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Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, September 23, 2011

Grendel by John Gardner


A retelling of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view, this book represented a shift for me in my perception of literature and the potential of story.

Grendel is much like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, only for adults, darkly beautiful, and with a twisted and eerie humanity. Of all the books I read for my first college level English class, this one stands out most, except for the creepy, skin crawling bug story by Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, which left me feeling icky. I actually enjoyed Grendel. No offense to all the Kafka fans out there. I just don’t like bugs.

At first, Grendel appalled me. After all, I’d grown up with bold definitions of heroes and villains. Certainly, I’d contemplated the villain turned hero or vice versa. However, despite its lurid detail of Grendel’s fascination with humans, particularly Hrothgar’s wife, Wealtheow, it took me the first several chapters of riveted horror to realize that the tale had ensnared and enlarged my storyteller’s mind.

Gardner beautifully presents an engrossingly sympathetic monster fully capable of all the terrorizing he commits in Beowulf. But Gardner’s brilliance comes in with his humanizing of Grendel. I do not mean that he softens Grendel with human attributes. He at once gifts the monster with mankind’s insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding while sinking him in some of the baser attributes of man, most specifically the thoroughness of violence. And yet, Grendel remains unquestionably the hero of the tale. Gardner accomplishes this by depicting the worst characteristics of Hrothgar and his people.

At once, Gardner offers a two-fold glimpse into the human heart. We see some of the worst characteristics of human avarice, pride, and power in the Danes through Grendel’s eyes. Yet by causing us to sympathize so strongly with his monstrous protagonist, Gardner also invites us to glimpse our own dark sides. While Grendel simultaneously draws back in disgust at the violent, power mad tendencies of the Danes, his solution, to attack and taunt them himself, mirrors true human history.

Beyond that, though I did not fully understand it at the time, Grendel taught me the true depths with which an author can explore a character. And, oh, how fascinating the possibilities of a hero without the clear delineations of good or evil, and how very human.

What are your favorite stories that star an unlikely protagonist that some might call monstrous or villainous?

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