In John Gardner’s Grendel there is a massive transformation of the title character from the one dimensional embodiment of evil to a being which is able to rationalize and interpret its position within the universe. In its most basic form, Grendel serves to humanize the character of Grendel. In the end he accepts the role which he has carved out for him; that of the nemesis of man. The way in which he does this, however, proves him to be an intelligent entity capable of very real and very human emotions and logic. This evidence of perspective is very relatable to the reader, and the tragic situation which Grendel finds himself grappling with is also highly relatable as it symbolizes the existential struggle of modern man. By making Grendel a more human character, Gardner allows the audience to take a second look at a creature we once wrote off as completely and instinctually evil.
When we first meet Grendel we realize that he is very intelligent. Unlike his mother he is capable of speech. This is one of the many things which separate Grendel from his mother. Grendel’s intelligence in addition to his freewill and his awareness of that freewill separate him from his mother, the mating rams, and the bull which attacks him in the first chapter. In the earliest part of the novel all Grendel knows are creatures which work like machines. He comments: “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” (Gardner 21). It was not until he encounters the human race that he beings to question this philosophy. At first he sees them as brutish animals much like the ones he is familiar with, but over time he realizes they are at least intelligent creatures.
Grendel’s intellectual struggle with his own existence can easily be described as an existential crisis on his part. John Gardner explained that his inspiration for Grendel came about as wanting to tell the story of Beowulf from Grendel’s perspective and describe how Sartre’s philosophical reasoning took shape: “I finally worked out an interpretation that I believe in, where Grendel is a cosmic principle of intellectual disorder. He liked unreason, in the same way that Jean-Paul Sartre likes unreason. He further explains that during a class on Beowulf he told his students, “that the three monsters in Beowulf are very symbolic, and Grendel [the first one] is symbolic of the rational soul gone perverse. One may wonder if a “perveresed” soul is possible in a world that is no longer dogmatically Christian. Gardner responded with the idea that Sartre’s Existentialism is this “perverse rationality” (164, Silesky)
Existentialism is a philosophical as well as a cultural movement which attempts to find further categories based on the norm of authenticity that allow one to grasp what it means “to be.” In the past “the norm of authenticity” was religion which allowed one to grasp one’s position in the universe. In Grendel, Grendel has been abandoned by God and set aside from man. He is a monster and is forced to see his existence as such (“completely alone, part Disney cartoon, part contemporary everyman, a permanent stranger driven to wreak horror on the human community”). Gardner claims that a major section of Grendel was taken directly from one of the works of Jean-Paul Sartre: “The first major experience in Grendel’s life, when he meets human beings for the first time, is all from Being and Nothingness” (165, Silesky).
Being and Nothingness had a main focus of asserting a beings existence over its essence. As Levy Neil writes:
“Sartre's overriding concern in writing Being and Nothingness was to vindicate the fundamental freedom of the human being, against determinists of all stripes. It was for the sake of this freedom that he asserted the impotence of physical causality over human beings, that he analyzed the place of nothingness within consciousness and showed how it intervened between the forces that act upon us and our actions.”
Grendel realizes when he sees people for the first time that there are forces acting upon him trying to make him conform to a certain cultural standard (i.e. he is evil because he was born evil). What Sartre is saying, is that all societal standards must be brought into question when one takes into account the fact that the universe is based on nothingness. If there are no essentials to society than any that we perceive are only man made and therefore, meaningless (Levy, 111)
Grendel is not invited to be part of the human experience. When they first see him they misinterpret Grendel’s words and attack him. From then on he becomes an observer of the human race. As partially human (a descendant from “Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts.”) while at the same time an outcast he is the perfect spectator to man’s development (Beowulf 106). When he stumbles upon a town with courting lovers and a murdered corpse he is able to see the duel nature of man. The shapers song in this chapter begins to infect Grendel. He begins to believe truly that there is a divide between himself and man that cannot be overcome. When he tries to return the corpse he is again misunderstood and chased away from civilization.
Grendel is indeed, alone in this world. His mother is no intellectual equal and man refuses to embrace him. The shaper’s song, with its encouraging words, only makes Grendel more upset over being separated from the things mentioned in it. He, unlike man, does not have God, yet he wishes he could. His darker side refuses to allow Grendel to experience this hopeful thinking. "Some evil inside myself pushed out into the tress. I knew what I knew, the mindless, mechanical bruteness of things, and when the harper's lure drew my mind away to hopeful dreams, the dark of what was and always was reached out and snatched my feet." (54). Grendel reveals himself to be perpetually pessimistic.
The philosophical conversation with the dragon clearly outlines Grendel’s human and relatable characteristics. The dragon comprehends Sartre’s existential philosophy while Grendel “perverses” it. He explains that Grendel might as well become a model of evil for humankind to compare itself with. This could be his purpose that he is searching for. The dragon also explains that all of man’s systems will one day end and so to try and better one’s self is pointless. He understands fully the idea of nothingness or “the absurd” that Jean-Paul Sartre advocates. This conversation changed Grendel. He proclaims: “I had become something, as if born again. I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings! But also as never before, I was alone” (80). By misinterpreting the Dragon’s existential approach to life Grendel seals his fate to be forever alone in his world.
This transformation from being alone and wishing to better himself and embracing his evil side is one which an audience can easily understand and relate to. In Beowulf we only see Grendel as his fully embraced evil self. The perspective is from that of mankind and so the picture painted of Grendel is, naturally, not a pleasant one. By showing the story from Grendel’s perspective John Gardner allows his audience to enter the mind of the beast and understand why it is he acts the way he does. Gardner states that he initially wanted Grendel to be a wholely evil character, but knew he would not be interesting. Instead he realized he, “had to become more and more sympathetic. [Grendel] wants to punish himself for what he feels to be an inadequate state of being” (167 Silesky).
Not only does Grendel realize he has made a mistake in choosing his philosophy he laments his decision. A modern audience of the time would see someone grappling with the loss of religion and the increasingly popular existential philosophy, whitness the destruction of a creature who lets this struggle get the best of him, and will be highly sympathetic of their struggle. In Grendel John Gardner takes the embodiement of evil that is Grendel and makes him an intelligent, humanlike character who at the end of the day as an audience member you can’t help but feel sorry for.
"Existentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 23 Apr. 2011.
Levy, Neil (2002). Sartre. One World Publications. pp. 111
Silesky, Barry. John Gardner: Literary Outlaw. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 2004. Print.