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.
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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 […]