In some English class or other, from middle school days through college days, most of us have read some version of “Beowulf,” the Old English heroic tale pitting man against monster, in which Beowulf wins and goes on later to fight a crafty dragon, who then dies only when Beowulf’s friend and thane Wiglaf fights by his side; but Beowulf dies from his wounds, and receives a hero’s burial. In this version of the tale (and for so very long, there was no other version), the men know and care little about the monster Grendel’s characteristics or inner qualities, all that concerns them is how to combat and kill him so that he will cease to haunt their meadhall and eat their thanes. As far as his motives go, he is of the race of Cain and therefore commits murder. As the text of Beowulf reads, “Unhappy creature, he lived for a time in the home of the monsters’ race, after God had condemned them as kin of Cain.” Full stop. If we are led to think of Grendel’s motives at all, we perhaps suppose that after being attracted by the noise of the meadhall (Heorot) being built, he feels envy because the men sleeping at night inside “felt no sorrow, no misery of men.” But his motives are unimportant, for he is clearly the evil-doing interloper, and as such does not merit our sympathy or understanding.
Taking his cue from slight hints in the text, however, John Gardner fully fleshes out a picture of Grendel not as a monster of a different race from humans, but as one having some relationship to them: he understands their language, and can speak it though unclearly (later in Gardner’s rendition, Grendel taunts the coward Unferth and is haltingly understood by him). He himself is aware of his relationship to men, and attempts more than once to approach or be understood, though it is to no avail. He is hated and scorned, and because he feels a kinship to man, he internalizes these feelings and hates and scorns himself, and everything else as well. Gardner has clearly taken hints from Robert Browning’s monster Caliban in “Caliban Upon Setebos” (a borrowing of yet another monster in later days, this time from Shakespeare’s Caliban in “The Tempest”). Like Caliban, Grendel reasons upon his own life, the things he observes of men, the relationships between the two, and God, the universe, and the nature of things. In these “studies” of mankind, God, and nature, Grendel is led by the dragon (Gardner introduces the cunning dragon who will be Beowulf’s downfall as a “tutor” of Grendel, one who can read his mind) and by the Shaper (the scop or poet whom he hears singing and intoning poems for men in the meadhall at night). Of the scop’s song, he says that “he had made it seem all true, and very fine,” even though he thinks it is lies. He asks himself, “What was he? The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and [the people] who knew the truth  remembered it his way, and so did I….I was so filled with sorrow and tenderness I could hardly have found it in my heart to snatch a pig!” He thinks not only of the heroic tales but of the tale of Creation which the scop sings as “the projected possible.” He thinks, “It was a cold-blooded lie 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 he, the old Shaper, might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, his cunning trickery. It came to me with a fierce jolt that I wanted it. As they did too, though vicious animals, cunning, cracked with theories. I wanted it, yes! Even if I must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of his hideous fable.”
Grendel, this Grendel, is both intelligent and has moral perceptions. He perceives the boasts in the meadhall (of which many a teacher has made learned analysis as to their poetic merit) as the ravings of drunken men bent upon impressing each other. He notes that men often kill men, slay other animals, and destroy landscape as a sort of warfare, without meaning to eat. He notes the waste of the men journeying back and forth across the land with tribute of goods and animals to other kings who have dominion over them. And as the dragon tells him of human rationality, which is supposedly the division between humans and Grendel as well as between humans and animals, “They only think they think. No total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spider-webs. But they rush across chasms on spider-webs, and sometimes they make it, and that, they think, settles that!” This Grendel constantly spies on the humans, keeps in touch with what affects them (as if he is an outcast one of them), and feels anguish when the Shaper (the scop) is dying. He refers to it as “meaningless anguish,” but its meaning is obvious. Even more, this Grendel becomes capable near the end of the book not only of reflections upon past, present and future, which he first learned from the dragon, but also of poetry. When the scop dies, it is as if it’s the end of an era for him, until suddenly the Geats (Beowulf and his warriors) appear.
Grendel’s reaction to their presence is strange. He feels a sort of gleeful excitement because something new is in his world, but it is clear that he does not fully recognize his enemy. He tells himself that he could avoid the meadhall until they leave again and so be perfectly safe, yet he knows he will not do so. He notes that Hrothgar, the king of the meadhall, and his thanes are not best pleased to have strangers coming in to finish off their monster for them, so he concludes, with an odd sort of loyalty to old enemies, that he must finish off the newcomers for the honor of Hrothgar and his retainers. He has an additional motive, however, and that is that he is afraid of tedium possibly resulting from his life as it is. As he thinks to himself, “All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal–a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world–two snake-pits….Violence is truth….” He thinks when he hears the stranger (Beowulf) speak, however, and answer a challenge in the meadhall against his bravery, that Beowulf is “crazy.” He’s had this thought long before in the book about men when he watched them killing each other, yet he seems fascinated by Beowulf and fatally drawn to him. “I grew more and more afraid of him and at the same time–who can explain it?–more and more eager for the hour of our meeting.”
When his fall finally comes, he is able to persuade himself that it came about through an “accident,” that he was caught off guard by Beowulf, who then took advantage of him and tore his arm off. In the end of the novel, Grendel is surrounded by animals, “enemies of old,” who are watching him die. “I give them what I hope will appear a sheepish smile….They watch with mindless, indifferent eyes, as calm and midnight black as the chasm below me.” Then he asks the key question, really, of the whole book: “Is it joy I feel?” This is the motive of self-hatred having come full circle in Grendel’s life. At the last, he says to the mute witnesses of his death: “Poor Grendel’s had an accident….So may you all.” Thus, the self-hatred leads into other-hatred just as often as the expression of other-hatred (feasting on his enemies) used to lead him into further self-hatred as he got further and further away from any possibility of fellowship. Yet, part of the driving force of his self-hatred also comes from the fact that there was never really a chance of rapprochement between him and the humans, because from the very first they were, in his words, “stupid” and “crazy” and suspicious of him. Finally then, the book is a book about fate, just as the original text carried notions of fate, though in “Grendel” we are concerned not with the nobility and fate of men but with the nobility and fate of the “monster” who wants to be one with and of them, yet cannot make them understand. Published in 1971, in a time when the heroic outcast figure was once again becoming popular in literature, this book takes the formulas a step further, containing many moments when Grendel is petty and non-heroic, and yet the book transmutes even these moments into startlingly emotive episodes which excite recognition and fellow feeling in us for the anti-hero of the tale. In its ability to force us to recognize our own thoughts and impressions, feelings and speculations, this book teaches us to know what are proverbially called our own worst enemies: ourselves, both in the singular application and in the plural application, in which all men and women are to some degree enemies of the others, not the least because they are enemies to their own best instincts. I think now, having read and commented at length upon so dismally moving and darkly motivated a book, I will go and read a light-hearted poem or improving essay, just to lift my spirits again, lest I too begin to feel like a Caliban or Grendel and foist my destructive instincts upon others!