John Gardner's Grendel
The archeologist's eyes combine the view of the telescope and the view of the microscope. He reconstructs the very distant with the help of the very small. - Thornton Wilder
These words, uttered by Thornton Wilder regarding his play Our Town express the antithesis of nihilism, a philosophy which stresses the lack of objective truth. Nihilism, as well as existentialism and a host of other philosophies are boldly explored in Grendel, a novel by John Gardner. The antagonist Grendel travels on a journey of self-discovery, eventually becoming a nihilist, only to be gallantly disproved by the hero Beowulf. In the end Gardner proves that the virtues of individuality and meaning triumph over meaningless violence and destruction.
While Gardner presents countless philosophies and thoughts in Grendel, the two most prominent are nihilism and existentialism. The monster Grendel begins life as an existentialist. After leaving his mother's cave, he is introduced to a vast, confusing world. As a defense against the rest of the universe, Grendel establishes existentialism as his philosophy. Grendel is initially confused about the things around him, but soon encounters humans, creatures who seem to share a common language and thought. He tries to decipher meaning out of the humans by watching them. Grendel witnesses the early evolution of Hrothgar's kingdom, watching them "season after season ... from the high cliff wall" (37) conquering each other and other kingdoms, quickly expanding into a powerful empire.
In Chapter 5, Grendel falls in the lair of the Dragon. Through his convers...
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... is evident when he says "I knew them, had watched them; yet the things he said seemed true." (47) The shaper embodies the summit of the Thane's greatness. His death later brings great sadness throughout the kingdom. "The people listen silent and solemn to the old shaper's song on the young man's lips." (147)
Without the shaper to sing lies of his greatness, Hrothgar is no longer a great king. The Thanes have already conquered as much as they can, and the kingdom is now in a state of maintaining its power. Overall sadness at the death of the shaper, lack of motivation and threats upon the thrown drive the kingdom into a period of decline. Hrothgar is no longer the proactive young king he used to be. Instead, "puffy-eyed, he gets up, and in a kind of stupor goes to the meadhall to piss." (136)
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