John Gardner’s novel, Grendel, takes place in the fourth century A. D. in Denmark. The novel is about Grendel, a monster that lives in a cave with his mother who is unable to communicate with him due to her lack of ability to speak, and fails to fit in among humans, causing him to live a secluded life. Grendel was written in order to help people understand the very nature of mankind. Summary: In the very first chapter of the novel, Grendel is being introduced as any ordinary monster you could imagine, rage filled and rowdy.
He describes to the reader an encounter with a ram that, despite being yelled at and violently threatened, ignores him and continues on with his ram-like activities. After throwing a rock and screaming towards the sky in fury, Grendel describes to us that he is embarking on “the twelfth year of my idiotic war” (5). The fact he starts off the novel with the little scene helps the reader understand his personality and how he so used to being in a squabble to the point he finds it, in some way, tiresome and pointless.
After continuously watching King Hrothgar’s kingdom advance from nothing to the most powerful kingdom in the land, Grendel decides to try to gain their friendship. A poor decision, he walks into the meadhall, their dining place, and tries talking to them to which he finds they do not appreciate his company. He follows up with their unkind ways by raiding their meadhall from time to time and kills many of their people. Soon after, he travels to the dragon in search for answers. The Dragon tells him to listen to everything he has to say. The Dragon tells him, “‘You improve them… You stimulate them!
You make them think and scheme’” in order to get Grendel to gain a little understanding of how things work out and who he is as a person, or in this case, a monster (73). The Dragon tells Grendel that he is their sole purpose in life so that he can see where he stands among the people that despise him. It gives Grendel some sort of input to realize things he has failed to understand before his encounter with the Dragon. Not too long after the encounter with the Dragon, Grendel started thinking to himself of all that had been said to him.
He now saw life in a different way. He discovered many things with the words he now held forever in his memory, but there was something more than a mere thought that he had uncovered. Grendel now found the he was “invulnerable” but he “misunderstood it in the beginning: (he) thought it an advantage” (76). The charm sent on him by the Dragon was not as good as he first thought. Grendel took his invulnerability to heart where it was bound to be torn right out within the right time.
He knew it was less than a blessing but took advantage while he could, tormenting Hrothgar’s men worse than before. Continuous deaths committed by Grendel, and more the stories of his cruel murders reach beyond the known land. For a while, winter takes control and restricts Grendel from getting anywhere near the meadhall. Despite not being able to get close, Grendel watches and listens to the people. He hears of Unferth, a man who is said to have inhuman strength and tremendous stories of overcoming terrible sea creatures.
As time progresses, the men drink themselves stupid and they all stumble out of the meadhall, walking as a gimped man would. Unferth and his men sleep. Grendel was unable to hold back his monstrous ways and ventures to the place he never expected to be a turning point in his life. One by one the men die and soon enough Grendel is caught off guard, “a shock goes through me. Mistake! It’s a trick! (Unferth’s) eyes are open, were open all the time” (168). As soon as he realizes that Unferth was awake, watching his every move, Grendel trembles.
He knows that that was probably going to be the last thing he was remembered for and it was. That night Grendel passes away, leaving the world left deprived of his presence. Themes: John Gardner emphasizes the negative effects of being alone throughout the story as one of his main themes. Through Grendel, he shows that it makes you feel desperate for conversation with nearly anything. Grendel asks the sky, “‘Why can’t these creatures cover a little dignity? ” but “the sky says nothing… The sky ignores me, forever unimpressed” (6).
Although he makes a little gesture towards the sky, he continues talking to inanimate objects throughout the novel because it seems to him that those are the only things he has left to communicate with. Once again, yearning for conversation, he asks the stars, “‘Why can’t I have someone to talk to?… The Shaper has people to talk to… Hrothgar has people to talk to’” (53). Seeing that Grendel adds the Shaper and Hrothgar into his words with the sea, shows us how lonely he feels, taking in mind that two of his biggest enemies are able to have that sense of community.
Being left with no one, not even his own mother, drives Grendel insane, leaving him with his own mind to reason with. Moreover, John Gardner depicts how, through the novel, the very existence of mankind lies in the stories they pass along with each other and the existence of things that inspire them. Grendel is listening to the Shaper play his harp while singing and hears the shaper tell stories of “how they’d fought me” and “‘Woe to the man… who shall not through wicked hostilities shove his soul down into the fire’s hug… he can never turn away!
But lucky the man who, after his death day, seek the Prince, find peace in his father’s embrace’” (54) The song of the Shaper is used to inspire the men to get into Heaven to rest for all eternity with the Prince of Heaven, giving them hope to strive to do good in life. Grendel, is told by the dragon, “‘The exile, captivity, death they shrink from—the blunt facts of their morality, their abandonment—that’s what you make them recognize, embrace! You are mankind, or man’s condition’” (73).
John Gardner, as shown throw the words of the dragon, is trying to show the reader that the things that make up humankind is the words that travel among the vast timeline of time itself. That’s where human nature’s truth comes from Conflict: There are many conflicts within the Novel Grendel, but the one that seems to have stood out the most is the fact that Grendel doesn’t seem to have an understanding of who he really is. Throughout the novel, he struggles to find out much about himself. He sees the humans walking around him but he doesn’t understand why they are nearly the same, in some aspects.
Grendel starts to talk about his past and how he used to take pride in that—the caution of owls when my shape looms in, the alarm I stir in these giant northern wolves” but he “was younger then. Still playing cat and mouse with the universe” (10). When he was younger, he lived life carelessly and didn’t understand, or even try to understand, who he was which caused him to struggles his age passed with time. When he was talking in his cave, he started thinking about his mother and if she loved him and soon decided she did.
After the thoughts of the unsure love of his mother had passed, he would “feel, all at once, alone and ugly, almost—as if I’d dirtied myself—obscene” (17). The cause of his feeling negative was the naive idea of him-self. He did not know if he was worth anythings or how he felt about who he was. Grendel was battling his own ideas, being left clueless and frustrated. He would curl up next to his mom, who was still unable to speak words of any kind to him. He searched for answers, answers he was terribly desperate for but failed to find them. Grendel had attacked the meadhall one night and felt powerful.
He finally figured out who he was, “I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings! ” (80). He found out who he was after he started destroying the people of the land. After trying to fit in with them and finding out he could not. He resolved his own problem by doing the things he does and accepting that he is cruel and destroys people and their buildings. It pleases him and so he comes to find out who he is in the end. Literary Device: Throughout the novel, John Gardner uses symbolism as one of his main literary device. He first uses the Shaper’s harp and a symbol.
Grendel is listening to the Shaper use his harp to tell his story of how there is good and evil in the world and Grendel is the evil that resides among them. Grendel “[believed] him. Such was the power of the Shaper’s harp! ” (51). The harp is used as the belief of the people. Whatever it is used to tell, they believe. It acts as their main source of hope, just as religion would. Next, John Gardner uses a goat as another meaningful symbol. The goat is walking up the side of the hill, as goats typically do, but Grendel gets tired of watching it so he yells at the goat, “‘Hey goat!… There’s nothing here.
Go back’” to which the goat “lifts his head, considers me, then lowers it again to keep an eye on crevasses and seams” (139). The goat represents the way people aimlessly go through life ignoring anything and everything that they do not find important. They get too caught up on their own paths that they fail to listen and watch what is around them, following every day patterns. Moreover, Grendel’s mother also plays an important role in the story. Grendel is about to go out to attack the meadhall where Unferth lays asleep and his mother “gets between [him] and the door, as if to lock [him] up with her forever” (145).
His mother acts as the people in someone’s life that try to protect them from things that could possibly hurt them. Grendel, just as most people do, ignores the hints given to him, causing him to lose his life in the end. Symbolism in the story is used to strengthen key points John Gardner is trying to make stand out most. Conclusion: John Gardner’s novel is about a monster that fails to understand who he is in the beginning and lives a violent life, killing multiple people nd tormenting helpless danes. In the end, he meets his own destroyer and is left without an arm and without a breath left to speak with. Even deeper than the monster, the novel is about how being alone in a big world can destroy anyone’s self-esteem. Research Proposal: Because John Gardner uses symbolism to help the reader understand his message in the novel, my research and inquiry will explore his reasoning for symbolism and how it effectively explains what he is trying to get past the reader.