The Booky Man: John Gardner's Grendel

Books Features John Gardner
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This week marks the birthday of the late writer, John Gardner. The Booky Man takes a look back at Gardner’s best-known work of fiction.

The Beast Without

Writers stereotypically work at desks. They lecture in classrooms. The world of loud and deadly machines seems far removed.

Yet writer John Gardner’s life at times seemed cursed by machines. In 1945, when he was a boy on the family farm in upstate New York, Gardner sat at the wheel of a tractor that somehow dragged a cultivator over his younger brother, Gilbert, and killed him.

In 1982, with Gardner at age 49 and a few weeks from his third marriage, another machine, his motorcycle, didn’t quite make it around a curve in the highway near his home in Susquehanna County, Penn. The writer died in a ditch. He was buried next to Gilbert near their childhood home.

Gardner clearly had better luck away from machinery, and he thankfully spent enough time at desks and in classrooms to fashion an illustrious career. He no doubt found some sort of expiation in the kind of obsessive care he poured into writing books and teaching younger writers. After earning an M.A. and a Ph.D. at the famous fiction’s writer’s Valhalla, The University of Iowa, he became a champion of MFA students and a darling of writer’s conferences, especially Bread Loaf, in Vermont.

Gardner labored mightily to support the work of promising young storytellers who came his way, including John Irving, Toni Morrison and Tim O’Brien. His well-known literary magazine, MSS, cultivated these and other gifted fictioneers, and his controversial books on writing, most famously On Moral Fiction, gave him a reputation as a literary pugilist. He took on John Updike and Thomas Pynchon, for example, and challenged their work for falling short in purpose, for being, he hinted, a sort of parlor trick of literature.

One more thing—Gardner studied Anglo-Saxon literature, and published works on Chaucer and other old-timey writers.

I’m The Booky Man, not a psychologist. But it seems obvious to me that behind Gardner’s efforts at superachievement, a monster always lurked offstage. I mean the monster of his younger brother’s death. That untimely surprise shadowed Gardner all his life. It’s the thing John Irving in The World According To Garp termed “The Undertoad”—the sudden, catastrophic event that gives the kaleidoscope of life a sharp turn and radically changes the picture, the relationships, the meanings.

I’m thinking Gardner wrote directly about this monster, in fact. His finest book, Grendel, is the story of Beowulf, the first superhero in English literature. If you’ll recall your Old English 101, Beowulf was the mighty man who arrived on the shores of Denmark with a boatload of warriors, come to save the resident king Hrothgar from a terrible monster that slaughtered his subjects randomly and relentlessly.

Readers will likely remember that Beowulf confronts Grendel, the monster, in the saga. Beowulf sensationally rips Grendel’s arm off his body, and slays the beast, saving mankind … or at least that little Danish branch of it. Later, Beowulf does much the same to Grendel’s vengeful mother, then, at the end of the 1,000-year-old saga, the hero fights a mighty dragon, slaying it but losing his own life.

Gardner, in one of the most interesting and imaginative excursions of 20th-century literature, recast the Beowulf story, turned the kaleidoscope. What was the story of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view? Had anyone ever considered Grendel’s side of the story?

Grendel, the novel, published to critical acclaim in 1971, and it has remained one of the books that you find in the working vocabulary of most every serious writer. Deservedly, as a writing tour de force and as a model of how to imagine and write a character study.

Grendel finds himself fascinated by humans, and repulsed by them simultaneously. The monster has a world view that is—well, monstrous—a fatalistic, nihilistic, solipsistic sneer of a philosophy. Of course, fatalism wasn’t unusual in cultures of that day and age—the Vikings, for instance, believed that in the End Times, a great wolf came and ate up all the gods and destroyed Valhalla and they all lived happily never after.

To give you a flavor of the work, which can be sensationally horrifying, funny, profane and philosophical on a single page, here’s an early passage. Grendel describes the Danes in their mead hall, humans at a feast. From the book:

They would listen to each other at the mead hall tables, their pinched, cunning rats’ faces picking like needles at the boaster’s words, the war falcons gazing down, black, from the rafters, and when one of them finished his raving threats, another would stand up and lift up his ram’s horn, or draw his sword, or sometimes both if he was very drunk, and he’d tell them what he planned to do. Now and then some trivial argument would break out, and one of them would kill another one, and all the others would detach themselves from the killer as neatly as blood clotting, and they’d consider the case and they’d either excuse him, for some reason, or else send him out to the forest to live by stealing from their outlying pens like a wounded fox. At times, I would try to befriend the exile, at other times I would try to ignore him, but they were treacherous. In the end, I had to eat them.

Good reader, we do love our monsters, don’t we? From Grendel, the original lizard king, to Godzilla … from the Headless Horseman to haints in the hollers … the human storytelling tradition wails and moans with monsters and monstrous make-believes. Sometimes we love monsters that turn out to not really be monsters at all, like Boo Radley. Sometimes we love monsters so much we turn them into cult heroes, like Freddie Krueger. And look what we’ve made lately of zombies. Those poor folks would spin in their graves, if they had any.

Why do we love scary monsters? I’m thinking that there’s likely a gene of fear ticking away inside most of us, beating like a shadow heart behind the human heart. It’s not so much the monsters, per se, we fear … it’s the monstrousness of tragedy, of the unexpected, terrible lightning-strike moment. There may indeed be no atheists in a foxhole … but it’s in a foxhole we most deeply believe in monsters as well as God.

John Gardner knew. He was a believer in monstrosity from that moment in his own past when a tractor lurched and a laughing little brother disappeared under the cultivator. The kaleidoscope turned, The Undertoad struck. A bright sunny day on a farm suddenly became a lifelong horror. The moment became a monster.

No wonder this Grendel of John Gardner’s is so compelling. Oh, he’s a monster—there is nothing that glows in this thing’s heart resembling sympathy. And yet …

Grendel spares the life of an old priest who seems confused and bedazzled confronting the creature. Grendel feels wonder when an old blind saga-singer strikes a harp in the mead hall and sings his stories. (As an aside here, Gardner’s parents gave him Saturdays off on the farm as a boy to listen to classical music in their home.) The bottom line here is that Grendel reasons—he thinks—and what kind of monster are we, good readers, who cannot find sympathy in a character who weighs the contradictions and injustices and isolations of the world in the same ways we all do, at one dark hour or another?

Don’t we all have a monstrousness we battle? That’s more or less Gardner’s point with Grendel. And here’s his other point—how do we know beauty and perfection without the contrast of monstrosity? How does one know what is sublime without knowing what is just … lime?

Grendel even has language—human language, though far from lovely. Still … still … he speaks. To us.

Consider the last words of the book. Grendel, his arm wrenched from the socket, torn completely away by a hero who could only be so fearless by besting something so fearsome … this Grendel staggers to the edge of a precipice. He offers these final words:

I am weak from loss of blood. No one follows me now. I stumble again and with my one weak arm I cling to the huge twisted roots of an oak. I look down past stars to a terrifying darkness. I seem to recognize the place, but it’s impossible. “Accident,” I whisper. I will fall. I seem to desire the fall, and though I fight it with all my will I know in advance that I can’t win. Standing baffled, quaking with fear, three feet from the edge of a nightmare cliff, I find myself, incredibly, moving toward it. I look down, down, into bottomless blackness, feeling the dark power moving in me like an ocean current, some monster inside me, deep sea wonder, dread night monarch astir in his cave, moving me slowly to my voluntary tumble into death.

Again sight clears. I am slick with blood. I discover I no longer feel pain. Animals gather around me, enemies of old, to watch me die. I give them what I hope will appear a sheepish smile. My heart booms terror. Will the last of my life slide out if I let out breath? They watch with mindless, indifferent eyes, as calm and midnight black as the chasm below me.

Is it joy I feel?

They watch on, evil, incredibly stupid, enjoying my destruction.

“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”

Poor Grendel’s had an accident. So do we all, in the end. On a tractor. On a motorcycle. We fall and can’t get up. The Undertoad strikes. A lurking monster of a moment changes everything. John Gardner knew Grendel like his own shadow.

Grendel was his own shadow. Grendel is yours and mine.