Grendel by John Gardner

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Grendel by John Gardner

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Charlie Pullen
Reviewed by Charlie Pullen
Summary: A classic of fantasy fiction. An original and a unique take on Beowulf's infamous enemy, which is as intelligent as it is adventurous, and as humorous as it is insightful.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: July 2015
Publisher: Golancz
ISBN: 978-1473212015

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The first impression we get of Grendel in the epic poem Beowulf is not a good one. Life is fine for the townspeople of Heorot, the anonymous poet tells, 'until finally one, a fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world.' Grendel, there can be no doubt, is a monster, a beast, a marauder, a demon, a villain. This creature is a cold-blooded killing machine, hell-bent on slaughtering the Danes:

greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses.

But there is more to Grendel than bloodthirsty savagery. At least there is in John Gardner's classic novel Grendel, which reanimates the Old English poem, and tells the story from the point of view of its hero's foe. In Grendel, the monster takes pride of place as the (anti)hero and centre of this tale, shunning Beowulf to the margins of the story.

What we get, then, is a smart and fresh retelling of a poem thought by many to be the oldest of Old English poems, a foundation for modern English literature. First published in 1971, Gardner's reimagining of Beowulf is itself a foundational work of fantasy fiction. Not only is it told from the perspective of a monster, Gardner broke new ground in challenging how fantasy could be written and what it could write about. There is action in 'Grendel, but it is also intelligent.

Like The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkein, Gardner was an academic. And his intellectual background is clearly evident in this novel, which is deeply clever and philosophical, buzzing with existential angst. This may put some readers off. It is no epic narrative of magical creatures and war, not in the popular sense anyway. There are dragons, there is death, for sure, but the novel is more of an outpouring of Grendel's own psychology and his sense of self.

Grendel tells his own story – not as the demented beast, but the thinking and feeling outsider. Pages go by in this short novel without swords and battles, but with wondering, despairing, and pondering. The language is witty, sharp, and profound. Grendel is a remarkably thoughtful narrator, saying when he first encounters humans: 'I knew I was dealing with no dull mechanical bull but with thinking creatures, pattern makers, the most dangerous things I'd ever met.'

It is one of the strengths of this new edition of Gardner's novel that two introductions are included in order to put his work in context. Adam Robert's introduction, for example, offers a brief history of nuanced monster fiction, which considers Paradise Lost and Frankenstein, and he also helpfully goes some way to set readers up for the philosophical dimensions of the novel. Gardner was influenced by and purposely responding to the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, whose writings about freedom and individuality are oddly resonant with Gardner's tale of a lonely monster confronting the king Hrothgar.

It is easy to sympathise with Grendel. He is curious. He has a fascination with music and poetry that is almost addictive. At times, he is even heartbreakingly sad: 'For even my mama loves me not for myself, my holy specialness, but for my son-ness, my possessedness, my displacement of air as visible proof of her power.' This is a complex monster. But, it must be said, he is a monster, nonetheless. Though clever, he is violent. Gardner, therefore, does not totally abstain from the more crude elements of the genre: blood, cruelty, conflict. It remains an extremely exciting book, and also an extremely funny book.

Considering our present day addiction to fantasy literature, film, and television, this new version of Grendel will not be out of place on any fan's bookshelf. It is a classic and seminal work of fantasy fiction that will be read as easily today as it was when it was first published. And especially since more and more writers are attempting to import some more sophisticated language and ideas into their fantasy storytelling, this novel will seem entirely fashionable, perhaps to the extent that we'd never realise it was written forty-odd years ago.

Readers may wish to try two other fantasy staples: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien is another classic work of fantasy fiction that plays on the Beowulf story, which is essential reading for anyone interested in the genre; Mort by Terry Pratchett, again, is also a funny and original addition to fantasy fiction.

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