp-player who sings of a loving God to the Danes, the residents of young King Hrothgar’s mead hall, is a display as well of those quick-witted and smoothly eloquent Gemini traits that he utilizes to trap the subjects under the pleasant lies of a benevolent force that drives all things to happen for a reason; allowing the emotional humans to feel that their struggles are not in vain. Grendel, however, his cold and inhuman audience, becomes stuck somewhere between the notions of the inanimate, unfeeling universe he feels he has come to know and a fatherly, caring, Cancer-esque God painted by this man who nourishes and nurtures through false hope— what he finds he has the ability to want and be seduced by, just as the Danes do and can.
Later on in the novel, when Grendel has accepted his role as “the Destroyer” (p. 72-73) and as a nihilist, both ideas presented to him by the Leo-likened Dragon, he initiates himself as such by wreaking havoc on the mead hall. During this attack, the reader suddenly finds themselves in a grave realization that Grendel’s life will soon end; a sudden deviation that yanks them away from their previous vantage point they shared with him. Under the sign of Sagittarius, whose image is an archer, Grendel sees a Scylding hunter fell a hart with a bow and arrow— foreshadowing his own fast-approaching demise. The demolition of his philosophical growth is also brought on as he stumbles upon the false priests who preach religion but practice nothing— representative of the centaur (the half-man, half-horse beast) who is the archer of Sagittarius. As Grendel unknowingly and uncaringly awaits the coming of the “water bearer” (p.151) of Pisces— the Geat Beowulf —that will ultimately end him, he observes as both his nihilistic mindset and his attraction to religion are ended by the quasi-priests being exposed.
It is only when that sea-bearer comes and occupies Grendel’s self-centered, one-creature world, displaying the Piscean emphasis on connectedness within the universe that Grendel’s Aquarian individuality plays a stark contrast against, that he returns to exactly where he was when the story began. Once again finding himself as a helpless cog in the ever-churning world that he can choose to create within or be run by, he realizes that he can never escape until he is forced out by death, at that moment being administered gruesomely to him by Beowulf.
Throughout the novel, Gardner provides symbols of the signs or traits of the signs to illustrate Grendel’s circular growth and regression in his views regarding the universe, but it is ultimately at his time of demise that provides a true representation the vicious cycle he battles and loses against— as we all do.
Existential Philosophy in John Gardner’s Grendel
“What happened in Grendel was that I got the idea of presenting the Beowulf monster as Sartre, and everything that Grendel says Sartre in one mood or another has said, so that my love of Sartre kind of comes through as my love of the monster, though monsters are still monsters-I hope” (Harvey 86). Authors may develop their works around personal ideas as well as the ideas of others. During the 1960’s, John Gardner became attracted to questions of evil, morality, and the meaning of existence in the world which can be found in the reemergence of existentialist philosophy during this time (Nutter 48). Existentialists believe in individual freedom as well as the personal responsibility that goes along with being free (OED). John Gardner ponders these universal questions about life and uses literature to help understand, develop, and dispense his ideas. He takes a stance against the mainstream and popular social movement of existentialism by satirizing the philosophy. Although he ponders about life’s meaning, Gardner opposes the “social benefits of adopting an existentialist posture,” while also believing that there is more to life than individual self-fulfillment (Nutter 50). In his novel Grendel, John Gardner comments on society using existentialism within the characters of Grendel, the Dragon, and the Shaper. John Gardner begins by using Jean Paul Sartre’s existential philosophy to develop the character of Grendel. John Gardner is interested in Sartre’s philosophy, which he thinks is “paranoid and loveless and faithless and egoistic and other nasty things” (Mason 102). His negative perception of this philosophy colors the novel as Gardner portrays his thoughts through the monstrous narrator, modeled after Sartre, and attempts to expose philosophical problems relating to society’s acceptance of existentialism. Grendel’s “idiotic war” (Gardner 5) begins as the “poor old freak” (6) encounters nature. Grendel feels “abandoned” by the world, and those feelings correlate with Sartre’s “being-in-itself” argument. “The world resists me and I resist the world…the mountains are what I define them as” (Gardner 28). According to Sartre, a “being-in-itself” lacks a consciousness while a “being-for-itself” has consciousness and the ability to create a personal “essence” using this consciousness (Mason 102). For example, Grendel perceives the mountains only through his consciousness or his own definition. The mountains represent a “being-in-itself” whereas Grendel represents a “being-for-itself.” Therefore, Grendel’s attempts to connect with nature fail because Sartre’s philosophy does not allow any sort of communication between the two beings. Moreover, Gardner presents readers with an objection to existentialism. Internally, Grendel convinces himself that alienation from society is necessary because he is a “pointless, ridiculous monster” and a “poor old freak” (Gardner 6). His feelings of insecurity contribute to thoughts of a meaningless world. Grendel holds complete responsibility for these feelings because, according to Sartre, he creates his own world through his consciousness. This is another factor of existentialism Gardner refutes, and in addition, he uses this example to reference the popular existentialist movement of society in the 1960’s. Gardner responds to those who alienated themselves after World War II and Vietnam stating that if one clings to existentialism, then an external situation, or “being-in-itself,” should not incite feelings of despair; only one’s individual actions are cause for suffering and agony. In addition, Gardner makes statements about the nature of existentialists. Through Grendel’s conversion from a humanistic character to a murderer, he shows that existentialism creates corruption and monstrosity in society (Mason 104). Also, Grendel “hammers the ground with [his] fists” (Gardner 3) in frustration at the world and the society he constructs in his mind. His desire for those around him to go beyond “staring at as much of the world as he can see” (6) represents Gardner’s plea for society to look beyond their construction of an absurd life. He believes his job as a writer is to “affirm the goodness of life and the badness of thinking you’ve got the whole answer” (Bellamy 21). The next character infused with existentialism is the Dragon. The Dragon portrays an evangelist of existentialism, and Gardner hopes to inform readers of the negative aspects of succumbing to this philosophy. Gardner depicts the dragon as a negative, disturbing “beast” with “cold” eyes and a guarded collection of “gold, gems, and jewels” (Gardner 57). This positions the character as a materialistic, selfish, and greedy “old man” (58). He allows the readers to pass judgment on the Dragon, giving them the picture of an evil “miser,” (58) before revealing his vocal and intellectual characteristics. This initial judgment shows how society often gathers a narrow opinion without true understanding of a situation, or philosophy in this case. Gardner ascribes to the Dragon the voice of an “old old man” in order to address a stereotype about philosophers as being old fashioned and outdated. This also applies to the existential craze in America which becomes just as interesting to Gardner as “boobies, hemorrhoids, [and] boils” (59).The dragon influences Grendel to make a complete existential conversion, showing how easily thoughts are manipulated. Grendel begins the conversation with an attitude that he needs to leave humans alone, as well as abstain from scaring them “for sport” (Gardner 61). However, the Dragon refutes this attitude while claiming to “know everything,” (Gardner 61) and the character of Grendel quickly accepts the Dragon’s vision of a meaningless universe (Ellis 48). As Grendel makes his “long dull fall of eternity” (Gardner 61) into existentialism, he loses admiration, beauty, and hope toward life, plunging further into the nothingness of existence. Grendel believes “stars, like jewels scattered in a dead king’s grave, tease, torment my wits towards meaningful patterns that do not exist” (Gardner 11). Grendel pushes himself away from the natural, divine beauty that lies in the stars and focuses on material “jewels” as well as his primitive desires.The conversation between Grendel and the Dragon emphasizes easy deception and manipulation by those with questionable wisdom. The dragon communicates his philosophy like “an old man” while converting Grendel into a creature who believes that nothing of importance exists outside of the individual. The meaninglessness of life prophesied by the Dragon recognizes Gardner’s feelings about the limitations of existentialism and the people conforming to existentialism during the years prior to the 1971 publication of Grendel. Although these people have been faced with war, violence, and disillusionment, they cling to the popular movement without thought or argument as to other possible explanations. In the same way, Grendel concedes to the Dragon without resistance. The Dragon begins to control both the metaphysical and physical functions of Grendel (Ellis 52). The Dragon’s philosophy matches that of the society Gardner satirizes, with thoughts that “things come and go” as well as the opinion that each event is just “a swirl in the stream of time” (70). On the other hand, Gardner provides a solution repairing the problems found in existentialist philosophy. He gives society a new hope within the character of the Shaper.In John Gardner’s world, the cure for despair lies within the character of the Shaper. In the novel, the Shaper tells stories to the court, and these stories portray the warriors as victorious heroes. The Shaper’s poetry allows the people of Hrothgar’s kingdom to find relief during difficult times of violence and destruction. The Shaper helps the kingdom prosper while promoting ideas of heroism and sacrifice (Winther 23). He sings of “a glorious meadhall whose light would shine to the ends of the ragged world” (Gardner 47). The Danes find a purpose to live from the serious and dignified poems about the beauty of men’s glory (Mason 105). “The Shaper comes along in a meaningless, stupid kingdom and makes up a rationale. He creates the heroism… he makes the people brave, and sure, it’s a lie, but it’s also a vision” (105). The Shaper promotes a lifestyle of courage and nobility, while the Dragon believes in meaninglessness and greed. Although the Shaper’s vision is not an accurate account of the daily activities of the Danes, it seduces Grendel with its power and meaningful words (McWilliams 31). However, Grendel’s perception of the human’s lifestyle is different from that of the Shaper. This difference relates to John Gardner’s own fiction, which informs readers the importance of looking at a situation from a new, previously unaddressed perspective. This re-affirms Gardner’s argument that society in the 1960’s pursues a philosophical trend without questioning its ideas.Throughout history, people have used art to make statements or respond to society. In Grendel, John Gardner takes the familiar story of Beowulf and allows many readers an opportunity to look beyond one way of thinking into a new, previously unacknowledged perspective. Gardner is responding to the popular trend of existentialism in the 1960’s, lead by Jean Paul Sartre, and he pleads for society to open their minds and truly discover other perspectives regarding life. Works CitedBellamy, Joe David and Pat Ensworth. “John Gardner.” Conversations with John Gardner. Ed. Allan Chavkin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. 6-27.Ellis, Helen and Warren Ober. “Grendel and Blake: The Contraries of Existence.” John Gardner: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. 46-61.”Existentialism.” Oxford English Dictionary. 24 Apr. 2003
Grendel’s Inevitable Death
The ancient Anglo-Saxon epic poem of Beowulf describes his many heroic feats, one of which involves Beowulf slaying the notorious monster Grendel. Throughout Beowulf’s numerous adventures, the poem repeatedly stresses the Anglo-Saxon idea of wyrd, or fate. A modern interpretation of Beowulf’s first battle, Grendel by John Gardner, allows audiences to view this encounter from the monster’s perspective. As the novel Grendel cycles through one complete calendar year of twelve months, Gardner utilizes zodiac astrology signs to convey how the inevitable death of Grendel results from the ancient Anglo-Saxon belief of fate and personal destiny.
Grendel’s encounter with the ram in the first chapter demonstrates the inevitable beginning of his end. When the novel begins, Grendel watches as “the old ram stands looking down over rockslides, stupidly triumphant”, and notes how the ram refuses to budge even as Grendel yells and attacks him (Gardner, 1). The ram represents the first astrological sign in the zodiac, Aries the Ram, who commonly stands for persistence and new beginnings. The ram appropriately appears in the beginning of Grendel, and serves as a reminder to Grendel that another season has arrived. No matter how hard he tries to drive the ram away, Grendel observes that “the ram stays; the season is upon us” (Gardner, 1). The ram’s stubborn decision to remain in place despite Grendel’s threats symbolizes how the seasons always come regardless of one’s actions. Grendel, like every other creature, cannot escape the enslavement of the time. Furthermore, Grendel cannot escape the cycle of the seasons no matter what he thinks or does, Grendel’s helplessness in this situation emphasizes how as time inevitably progresses, Grendel can only watch as he acts out what fate has planned for him. Gardner suggests that fate controls everything in Grendel’s life.
While the ram in chapter one signified the inevitable beginning of Grendel’s end, the bull in chapter two shows the unchanging and predictable nature of the world. When Grendel traps himself in a tree, a bull repeatedly charges at Grendel, and each time the bull “turned and looped back to where he’d charged [Grendel] from before … he fought by instinct [with] blind mechanism ages old” (Grendel, 21). The bull symbolizes Taurus, the second zodiac sign. Taurus represents devotion and stubbornness, traits that the bull exhibits during its encounter with Grendel. Grendel compares the bull’s repetitive actions to that of a machine: predictable, programmed by higher powers, and unchangeable. The bull’s comparison to a machine suggests that the bull also represents Grendel’s world, as the Anglo-Saxons believed that the world was “programmed” by fate. Similarly, Grendel portrayed the bull as a machine with pre-programmed instructions. While humans program instructions for machines, fate programs instructions for the world. The bull in chapter two represents the predictability of Grendel’s world, as fate predicts everything in Grendel’s future.
Chapter ten further reinforces the Anglo-Saxon idea of fate by demonstrating how Grendel’s actions cannot change fate’s plan for his destiny. When Grendel observes a goat climbing up a hill, he throws a rock and “smashes his mouth … penetrates to the jugular. [The goat] drops to his knees, gets up again … he climbs toward [Grendel]” (Gardner, 140). The goat represents the tenth zodiac symbol, Capricorn the goat, who traditionally portrays pessimism. The goat approaches Grendel just like death, and even though Grendel apparently manages to kill the goat, it keeps on walking. This symbolizes how Grendel’s fate draws closer and closer, no matter what he does. Although Grendel may sometimes falsely trick himself into thinking that he has control over his fate, his actions ultimately have no result on his life. Fate’s plans approach Grendel like the goat, and Grendel’s helplessness causes him to become pessimistic. This leads Grendel into realizing that his actions cannot change his destiny, and he begins to understand that he cannot control his own life. Fate has planned everything out for Grendel, and his own thoughts and actions do not matter.
Finally, Gardner utilizes the twelfth zodiac sign to predict the inevitable demise of Grendel. During the only time that Grendel’s mother communicates with him, she tells Grendel to “beware the fish” (Grendel 149). Pisces the fish is the twelfth and final zodiac sign, and he represents the end. The fish symbolizes Grendel’s end in the form of Beowulf, who came from the sea and possesses especially strong swimming skills. Although Grendel had warnings about his eventual demise, he still could not prevent his doom. This strengthens the idea that fate led to Grendel’s inevitable death. No matter what Grendel knew or did, he could not overcome his ultimate fate.
Similar to how individual chapters in Grendel carry zodiac symbols that represent the role of fate on Grendel’s death, Grendel’s structure as a whole also strengthens this idea. Gardner’s novel consists of exactly twelve chapters, each chapter containing a symbol of its corresponding zodiac sign. The book takes place over the course of exactly one year, or four calendar seasons. This precise, rigid novel structure represents how fate is precise and unchanging. Fate predicted Grendel’s life, and no matter what Grendel did, his actions could not change the plan that fate created for him.
Gardner uses zodiac signs to convey how fate affects Grendel just like it influenced Beowulf. Zodiac signs in several chapters symbolize Grendel’s helplessness and how fate led to his ultimate demise. Gardner suggests that fate had planned out all of Grendel’s life. Although Grendel realized what was happening, he was helpless to change his final fate. From examining fate’s role in Grendel, an intriguing question emerges: do modern day humans have control over their own destiny?
The Evolution of Grendel’s Worldview
In John Gardner’s Grendel, a few key interactions between Grendel and other characters mark the paradigmatic shifts that spur his philosophical evolution. Despite Grendel’s self-proclaimed isolation, his response to these interactions demonstrates his undeniable susceptibility to external ideas. Though at each junction he considers his viewpoint absolute, the new exposures bring about both confluences and conflicts of ideas that instigate Grendel’s further ideological revision. As solitary as Grendel feels, his views of the world and the role he plays in it are irrevocably linked to a few formative interchanges with varying perspectives.
Grendel’s first encounter with a foreign creature sparks his initial sense of dissonance. Grendel, at the time a child only familiar with his mother and other shadowed, shuffling monsters, ventures one day beyond the safety of his sheltered mere. He wanders between two trees and ends up caught between them, unable to move and directly in the path of a charging bull. After surviving the first onslaught remarkably unscathed, Grendel realizes that the bull erred in its calculations before making the charge and aimed too low. Suddenly, Grendel comprehends that the bull lacks the faculties necessary to course-correct; without higher thought it will never fight Grendel with enough insight to succeed. Grendel recognizes this quality, and at once understands “the emptiness in the eyes of those humpbacked shapes back in the cave” (Gardner 21). Grendel’s perception of his own community cleaves, placing him at odds with the rest of the world: his capacity for higher thought traps him in a solitary category, an existence entirely separate from instinct-driven animals like the bull and the other monsters in his mere.
The world, he realizes, is a “mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly interpose our hopes and fears,” in which he alone exists (22). This epiphany marks Grendel’s first foray into philosophy, as well as his first sense of isolation. He alone can create meaning for the natural world around him because all perceived meaning is folly in any event, useless to all but the creator. The bull is a catalyst for Grendel’s self discovery, but Grendel is not empowered by this idea of his own individualism. He meets humans and recognizes that they make patterns and exercise complex thought, but his ideas do not change—he still remains depressingly convinced that he faces “the meaningless objectness of the world, the universal bruteness” (28). His continued pessimism regarding this “mechanistic” world demonstrates how his own isolation, catalyzed by the disparity he observes between the bull and himself, has caused his disillusionment.
Despite Grendel’s initial certainty in his assertions, his philosophy reveals its malleability upon exposure to more of the world. One human manages to distinguish himself from the others enough to effect a change in Grendel’s worldview: the Shaper. The Shaper arrives at the meadhall and sings of the men Grendel has been watching, but though Grendel has been observing them violently destroy each other, the Shaper proclaims quite the opposite, singing of their divine creation and praising their power. Grendel knows the Shaper spins lies, but he and all of the other men nonetheless believe these fabricated histories, vesting power in the man who has “changed the world, [has] torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and [has] transmuted it” (43). The Shaper introduces Grendel to a world that exists by dint of emotion rather than mere brutality. This method of applying meaning to the world creates a grander purpose rather than reinforcing the blind, brute mechanics Grendel had been cornered into believing.
Grendel knows the Shaper’s words have altered his previous convictions but struggles to overcome his doubt and fully embrace the idea of a world rooted in such poetic ideals. While the Shaper’s poetry directs Grendel’s mind “away to hopeful dreams, the dark of what was and always was reached out and snatched [his] feet” (54). In the back of Grendel’s mind he still thinks of the world as mechanical; the Shaper has only introduced a fantasy that Grendel is desperate to believe, even if he must play “the outcast, cursed by the rules of his hideous fable” (55). Grendel’s interaction with the Shaper introduces him to a human coping mechanism—the creation of fantasies to deal with the bitterness of real life. Grendel develops a desperate desire to hide behind the fabrications in the Shaper’s songs; they offer Grendel reprieve from what he considers eternal isolation. Although his better judgment prohibits his complete subjugation, he is affected enough to willingly adopt the beastly role the Shaper assigns him.
Grendel does not exist in this fantasy forever; his interaction with the dragon forces him to confront the idealistic foundations of the Shaper’s work. Though Grendel becomes enamored with the artistry of the Shaper’s words, the Shaper still places Grendel on the side of evil: “the terrible race God cursed” (51). The dragon sheds light on the necessity, rather than the miracle, of the irreconcilable rift between man and monster, explaining to Grendel that he is “the brute existent by which [the humans] define themselves” (73). His role in life is to serve as the foil to mankind’s endeavors and to drive them to “poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last” (73). Grendel initially refuses this fate; he seeks something different from life, a grander purpose mirroring the romanticism of the Shaper’s poetry. The dragon soon breaks down Grendel’s defenses, forcing Grendel to acknowledge the idiocy of this lofty ideal. Grendel adopts the dragon’s dreary approach: everything will ultimately amount to nothing; his experiences are simply “a swirl in a stream of time” (70). The dragon advises Grendel to “seek out gold and sit on it”: in other words, perform what natural laws require him to do (74). This philosophy spurs Grendel into his most recognizable role; he fully embraces his designated purpose, initiating the “idiotic war” to wreak havoc upon Hart and mankind.
Beowulf is the final character to confront Grendel’s views, and he does so with assertions that uproot the very foundations of Grendel’s beliefs instead of just altering them. By the time Grendel fights Beowulf, the dragon’s advice has taken full effect; Grendel is deeply entrenched in a pointless, violent war with the Danes and admittedly kills without purpose. When the confrontation begins, Beowulf shocks Grendel with his strength, soon gaining the upper hand by twisting Grendel’s arm behind his back when Grendel slips on blood. The two begin a grapple of worldviews that parallels the physical battle. Grendel is adamant, telling Beowulf, “If you win, it’s by mindless chance. Make no mistake. First you tricked me, and then I slipped. Accident” (171). Even in mortal danger, Grendel refuses to relinquish his philosophy; the dragon’s claim that the natural world is a meaningless cycle of life and death has been providing justification for Grendel’s actions through the twelve years of his terrible crusade.
Beowulf advances a philosophy reminiscent of the dragon’s, but it deviates in a key manner. He addresses Grendel’s destructiveness, whispering, “Though you murder the world, […] strong searching roots will crack your cave and rain will cleanse it: The world will burn green, sperm build again” (170). Beowulf’s sermon contains the element of rebirth, and with it, the suggestion that life does in fact have meaning despite ceaseless death. Such an assertion, if true, would do worse than make Grendel’s life meaningless. The implication that life had possessed an intrinsic worth all along would make Grendel’s chosen path a waste. He had opted for twelve years of murder, despite once harboring wishes for a grander purpose, and thus must defend his assertions of the world until his dying breath. The effect of their confrontation is as destructive on Grendel’s mind as it is on his body. Ripped from his meaningless cycle of murder and rampage, Grendel loses all sense for how to react, wondering, “Is it joy I feel?” (173). His philosophy, left vulnerable by the scars of transformation from previous interactions, fractures in the face of Beowulf’s onslaught. Floundering in an internal narrative riddled with doubt and confusion, Grendel perishes.
Grendel’s persistent sense of isolation throughout John Gardner’s Grendel leaves him susceptible to influence from the worldviews of those he interacts with. His harbored resentment regarding what he perceives as solitude results somewhat conversely in a malleable ideology, prone to change through consideration of new perspectives. Each successive paradigm shift becomes more difficult to abandon, however, so when the dragon proposes a world devoid of meaning, Grendel initially resists. When he is finally swayed, he devotes himself completely, launching a twelve-year war in defense of his convictions. By the time he confronts Beowulf, the cracks in the foundations of Grendel’s viewpoint prove too much, leading to his pitiful but timely demise.