John Gardner constructs an all to familiar story in his novel Grendel. Not that the stories of Dragons are part of our everyday existence, but rather the experiences parallel to those of Grendel. These experiences Gardner constructs seem to follow the pattern of the psychological condition of learned helplessness. Grendels overwhelming accumulation of failures cause this condition. The primary supporting components to this idea are Grendels reactions to the Shaper, his reactions to the Dragon, and his reaction to Beowulf.
The name Shaper immediately imparts some meaning to this character. The most obvious application of this name is that of how the Shaper shapes his stories. As we dig deeper though, there is more the link between this characters name and role in the story than just the apparent easy-to-remember label. In the field of psychology the phenomenon of shaping offering enforcement and/or punishment for behavior that get progressively closer and closer to the complete desired behavior.
The shaper offers experiences to the Danes and to Grendel that they seem to take as truth: . . . d they, who knew the truth, remembered it his wayand so did I (43). They therefore base their own actions upon this wisdom they have gained through the Shapers stories. This is quite a power for one man to have in any age. Though Grendel holds much doubt in human thinking, explaining it as lunatic theory, he finds himself strangely attracted to his songs: Even to me, incredibly, he had made it all seem true and very fine (43). When Grendel places much trust in the word of the Shaper, the Shaper and the people reject Grendelmaking him to be the race of failure, or evil.
Grendel listens to the Shaper tell of Grendel, 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 (51). Grendel appears visibly hurt by the what the Shaperand therefore the peoplenow think of him, Stood wriggling my face, letting tears down my nose, grinding my fists into my streaming eyes. . . (51). He then proceeds to try to explain that this is not true by staggering up to the hall, groaning out Mercy!
Peace! (51). Without hesitation the people violently reject him by hacking at him with battle axes and screaming in fear (52). This event of failure for Grendel is the first of those leading to his psychological condition. The next character Grendel encounters, the Dragon, further stacks failure on Grendels conscience. The Dragon explains the man that Grendel held so dearly in his heart as Illusion. Grendel wants to believe that he ultimately has the choice of what he can do in any situation, and that he can have cause.
The Dragon explains this is not possible though, My knowledge of the future does not cause the future (63). The Dragon then tells Grendel of the nature of time, explaining that no one event now can necessarily have an effect on an event a thousand, million, and even million million years from now. The dragon in a great many words prompts Grendel to find his own meaning, but leaves him with the helpless thought that it will eventually have no effect in the long run. Though the Dragons call to Grendel to find his own meaning may be a good one, his commentary on the meaningless of it disheartens Grendel.
Grendel now takes on the full effect of learned helplessness: he feels that no matter what he does, it will fail to have any of his desired effects. He is now enraged by the humans feelings of hope and all associated feeling. He then gives in to what he thinks is the only role he has in this world: that of the evil race of Cainone who haunts humanity. He no longer feels he has free choice of what to do in any given situation. He is the existential antihero. Beowulf offers a challenge to Grendel just as the Dragon did.
However the challenge Beowulf offers is for Grendel to realize that things are real and his actions do matter. Grendel recognizes this uncomfortable challenge to him when he sees out of his shoulders come terrible fiery wings, a reference to the Dragon. In their fight Beowulf speaks to Grendel, Grendel, Grendel! You make the world by whispers, second by second. Are you blind to that? Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point. Feel the wall: is it not hard? . . . Hard, yes! Observe the hardness.
In doing this Beowulf makes Grendel acknowledge the fact that he does have an effect on what happens and that if he senses something, it is very likely real. Tim Johnson, a man who participated in an academic discussion of Grendel via email, states Perhaps this is what Beowulf has in mindperhaps Beowulf means that Grendels brutish nihilistic actions make the world around him a brutish meaningless place in the same way that the Shapers vision, taking on the root in the minds of the Danes, helped to shape their world.
Johnson has a point that gets to the core of the existential idea: that one can choose ones actions no matter what. This is the message that Beowulf gives Grendel. This brings back the point of learned helplessness. Grendel becomes so sure of the meaninglessness of his actions, that all his actions will fail to cause what he wants to cause that he gives up. This is what it seems that Gardner is warning us of. In philosophy it can be equated to nihilism, but in the end this idea, as Johnson puts it, Grendel dies with nihilism. Beowulf is immortal.