In Grendel, John Gardner gives us a morality tale, a story that contemplates what it means to be both human and inhuman. The monstrous figure of Grendel, as characterized in Beowulf, embodies human qualities although he is never regarded as anything but a murderous creature, a true bête noir to the beleaguered Danes. Gardner’s elegant interpretation reads between the lines of one of the great enigmatic works in Western literature, a poem about a hero, a mighty warrior, which nevertheless compels the reader to wonder about the monster against which Beowulf is pitted. Grendel is a being, not fully a monster, or fully human but a self-aware being with a nature he is bound to follow, yet one which raises questions and doubts about what existence means. The more he learns about the existence of those with whom he comes into contact, the more he becomes human, a pitiful character desirous of evolving, of becoming something more. What makes him human is the fact that he is at odds with himself and yearns to escape the condition that limits him.
The great overriding fact of Grendel’s existence, as explained in Beowulf, is his descent from Cain, the archetypal monster. The murderer of his brother Abel, Cain and his descendants are condemned by God to the living Hell of being feared and reviled, destined to live as slaves of violence and evil. Grendel makes reference to this state of “otherness” and the fact that he is precluded, by appearance and repute, from any chance of sharing in human activity. “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… Such was the power of the Shaper’s harp!” (Gardner, 51). As “the dark side,” as the Shaper sings, Grendel is portrayed as purely one-dimensional, a mindless beast bent on doing evil. Gardner, however, gives us another dimension to consider. We see him as wistfully envious of those things he sees in the human world, things he cannot have and which, presumably, lead him to wreak a terrible vengeance on human society. Grendel indulges in an all-too-human emotion: rage. If we can believe that he is capable of feeling rage, then we can accept that there is something human about him. To take it a step further, Grendel is capable of being pitied because he shares in humanity through a human trait despite his monstrous nature.
As the inheritor of Cain’s sin, Grendel embodies an affecting pathos in much the same way that victims of fate in Greek tragedy, Oedipus and Cleon for example, have a claim on our pity. The Old Testament notion of the sins of the father being handed down, generation by generation, is surely the most wretched aspect of the human condition because there is no hope of reprieve, no redemption to be achieved. If Grendel is a killer and a monster, it is because his forebear Cain was a killer and a monster. But what is the ultimate purpose of such a curse? If it is to punish the original perpetrator of the crime, then one must see it as egregious punishment. In other words, it is simply cruelty for cruelty’s sake. As a victim of the arbitrary judgment of God’s wrath, Grendel is a victim of circumstances profoundly beyond his control. Grendel the monster, then, becomes a creature simply acting according to his nature, a nature that is attributable to God’s intervention. The fact that he can observe human beings, compare their circumstances to his own and interpret his observations into feelings makes his situation all the more poignant. Grendel, the monster, is a tragic figure.
Grendel speaks to this condition, contending that his actions are a function of his “Blood-lust and rage,” his “character” (123). Acting out of character, he exhibits another human trait, that of self-delusion in believing that his actions, though horrific, should be beyond judgment. “I create the whole universe, blink by blink” (22). This tendency toward self-delusion can certainly cause human beings to act monstrously, and in this sense, Grendel is a monster. But it is, nevertheless, a human quality, one to which Grendel is evidently subject. Thus, one may say that he exhibits persistently human tendencies.
The concept of a monster as an unfeeling being, acting with inexplicable violence and absolutely without remorse or reflection is one that has become depressingly common in recent years, with mass murder coming at the pull of a trigger. We have also come to understand that a monster can be an insensible individual, insanely unaware of the effects of his actions. But Gardner’s Grendel works through a range of feeling and reason that belies the label of monster, at least according to these definitions. It is true that he acts with unspeakable viciousness, but it is a violence arising from a human source, rage with a source in sensitivity and an acute sense of his place in the world. In the end, Grendel must be seen as more human than monster because he has a human response, albeit a horrible one, to his condition as a monster.