April 27 2011
Monsters and Men: Grendel and Darth Vader
There are often two types of villains in fiction. On one side there are the villains who engage in evil for seemingly no reason other than to provide a challenge for the protagonist. At the other side there are deep, complete, and sometimes sympathetic villains who have suffered some kind of circumstance that causes him to think that the way he is acting is justified for the common good. Oftentimes sequels help to provide depth in these cases. This is true for two classic villains: Grendel and Darth Vader. In Beowulf, Grendel is arguably a static, one dimensional character with only the most base and inhumane characteristics. Despite his obvious adeptness in regard to strategy, his character at times seems written as a bloodthirsty beast, motivated only by the desire to consume human flesh and bring Hrothgar's kingdom into darkness. John Gardner adds a totally new perspective to Grendel, particularly with regard to Grendel's attitude toward people and society. In Beowulf, Grendel's only interaction with humans comes when he goes on raids and attacks them. His determination to kill every human he comes in contact with seems to be fueled by a deep, animalistic passion. Gardner attempts to change this characterization, as he portrays Grendel as something like a confused adolescent trying to come to grips with his place in the world. I think the biggest changes Gardner makes to Grendel's character are the basis of his origins and his introduction to Hrothgar's kingdom.
Early in Gardner's novel, Grendel is deeply frustrated with what he deems to be an over-mechanization of the world. He views the animals, the weather, and even his illiterate mother, as non-thinking beings. He feels completely alone in the world, especially with his mother being unable to communicate with him. Grendel even begins to question whether or not he exists himself. This frustration leads him to wander into the woods, and exploring the outside world like he never has. He gets himself stuck in a tree and is charged at repeatedly by a bull. He eventually passes out and is awakened by a younger Hrothgar and a group of Danish warriors. Grendel can understand their words, but they are unable to understand him and begin attacking him. Had it not been for his mother's swift rescue, Grendel would have been killed. Despite their unprovoked aggression towards him, Grendel speaks of Hrothgar with great admiration, saying, "He reshapes the world...He stares strange-eyed at the mindless world and turns dry sticks into gold." This shows his deep desire to take part in civil society, and the fact that he is unable to comes through no fault of his own.
In Beowulf, Grendel is described as being a descendent of Cain's clan. This designation makes him an outcast not only from society, but from God himself; making him more than simply a monster or a beast, but an instrument of evil, the living embodiment of Satan. In the novel, we find out that there is no proof for this claim, and that Grendel only believes it because he misinterprets Shaper's telling of the story of Cain and Abel, which he indicates by saying, "He told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light. And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect. The terrible race God cursed."At this point Grendel is desperately searching for an identity, and since the humans have cast him aside as a freak, he decides that he would rather play a fictional role as their scourge than as a pitiful outsider. This change in Grendel's back story transforms Grendel from a beast destined to wreak havoc on man to a confused young being who is simply trying to find his place in the world.
When Beowulf was originally written, Grendel's character seems to represent the dangers of the outside world, and the necessity for unity amongst kingdoms. However, with Gardner's novel in the mix, Grendel's character takes on a fully new meaning. Rather than signaling a need for strength, Grendel signifies a need for compassion and understanding. Had Hrothgar and his men shown the slightest amount of consideration, they would have found an extraordinarily powerful ally in Grendel. However, their rush to demonize and antagonize him leads to a bloody conflict. Whatever Gardner's intentions, his novel revolutionizes our outlook on Grendel, and transforms him from a one dimensional beast to a sympathetic, misunderstood child.
In Grendel, Gardner transforms a semi-static, albeit fascinating character into one with a rich and sympathetic background. George Lucas follows a similar pattern with his most iconic character from Star Wars: Darth Vader. In the original Star Wars film, Vader is a one dimensional villain with essentially two goals: finding the base of the Rebel Alliance in order to destroy it and to kill his old mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. While he shows an abundance of intelligence and cunning throughout the story, he never deviates from his single minded focus. For example, we are first introduced to him as he is boarding Princess Leia’s starship to forcibly retrieve the stolen plans from the Death Star. When he is unable to obtain this information, he takes Leia prisoner and spends the next segment of the film interrogating her in order to ascertain the location of the Rebel Alliance’s base. Upon Obi-Wan’s arrival at the Death Star, Vader immediately pursues him and kills him in the ensuing duel. As the events show, Vader had few dimensions beyond his two goals, and while displaying skill and intelligence in attempting to achieve them, we see his character go remarkably undeveloped. Our only knowledge of his past comes from the account we receive in the form of Obi-Wan’s explanation to Luke Skywalker about the death of his father. Even then our knowledge of Vader’s past is only superficial. We see that he used to be a Jedi Knight, but betrayed them and joined the Empire. While this is a bit more than we get about Grendel in Beowulf, who we are told “descended from Cain”, it still preserves most of the static, essentially saying he was a sellout. It strengthens the image of him as a simply evil character, especially when we consider that he killed the main character’s father.
Just as Gardner’s sequel adds depth, sympathy, and interest to the character of Grendel Lucas’s five sequels to Star Wars establish Darth Vader as one of the most complex and multidimensional villains in cinematic history. In The Empire Strikes Back, we receive the shocking news that Vader is in fact the father of Luke Skywalker. This is compounded in the next film when Vader turns against his evil master, Emperor Palpatine and sacrifices his own life in order to save his son, redeeming him in the eyes of Luke and the audience at large. In the Prequel Trilogy, we see Vader’s life as Anakin Skywalker, and are able to develop sympathy for him and the decisions he makes that lead him to become a monster. Some of the developments actually directly parallel Grendel. For example, in The Phantom Menace, a nine year old Anakin Skywalker stands before the Jedi Council with the hopes of being accepted into the Jedi Order to begin training, only to be turned down because the masters believe that he is too old, thus making his training dangerous. This is reminiscent of Grendel’s attempts to communicate with Hrothgar and his men, only for them to fail in comprehending his words and attack him. He at once feels alienated, and as though he has no reason for conciliation. Anakin too feels isolated from the Jedi Council, and this initial tension creates a permanent sense of distrust between them. This distrust creates an opening for then Chancellor Palpatine to get close to Anakin, which proves to be pivotal. When Anakin has a vision of his wife Padme dying in childbirth, he lacks the trust in the Jedi Council to confide in them, leading him to feel as though joining Palpatine was his only chance to save his wife. Ultimately, this results in Palpatine conning Anakin, getting him to become his Sith Apprentice. Under the name of Darth Vader, Anakin murders Jedi children, amongst other atrocities. Their paths resemble each other’s in another way also. When Grendel begins to attack Heremod, he severely weakens the kingdom, and even succeeds in defeating Hrothgar’s prized warrior, Unferth. Similarly, when Anakin chooses to leave the Jedi Order to serve as Palpatine’s Sith Apprentice, the Republic falls in place of the Galactic Empire, and although Anakin is at first defeated by Obi-Wan Kenobi, he eventually gets revenge. In fact, the only major difference comes in the form of their final opponent. Grendel is forced to deal with Beowulf, a hardened warrior who views him as nothing more than a challenge to be defeated. Vader on the other hand is bested by his own son, who had been attempting to turn him back to the good side ever since they met. Luke refuses to kill him, and prompts Palpatine to attack him. This causes Vader to turn on his master, and sacrifices himself to save his son. Vader’s backstory and redemption arms him with a level of depth and humanity that Grendel gains upon Gardner’s continuation of Beowulf, and both become richer and more interesting characters because of it.
Brooks, Terry. The Phantom Menace. Del Ray. New York 1999
Gardner, John. Grendel. Alfred A. Knopf. New York 1971
Glut, Donald. The Empire Strikes Back. Del Ray. New York 1980
Kahn, James. Return of the Jedi. Del Ray. New York 1983
Lucas, George. Star Wars: A New Hope. Del Ray. New York 1976
Stover, Matthew. Revenge of the Sith. Del Ray. New York 2005