A Comparison of Nihilistic and Christian Archetypes in Beowulf and John Gardner's Grendel

A Comparison of Nihilistic and Christian Archetypes in Beowulf and John Gardner's Grendel

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Grendel, Beowulf and the Relationship Between Nihilistic and Christian Archetypes


The Wisdom god, Woden, went out to the king of trolls…and demanded to know how order might triumph over chaos.
“Give me your left eye,” said the king of trolls, “and I’ll tell you.”
Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye.
“Now tell me.”
The troll said, “The secret is, Watch with both eyes!”
Woden’s left eye was the last sure hope of gods and men in their kingdom of light surrounded by darkness. All we have left is Thor’s hammer, which represents not brute force but art, or, counting both hammerheads, art and criticism…

The philosophies expressed in the Beowulf epic complement the exploration of existentialism throughout the modern work, Grendel, by John Gardner. Both works portray different perspectives of the same story, involving the same characters; Beowulf, the ancient Anglo-Saxon hero who destroys Grendel, and Grendel, the monster who terrorizes Hrothgar’s hall. Beowulf and Grendel act as archetypes that explore humanity’s perception of the world. In the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf and his companions represent good, and the monsters, including Grendel, represent evil. When Beowulf kills Grendel, the world is less evil, but since Beowulf’s companions die in the struggle, the world is also less good. Ultimately, the two forces of good and evil will destroy each other, but the story maintains that God will interfere and save mankind from destruction. In Gardner’s story, the progression of society begins when mankind creates a monster and then creates a hero to fight the monster. Once the greater power of the hero had been established, once the conflict’s resolution strengthened society’s power, than a greater monster developed ...


... middle of paper ...


...fact, it is the saving grace of mankind: the hope that God will save society and establish harmony and justice. The modern story takes the opposite view; it shows what happens when hope is lost, when society has nowhere to turn: it is a more pessimistic, more complicated view of humanity’s progress.

[Throughout this paper, G after a character's name refers to Gardner; AS to Beowulf the poem.]

Works Cited

Gardner, John. Grendel , New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989.

Gardner, John. Moral Fiction. New York: Basic Books Inc, 1977.

Heany, Seamus. Beowulf: A Modern Translation. New York: Farrer, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

Sources Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory. George Washington University: www.upress.umn.edu/Books/C/cohen_monster.html, 2001.

Johnson, Tim. Grendel. New York: www.panix.com/~iayork/Literary/Grendel/grendel2.html, 2001.

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