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Grendel by John Gardner

Grendel (original 1971; edition 1989)

by John Gardner

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4,278831,155 (3.84)145
Authors:John Gardner
Info:Vintage (1989), Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Fiction, Expendable

Work details

Grendel by John Gardner (1971)

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    An Absolute Gentleman by R. M. Kinder (ehines)
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Showing 1-5 of 82 (next | show all)
this is a slim book, and not at all what a Lord of the Rings" fan would expect. It is slim but dense, and from the Epigraph by William Blake to the last sentence "Poor Grendel's had an accident," I whisper. "So may you all." I could not stop reading, or it seems draw a breath. Beowulf is an old story, and has had many imitators, but to tell the tale from the monster's point of view is unusual. By the end of the story, the straightforward hero tale is on its head, and quickly blowing away from us.
John Gardner has humanized the monster, and has made Grendel's vision of mankind starker, and more incisive than than the original author's intent. Both books are to be read in sequence, and we will be more compassionate people if we do read it that way. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Sep 9, 2016 |
Loving Beowulf as much as I do, it was only natural for me to enjoy Grendel. It has been a while since I actually read the book, but I can still remember how hard the poetic language and beautiful imagery impacted me. It's one of those books that sticks with you, even if you aren't totally aware of the fact at first. ( )
  shulera1 | Jun 7, 2016 |
The monster has a name (Grendel) and a mother (no name given). Grendel, who has an artist's soul, is corrupted by the dragon (his name is Lucifer, it's kind of implied). This is the story, then, of one of Cain's outcast progeny, a monster, a demon, Grendel, the monster with a name.

Grendel comes to no good end (Beowulf rips off his arm and he bleeds to death). The really interesting story is how he comes to end up there, which is Professor Gardner's real imaginative triumph. Unferth the wannabe hero is played for great laughs (Grendel won't kill him, refuses in fact to kill him, and poor Unferth has to live out his unfortunately long life forever jealous of the heroic dead). Beowulf is played as an unworldly kind of half-angel/half-man, which is a kind of monstrous creature, from Grendel's perspective.

The novel Grendel is every bit as stirring as the epic, Beowulf.


I liked the book even more this time around. I understand the characters better -- all of them except for Beowulf (who remains opaque as ever); I understand their motivations. Wealtheow, Hrothgar's captive bride, a kind of Christ figure, has power to make Grendel both weep and rage. He weeps because touched by her self-sacrifice in service to Hrothgar, whom she appears to have grown to love, arranged marriage or no, the old warrior in decline; and Grendel rages because why should human's find happiness. The Shaper, the poet and harpist, incites most of Grendel's rage: the man has power to conjure heaven in his fingertips, to weave an upward stairway with words; and yet he, too, is limited and mortal and craven. All this beauty, all this grandeur, destined for death and oblivion. Grendel is shown by the dragon a vision of our Galaxy's end: a blackened sun, orbited by dead arachnids.

And yet despite the appearance of life as a brief, bright moment bookended by blackness, a kind a radiant cheer suffuses the novel. I think it has something to do with the ecstasy of art.


Still love this book. I'm sure I'll read it again. The Dragon parts are more meaningful now. "There is no absolute standard of magnitude. Any term in [the progression from small to large] is large compared to its predecessor and small compared to its successor."

Add to that Grendel's insight: "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." ( )
  evamat72 | Mar 31, 2016 |

Grendel, a large bearlike monster, has spent the last twelve years locked in a war against a band of humans. The main action of Grendel takes place in the last year of that war, but the novel skips back in time in order to illuminate the origins of the conflict as well as Grendel’s personal history.

As a young monster, Grendel lives with his mother in a cave on the outskirts of human civilization. A foul, wretched creature who long ago abandoned language, Grendel’s mother is his only kin or companion. One day, the young Grendel discovers a lake full of firesnakes and, swimming through it, reaches the human world on the other side. On one of his early explorations he finds himself caught in a tree. A bull and then a band of humans attack Grendel before his mother rescues him.

Grendel becomes fascinated with the world of men, watching from a safe distance as mankind evolves from a nomadic, tribal culture into a feudal system with roads, governments, and militaries. He is alternately befuddled by their actions and disgusted by their wasteful, brute violence. Grendel watches as Hrothgar of the Danes (also known as the Scyldings, after an illustrious ancestor) develops into the most powerful king in the area.

Eventually, Hrothgar’s power and fortune attract the services of the Shaper, a court bard who sings glorious tales of Danish kings and heroes. Though the Shaper’s songs are only partially based on fact, their imaginative visions of a supremely ordered moral world are incredibly powerful and invigorating. Inspired by the Shaper’s words, Hrothgar builds a magnificent meadhall and names it Hart. Even Grendel, who has witnessed the true, savage history of the Danes, finds the Shaper’s vision extremely seductive and becomes ashamed at his own brute, bestial nature.

Grendel, increasingly upset by his split feelings about the Shaper, visits a dragon in search of some advice. The dragon belittles the Shaper and declares all moral and philosophical systems pointless and irrelevant. Grendel gradually adopts this worldview and becomes enraged at the humans. He begins to raid Hart systematically, initiating the twelve-year war. In his first battle, Grendel handily defeats Unferth, one of Hrothgar’s mightiest thanes (or soldiers), and adds insult to injury by scoffing at Unferth’s romantic ideas of heroism.

Other kings increasingly threaten Hrothgar, who preemptively tries to attack one of them: Hygmod, king of the Helmings. In order to avoid a war, Hygmod offers Hrothgar the hand of his sister, Wealtheow, in marriage. Hrothgar accepts, and Wealtheow becomes the much beloved queen of the Scyldings, bringing a new sense of peace and harmony to the vulgar, masculine world of Hart. The lovely queen briefly enraptures Grendel, and only a nighttime attack and a cold, misogynistic look at her genitals rids him of her spell.

Some years later, Hrothgar’s brother Halga is killed, and Halga’s orphaned son, Hrothulf, comes to live at Hart. Hrothgar and Wealtheow already have two sons of their own, and the presence of so many possible heirs to the Scylding throne makes Wealtheow nervous. Hrothulf, for his part, is disgusted by the split he sees between the laboring class and the aristocracy, and he plans a revolutionary overthrow of the government. Hrothulf’s counselor, a peasant named Red Horse, tries to convince Hrothulf that all governments are inherently evil and that a revolution merely replaces one corrupt system with another.

In the winter of the final year of the war, Grendel watches a Scylding religious ceremony. When all the other priests have left, Grendel meets an old, blind priest and pretends to be the supreme Scylding deity, known as the Destroyer. Grendel asks the old priest, Ork, to say what he knows about the Destroyer, and Ork offers him a complex metaphysical system he has spent years working out. Ork is almost moved to a state of ecstasy by the experience, and a puzzled Grendel withdraws as three younger priests come to chastise Ork for his strange behavior. A fourth priest meets them and is overjoyed at the news of Ork’s vision.

Later the same winter, the Shaper dies. Grendel experiences an increasing feeling of dread, though he cannot place it or puzzle it out. His mother senses it also, and though she tries warning Grendel, she can only produce the gibberish phrase “Warrovish,” which Grendel later deciphers to mean “Beware the fish.” Fifteen strangers arrive from over the sea: they are Geats, and their leader is Beowulf, who has come to rid the Scyldings of Grendel. Grendel knows that the Geats are what he has been waiting for, and he is alternately frightened and excited. The Scyldings are none too pleased at Beowulf’s arrival, and that night at dinner, Unferth taunts Beowulf for famously having lost a swimming contest. Beowulf coldly responds that Unferth has been misled, and calmly declares that Unferth is doomed to hell because he killed his own brothers.

When the Geats and the Scyldings fall asleep, Grendel attacks Hart. Beowulf manages to surprise Grendel and grabs his arm. As they struggle, Grendel slips on a pool of blood, and Beowulf gains the upper hand. Beowulf begins whispering madly in Grendel’s ear. Grendel moves in and out of a series of hallucinations in which he sees Beowulf sprouting an enormous pair of wings. Beowulf smashes Grendel against a wall, cracking his head open and demanding that he “sing of walls.” Beowulf manages to rip Grendel’s arm off at the shoulder, and Grendel runs off into the night. He finds himself at the edge of a cliff, staring down into its dark, murky depths. A host of animals gather around Grendel, seeming to condemn him, and the novel closes as Grendel whispers to them, “Poor Grendel’s had an accident. . . . So may you all.” ( )
  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
Beautifully written. I will never think about Beowulf and Grendel in the same way. ( )
  Jaskier | Dec 1, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Gardnerprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Antonucci, EmilIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kassner, WendyCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leonard, MichaelCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Penberthy, MarkCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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And if the Babe is born a Boy
He's given to a Woman Old,
Who nails him down upon a rock,
Catches his shrieks in cups of gold.
-- William Blake
For Joel and Lucy
First words
The old ram stands looking over rockslides, stupidly triumphant.
I touch the door with my fingertips and it bursts, for all its fire-forged bands--it jumps away like a terrified deer--and I plunge into the silent, hearth-lit hall with a laugh that I wouldn't much care to wake up to myself.
The sun walks mindlessly overhead, the shadows lengthen and shorten as if by plan.
And so begins the twelfth year of my idiotic war. The pain of it! The stupidity!
I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly—as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back.
What was he? The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way--and so did I.
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Book description
Grendel is a 1971 parallel novel by American author John Gardner. It is a retelling of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf from the perspective of the antagonist, Grendel. The novel deals with finding meaning in the world, the power of literature and myth, and the nature of good and evil.

AR 5.9, 6 Pts
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679723110, Paperback)

Grendel is a beautiful and heartbreaking modern retelling of the Beowulf epic from the point of view of the monster, Grendel, the villain of the 8th-century Anglo-Saxon epic. This book benefits from both of Gardner's careers: in addition to his work as a novelist, Gardner was a noted professor of medieval literature and a scholar of ancient languages.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:47 -0400)

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The first and most terrifying monster in English literature, from the great early epic BEOWULF, tells his side of the story.

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