Smother light, and the world becomes perfect. The sun cedes no mercy; it shines upon everything and everyone, unflinchingly exposing the flaws of humanity. Night on the other hand does not judge; it does not discern the beautiful from the ugly, the corrupt from the pure. Grendel by John Gardner is a presentation of the dark, the misunderstood, and the ugly, speaking always for itself, urging empathy for its pain, and claiming some rightful place in the shaping of whatever is real. Or perhaps human.
Light in humanity corrupts reality, adopting evil as a false connotation for darkness, undeterred by the pain it causes. Artists, such as the Shaper, “stare strange-eyed at the mindless world and turn dry sticks to gold” (Gardner 48). They set the darkest of places ablaze, and enliven the inanimate. Instead of seeing the world in all its ugliness, they choose to morph it in their eyes to form a dazzling image, an illusion far from reality. As Grendel watches and listens to the shaper, he sees the lies and the corruption, and knows that “all he said was ridiculous, not light for their darkness but flattery, illusion, a vortex pulling them from sunlight to heat…” (Gardner 48). Grendel knows the light to be false, yet even he cannot resist the urge to succumb to the impossibility of the beauty. Immediately the “harper’s lure drew [Grendel’s] mind away to hopeful dreams” (Gardner 54). Essentially, the shaper taunts Grendel. He makes Grendel want to see everything in light; he wants to see the world in the heavenly manner as the shaper describes it. Yet he knows he cannot, he knows the impossibility of the idea of living with the humans in harmony. He sees the treachery, the greed and misery of humans. Yet still he dreams of the perfect images the shaper forms, he “even rushes into the midst of the villagers and asks for their forgiveness for his role in the fable, but they simply hack at him with swords” (Stromme).
Sadly, where there is light there must also be darkness. The shaper has decided that the day should represent the good, and the night should represent evil. So in order for Grendel to accept the glorification of humankind and accept the light, he must also accept the darkness that resides within himself, the darkness bestowed upon him by man. It is a paradox. Grendel is caught in between it. He wants to assimilate into human society in all its pride and glory, but he is misunderstood, he is the other. He sacrifices himself for humankind, so that the shaper’s idealistic image on the world might come true. He conforms to the image of evil not because it was innate nature, but “because it gives some order and purpose to the world, even if the order demands the vilification of his image” (Stromme). He is a martyr of humankind, just like certain versions of Batman, who accepts his role not as a superhero but as an outcast who keeps Gotham City running.
Easily spotted in blackness, a glimmer of light exists as a target for all who reside in the dark, and vice versa. Grendel sees the light and wants to be a part of it, but his role is not of the light, but part of “the dark side…the terrible race God cursed” (Gardner 51). Grendel’s “mother’s fur is brisly…her flesh is loose” (Gardner 29). Darkness does not criticize. Grendel’s mother is ugly, and so is he. After seeing the light, Grendel can no longer view his mother the same, he sees her ugliness, despite his own terrifying countenance. Grendel is also surprised “if anything in [himself] could be as cold, as dark, as centuries old as the presence [he] felt around [himself]” (Gardner 54). He wants to believe he is not truly as dark as the humans see him. He almost wishes he were human. He simply wants to belong.
Grendel is everything humans despise. Grendel’s darkness is their own. Artists, such as the shaper, create idealistic images of the world, not the actual scene that occurs. This is one of the key reasons as to why human society shuns Grendel. He breaks every rule, he is the opposite of everything humans want to believe, what humans want to see. They are from opposite ends of the spectrum, and humans desperately try to shy away from the “dark side.” There is no support for Grendel; there is no one to vouch for his existence, his values and intentions. Even in his frustration, he cannot convey his meanings, as “the accursed didn’t even have words for swearing in” (Gardner 52). So of course, Grendel does not have a foundation to build upon. He only wants to exist in the human world, but he is stuck with reality. He is stuck with the truth that he can never be anything more than a villain in the human world, and that all humans are terrified of him and hate him, and nothing that he can ever say or do will change that fact.
In our world, we acknowledge our own lofty ideals yet turn around and reject others’. We see darkness and see evil. We look at light and see good. If we looked behind stereotypes and discrimination, we could achieve something. Ever wonder why people turn out the way they do? It’s not nature, since many people are good, while others are bad. It has to be nurture. We shape our surroundings. Whether it’s the “human” world or reality is of no consequence. It is undeniable that people are exactly what we make them out to be.
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