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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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With the introduction of the Shaper, the reader sees the impact another person’s views have on Grendel’s own ideas. The Shaper is able to show Grendel that he can have an identity and not just be a mere obstruction in the dark. The Shaper created his own theories and stories about life and fed them to the people in a way that enabled them to follow what he said as truth. “He sang of battles and marriages, of funerals and hangings, the whimperings of beaten enemies, of splendid hunts and harvests. He sang of Hrothgar, hoarfrost white, magnificent of mind…He would sing the glory of Hrothgar’s line and gild his wisdom and stir up his men to more daring deeds…” (42-43).
The Shaper gave the Danes a purpose by telling them what great feats they had overcome and his words excited and encouraged the men to become even more magnificent. “He built this hall by the power of his songs: created with casual words its grave mor(t)ality” (46-47). Grendel noted that “the man had changed the world. Had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way-and so did I” (43). It is apparent that Grendel is captivated by the Shaper’s perspective on life.
The Shaper’s songs tore at Grendel because he wanted to believe in everything said, but felt ashamed to live his life believing in lies. “I listened, felt myself swept up. I knew very well that all he said was ridiculous, not light for their darkness but flattery, illusion, a vortex pulling them from sunlight to heat, a kind of midsummer burgeoning waltz to the sickle” (48). Grendel wanted to believe in the Shaper and his theories but “I knew what I knew, the mindless, mechanical bruteness of things, and when the harper’s lure drew my mind away to hopeful dreams, the dark of what was and always was reached out and snatched my feet…I wanted it, yes! Even if I must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of his hideous fable” (54-56). It was the Shaper’s skill and imagination that stirred him, but as much as Grendel wanted to accept the Shaper’s tales, he knew they were not the truths he was looking for, but something close, “…a stab at truth, a snatch at apocalyptic glee” (45).
His search for meaning through pure reason would not allow Grendel to accept the woven tails of the Shaper but forced him to continue his search for a higher power and greater meaning.
Grendel’s views changed again when he was influenced by the nihilistic beliefs of the dragon.
This belief had negative effects on Grendel, making him believe that by killing people he gave them purpose. When Grendel realizes that “it was one thing to eat [a human] from time to time…but it was another thing to scare them, give them heart attacks, fill their nights with nightmares, just for sport,” the dragon replies, “fiddlesticks,” (60-61) encouraging Grendel to commit such cruel acts. “You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last… If you withdraw, you’ll instantly bereplaced” (72-73). If the dragon was telling the truth, then what he was saying gave Grendel an identity. He was the “brute existent by which they learn to define themselves” (73). Wasn’t this what Grendel was searching for? An identity?
Grendel “had become something, as if born again. “I had hung between possibilities before, between the cold truths I knew and the heart-sucking conjuring tricks of the Shaper; now that was passed: “I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings” (80). He also believed himself “Grendel the truth-teacher, phantasm-tester” (110). Finally, Grendel believes he has found the meaning and purpose in his life which he had been searching for, however misguided he actually is.
With the influence of the dragon, Grendel seems to embrace nihilism and discard the false, yet creative and hopeful, songs of the Shaper. “I no longer remember exactly what [the Shaper] sang. I know only that it had a strange effect on me: it no longer filled me with doubt and distress, loneliness, shame. It enraged me” (77). What the Shaper sang was not truth, and yet it stimulated the Danes into greatness and gave them hope. The Shaper’s stories begin to irritate and enrage Grendel, showing another alteration of philosophies. With the influence of the dragon, Grendel seems to discard what little happiness he found with the creativity of the Shaper and try on the theories of nihilism, continuously searching for the perfect philosophy, one that would give his life meaning and purpose, and yet Grendel was still incapable of searching within himself for what he sought.
The dragon believed in such things as random chance and an unalterable future. “And
even if, say, I interfere-burn up somebody’s meadhall, for instance…even then I do not change the future… So much for free will and intercession!” (63) Grendel will come back to this theory in the end but he was never able to fully accept it. When he said, “I have not committed the ultimate act of nihilism: I have not killed the queen…Yet” (93) Grendel suggests that this act would show his philosophy was correct and that he believed in it. Though Grendel does attempt to kill Wealtheow, he is unable to destroy such a calm, charismatic creature. Grendel’s nihilistic theory was wrecked by his inability to find the cruelty in his heart to destroy such a model of perfection, almost jealous of the faith she had in her beliefs. He is once again stuck without a philosophy. There is an abrupt change in Grendel as he starts writing in poetry. It seems his theory goes back to that of the Shaper’s, and almost becomes the Shaper himself. However, with the death of the Shaper, Grendel once again loses faith in a theory. Lost and confused, he continues his pursuit.
The nihilistic thinking of the dragon did not give Grendel a feeling of importance, such as
the solipsistic beliefs had given him, but a feeling of unimportance that no matter what he did, the future would be the same. The dragon made Grendel feel like he gave the Danes purpose by killing them, whereas if he didn’t have that idea he could have grown bored of killing them and quit before meeting Beowulf. Instead he felt that “for old times’ sake, for the old priest’s honor, I would have to kill the stranger. And for the honor of Hrothgar’s thanes” (159). This kind of thinking led to his extinction and encouraged him to meet his death when his instinct told him to stay where he was safe. He seems to go back to the theories of the dragon, which make him out to be more important to the Danes than he is in reality. This contorted view may have lead to his downfall for it seems his biggest drive to kill Beowulf was to save the Dane’s honor, where in reality they would be just fine without him, if not better. If Grendel had not reverted to the dragon’s nihilistic role, but had faith enough to trust in a power greater than himself, Grendel would not have been so mistaken and driven to meet Beowulf. Therefore, Gardner emphasizes the doom and loss of self-fulfillment Grendel experiences when he failed to pursue the sublime, due to his little faith, and allowed himself to accept the purpose and meaning that another had found.
Perhaps if Grendel had pursued a different philosophy or meaning to life he would not have come to the end that he did. In chapter four there is an introduction of a voice in the woods, “Why not? the forest whispered back-yet not the forest, something deeper, an impression from another mind, some live thing old and terrible” (48). Could this “invisible presence, chilly as the first intimation of death” (50) be the answer to all Grendel’s questions? Grendel was too afraid to embrace this presence, this power outside of him. We see this voice at the peak of Grendel’s belief in the Shaper.
The voice could have been encouraging Grendel to follow the Shaper or possibly become like the Shaper by using his imagination to create his own beliefs. The voice could have guided Grendel to the truths he was looking for. Grendel has the chance to listen to a voice, which he had been waiting to intervene at many points in his life. “I ask the sky. The sky says nothing, predictably…The sky ignores me, forever unimpressed” (6). And again, ““Gods, gods!” [Wealtheow] screamed. I waited to see if the gods would come, but not a sign of them” (109). He seems to want a force to intervene and to give him rational proof, but Grendel is too afraid to pursue the presence, when it could have possibly changed the outcome of his life. He has another opportunity to listen to the voice but quite obviously dismisses it. Gardner shows Grendel listening to voices outside himself, like the voice that warns, “Beware of the fish” (149). He notes Beowulf’s features and sees they resemble that of a fish, yet he does not heed this warning because he is afraid to trust in something he can not explain, and it is the death of him.
Grendel is pathetic, trying on the ideas of everyone else, taking bits and pieces of them all and confusing himself even more. He tries too hard to find the right philosophy, yet refuses to search within himself. The dragon died happy with his nihilistic beliefs, the Shaper died happy with his imagination, Wealthow and Unferth have their life giving faith, but Grendel died with indecision and a muddle of many beliefs. Grendel could have found happiness if he had allowed himself to embrace a power greater than himself, but instead he found a gloomy death. Gardner uses Grendel’s death to emphasize what destruction may come if one refuses to pursue the Romantic sublime. His happiness lay right before him and yet he dismissed it. His life would have had more beauty and purpose if he had only listened to the voice. “Beware of the fish” (149).
Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Random House, Inc., 1971.