I’ve always thought that Beowulf would make a great movie because it has all the elements of high drama—friendship and betrayal, good v. evil, monsters and murder. Now that a film version of Beowulf is coming soon, I think that there will be COHS students who want to read a book with a Beowulf connection. A great choice would be Grendel by John Gardner. As in Beowulf, many of the great themes are there: the struggle between good and evil, the conflict between order and disorder, the hero and his sacrifice for the common good, man’s achievement of immortality, the importance of art and the artist, who gives meaning to life.
To enjoy the novel Grendel, the reader has to be somewhat familiar with the Beowulf epic. Gardner was a professor of medieval literature and quite knowledgeable on the subject. He takes Grendel, the first monster to appear in Beowulf, as the first person narrator of the novel. Though in the epic Grendel is the representation of darkness, death, and the very elements that tear community apart, one might make a case (or write a paper) that in the novel he is the protagonist. I don’t believe this myself, but it’s an interesting point of view.
Grendel has as one of its themes the ways in which art and language bring order and beauty to life. Though Grendel’s mother is inarticulate, Grendal can speak. Although he lives with her in a cave under a burning lake, as the more developed of the two monsters, Grendel wants to approach civilization and is affected by the words of the Shaper, or poet. He seems to seek purpose to his existence and the reader will at times sympathize with him.
Grendel’s approach to civilization only frightens men, and the king, Hrothgar, throws an ax at him. At the same time the Shaper, a blind poet, arrives at the king’s mead hall and sings of Grendel as one of the race of Cain (evil). Grendel seeks understanding from a dragon (another monster that appears in the epic although not for the same purpose). He only learns that life is meaningless, that the Shaper deceives men. He goes away with a curse on him, so that he can’t be injured by men’s weapons. At this point an outcast, Grendel raids the mead hall with impunity, killing and eating men. Only with the arrival by sea of Beowulf can Grendel be overcome. Beowulf doesn’t use a weapon but rather his own hands to tear Grendels’ arm at the shoulder socket.
There is much more to this novel, and it is deeply symbolic so that a reader can enjoy it for the philosophies it exams as well as for the story of overcoming a monster (or sympathizing with the monster who is overcome).