Grendel, by John Gardner

grendel-by-john-gardnerGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Random House
Published: 1971
Reviewer Rating: fivestars
Book Review by Jonathan M. Sullivan

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John Gardner was a scholar of Anglo Saxon literature-not to mention one of the finest American novelists of the late twentieth century. His widely acclaimed novel, Grendel, first released in the early 70’s (this re-issue was published in 1989), is still available-a handsome volume that wisely incorporates the original line drawings by Emil Antonucci. Go get it.

Grendel is set in the same universe and time as Beowulf–Denmark under Hrothgar, ca.800 AD. But this story is told from the monster’s point of view, in first person.

And make no mistake: Grendel is a monster–cannibalistic, feral, venal, foul. As he tells his story of alienation, loneliness, loss, and despair, you can smell the sulfurous fumes of hatred and jealousy welling up from his soul.

…Or is that your soul?

Yes. Grendel is the story of every human being who ever lived. It’s the narrative of every creature who ever looked out on the world and saw the universe as Not My Mother, politics as so much extortion, love as so much degradation, religion as so much self-delusion. Here, as in Boorman’s Excalibur, the Dragon is the backbone of the world. But when Grendel goes to seek the transcendental wisdom of the Dragon he finds only another dissolute monster, guarding a hoard of cynicism and corruption. And by the time Grendel has finally grasped the meaning of beauty, he can only respond with fantasies of rage and violence.

With Grendel, Gardner has done more than pay homage to an anonymous 9th century Anglish poet. He has also given us a stark counterpoint to that lay of classic heroism and honor: a devastating indictment of our civilization, our mores, our aesthetic, our faith, our very existence. In the final pages of this charming, luminous, horrific novel, Gardner seals Grendel’s fate with our own, and makes us all into pitiable monsters.

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