Signs of Astrology, Shown in Grendel as Symbols
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.
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