John Gardner's Grendel and the Greater Power

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John Gardner's Grendel and the Greater Power

Many of the characters in Grendel have direction and purpose in their lives. Wealtheow is self- sacrificing, and Hrothgar is out for personal glory. Unferth and Beowulf spend their lives trying to become great heroes so that their names may outlast their flesh. The dragon believed in nihilism, and the Shaper used his imagination to create something to believe in. Some of the characters’ philosophies may not have been commendable, but Grendel could not find any direction or purpose for his life whatsoever. Grendel looked for the intervention of a power higher than himself to lay the truths of the world upon him, an experience that the Romantics would characterize as an experience of the sublime. John Gardner portrays Grendel as someone who wants to find a philosophy, whether his own or someone else’s, that fits him and gives him an identity or a reason to live. By looking at the text from this perspective we can see how Gardner believes people should pursue, or rather, embrace a power greater than themselves.

Grendel started his search for meaning with solipsistic beliefs, thinking himself the creator of the world he lived in. “I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly—as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink” (21-22). However, after speaking to the existentialist Fire Dragon, Grendel realized that aspects of his first theory didn’t make sense and that even after his death things will continue to exist. “Every rock, every tree, every crystal of snow cries out cold-blooded objectness” (172).

When Grendel notices that events occur before he can think them into existence, his theory that he creates the world “blink by blink” is undermined. “…I think, trying to suck in breath, and all that I do not see is useless, void. I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes!’ I am lack. Alack! No thread, no frailest hair between myself and the universal clutter! I listen to the underground river. I have never seen it” (29). Because Grendel realizes his solipsistic theory does not hold true, he searches for a new theory, discovering one where he is nothing to the world but an object taking up space.

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