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Grendel
John Gardner
Gollancz, 123 pages

Grendel
John Gardner
John Gardner was born in 1933 in Batavia, New York. He is the author of many novels, plays and transliterations of medieval texts. He also wrote three influential works on the art of writing -- On Becoming a Novelist, The Art of Fiction, and On Moral Fiction. Many of his students, such as Raymond Carver and Charles Johnson, have had successful publishing careers. Additionally, he wrote children's stories (such as "Dragon, Dragon"), plays (including "Days of Vengeance" written for his mother, Priscilla), composed operas, librettos, and paintings, and played the French horn (having studied music at the Eastman School of Music). He died on September 14, 1982.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Przybyszewski

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Some readers see fantasy and science fiction as an evil, though sometimes a necessary one. Fabulist fiction sells; it is popular entertainment. Fabulist fiction keeps the publishing world moving and growing in its way. The opposite faction regards fantasy as a joyous necessity, one that allows certain writers to explore parts of existence unavailable to a pedestrian strolling the avenues of Paris, be it the one in Tennessee or in France.

John Gardner's Grendel, which is part of the Fantasy Masterworks Series, is a full blown fabulist achievement that highlights a capability intrinsic to fantasy, but which is found sparingly in realist fiction.

That capability is the ability to hope, an abstraction unique to the human of the species. Realist fiction often subjugates the human will to the realities of this world. A survey of anything by Albert Camus and Franz Kafka (to say nothing of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville) shows cynics in an ecstatic reflection of absurdity.

In contrast, much fantasy seems to be about hope. Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream is a comedic and fabulist text. Alternately, his Hamlet is a realist tragedy. Much later, J.R.R. Tolkien would bring about the modern fantasy era by allowing his hobbits to kill the arch evil of Middle Earth. I have not read the seventh book yet, but one gets the impression that the goodly hero Potter will likewise make extinct his nemesis, the evil Voldemort.

In short, the majority of fantasy allows good to triumph. End of story. There is no triumph in realist literature, mostly because there is rarely a specific fight of good versus evil rather than a series of events that consist of old men fishing in seas of mice and men.

The marriage of the literary (usually the purview of the realist) with the fabulist can yield varying results. Some are wonderfully muddled and incomprehensible, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Year's of Solitude (my opinion). Others are more successful.

Grendel is -- without reservation -- a success.

"Poor Grendel's had an accident... So may you all," Grendel says to end this short and powerful text, one in which the reader gets a singular view of one of literature's most well-known villain, the monster Beowulf defeats in the beginning of his own epic story.

Juxtaposed on this epic legend is Grendel's personal discovery of truth in man. Is man a noble being who lives in a world of order? Is man a savage who sleepwalks his way through a heartless world?

To attempt an answer, Gardner portrays Grendel differently from the one present in the medieval text. Far from the mindless devourer written to signify animalistic evil, this Grendel is a thinker of profound thoughts, an examiner of his condition, and an acute judge of both his own life and the existence of humanity (a "pattern maker," in his own words).

From Grendel's view: "I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears." He comes to this conclusion after, as a child, he becomes stuck upside down and hangs from the limbs of a large tree. He is helpless and is forced to look into the entirety of the sky and thus into the hugeness of existence.

Despite his calls for help, he only receives silence and later the company of Hrothgar and his men. Hrothgar, the same of Beowulf fame, is here a young and idealistic king, looking to bring order to his land through the power of his kingship. Hrothgar is repulsed by Grendel, and tries to slay him (unsuccessfully, thanks to Grendel's mom arriving at the last minute).

The reader gets an immediate image: Grendel helpless in eternity, and man trying to change the nature of his life. Grendel believes this is the meaning of life, and he goes about to 'teach' Hrothgar and his people a lesson.

The humans learn that lesson, to their sadness. Grendel comes to the most powerful kingdom of his world, and he wreaks havoc and thus does not allow the peace for which Hrothgar yearns. The humans, in their turn, despair.

Where does that leave Grendel? He soon becomes bored and then depressed in the success of his own methods. "I eat and I laugh and eat until I can barely walk, my chest-hair matted with dribbled blodd, and then the roosters on the hill crow, and dawn comes again over the roofs of the houses," he says. "And all at once I am filled with gloom again." At the end of the day (or at dawn, in this case), emptiness might be the truth of the world, but it is not much fun at parties. For a modern reference on this, watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Grendel's salvation comes from the hero Beowulf. Grendel understands that much of human existence is artifice. One of the story's main characters is whom Grendel calls "The Shaper," the bard of Hrothgar's hall. The Shaper's job is to create the fantastic stories surrounding Hrothgar, and to shape legends and therefore the perception of men.

If the Shaper paints Hrothgar as a hero, then Hrothgar is a hero. Grendel understands and is lured by the fairytale the Shaper creates (Grendel calls himself a "ridiculous hairy creature torn apart by poetry"). At the same time, Grendel has shattered this dream through his actions. In order for faith to be restored to the humans, Grendel must die.

Grendel's death enabled the hero story of Beowulf. There would be no Beowulf if there were not a Grendel (there already was a Grendel without Beowulf, interestingly). Beowulf goes on to his fame and glory by killing both Grendel's mom and the dragon. If he had not killed Grendel first, then the story would be a short one.

Importantly, Grendel's death is due to an 'accident.' Grendel slips on the blood of one of his victims, and his fall allows Beowulf to wrestle Grendel to the ground (and rip off his arm). Grendel's confirmation comes in the preservation of the story of the hero, while the truth is that life is random and pointless. Grendel has his 'accident' so that all of humanity can have that event (our accident) that will be spun into fantasy and thus confirm the fantasy that is our lives.

Gardner's ploy is to explore human existence by showing a compelling character from the myth of many people's childhood. His use of the fantastic, in this case, is necessary because legends are not made from ordinary people and events. They are made through the fantastic telling of normal stories. Grendel is a fantasy masterwork because it is one of the most lucid explanations of why fantasy is necessary for humans to exist in this world.

With all that said, do not make the mistake that Gardner is showing a dismal and desolate world. As Medford Lakes points out in the book's introduction, Gardner was against that "rise of cynicism in contemporary fiction -- the kind of hip nihilism that most teenagers adore for a brief time and leads readers to the conclusion that life is generally bleak and empty of purpose."

Instead, Gardner fully understands the need of observers like Grendel, as well as those fabulists like the Shaper. No matter the deeds of 'monsters,' we will always have our heroes. Those heroes might be figments of imagination, but there are fewer things more powerful to human experience.

Copyright © 2004 Chris Przybyszewski

Chris learned to read from books of fantasy and science fiction, in that order. And any time he can find a graphic novel that inspires, that's good too.


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