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Even Monsters Have Mothers: A Study of `Beowulf and John Gardners `Grendel,. Norma L.

Hutman.
DISCovering Authors. Online Detroit: Gale, 2003.

Even Monsters Have Mothers: A Study of


`Beowulf and John Gardners `Grendel,

Table of Contents:Essay
"Even Monsters Have Mothers: A Study of 'Beowulf' and John Gardner's 'Grendel,'" MOSAIC: A
Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1975, pp. 19-31.
[In the following excerpt, Hutman compares Gardner's Grendel and the Anglo-Saxon epic
Beowulf. ]
[Creative] vision extends truth, shapes ... archetype in its own image, commenting imaginatively
(and hence more than logically) upon its archetypal mother. This happens all too rarely, but
happen it does in John Gardner's Grendel which illustrates the perfect rapport possible between
two workings of a single myth. That it can stand beside the epic Beowulf is no small judgment on
the achievement of the novel....
Central to the novel is the confrontation of chaos and order: Grendel sees chaos in all that occurs
and indeed insists upon chaos as ultimate principle; man makes order in the unformed void and,
immortalizing, the artist remakes reality from the same elements to his own distinct purpose. The
world as given is the milieu of monsters: nature, forests, hostile cold, wild storms, the less than
benign climate of Scandinavia. In this death wreaking void, man builds houses, groups them and
organizes his society, erects kingly halls, fortifications, links his realms by roads. Out of the
untamed world monsters invade the tamed and symmetrical world of man, entering the mead hall
to leave, together with death and destruction, their chaotic mark upon the ordered universe.
Gardner's Grendel sees man essentially as a maker of patterns: "They'd map out roads through
Hell with their crackpot theories," he says of them....
Roads concretize man's control over environment and the unity of a kingdom. Further they reflect,
now in the order of intention rather than in completion, the role of volition as a motif of Beowulf
and in general of Nordic society. Decision makes the hero: strength and courage in battle,
leadership and generosity in governing.... On both sides of the social bond of king and subject,
commitment is paramount: man gives his service and the king gives rich rewards. In this personal
avowal of dedication as in the preeminence of personal valour, the Nordic mystic of unyielding will
evidences close parallels with that of the Samurai....
To the hero's will to victory and the king's will to order, but above all to the poet's will to artistic
reordering, Gardner's Grendel opposes his own absolute, "I knew what I knew, the mindless
mechanical bruteness of things." ... Even as Grendel in the poem is stirred to violence by the tale
of divine creation, Gardner's monster opposes the vision of human purposefulness and historical
continuity of which the Shaper sings. He endorses the law of violence which a rustic urges upon
Hrothgar. He half grasps the Dragon's affirmation of an absolute law of entropy, random ordering

and necessary dissolution. As the monster of Beowulf wreaks violence in reaction against the
harper's tale of creation, so Gardner's monster opposes destruction to the Shaper's tale of order
and to Hrothgar's vision of purposeful society. To Grendel this is illusion; "All order, I've come to
understand, is theoretical, unreal." ... Reality is nature: "The law of the world is a winter law, and
casual." ...
To this interpretation of existence poem and novel oppose several shaping forces: Hrothgar, who
will fail; Beowulf, who too must fail, being mortal, and after him so too the Geats; God and the
artist. Mortal man bears witness to his own finitude, but art tempts even the monster to accept "an
illusion of order for this one frail, foolish, flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity." ... The remark
is dressed in its own irony, self-mockery. But it belies the temptation, just as an admission of
response to order in the apparently indifferent universeto stars which, as Grendel admits,
"torment my wits toward meanful patterns that do not exist" ... compromises the insistence upon
brute chance.
God and the Shaper are kinsmen. Each makes the world: the first is sung in the prologue to
Beowulf and the latter honored in the structure of the epic as in Gardner's implicit creative
homage. The artist is he who "had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled
roots and had transmuted it." ... Even Grendel perceives the nature of one who "reshapes the
world" for he makes "the projected possible." ... Whatever the truth of nature, vision will overcome
that truth with the illusion of art and in this the chaos of the monster is ultimately and always
vanquished. The Shaper of Gardner's novel is ultimately a surrogate for the unnamed author of
Beowulf (the eternal type of poet) whose reorderings make meaning even as they make poem
and novel.
Beowulf is, of course, manifestly grounded in order seen as dualities. These we can divide into
inherent or natural dualities, which I prefer to term cosmic and which belong to the realm of chaos
and order, and, on the other hand, archetypal or structural dualities which involve figures in the
poem and novel in relationships which articulate the theme of each work.
In the kingdom of order and chaos we find light and dark, day and night, earth and underground,
life and death. Grendel is a creature of a subterranean world, of the dark, who makes night
attacks upon his prey. In Gardner's novel he is portrayed as a young monster, though the
maturation of monsters apparently involves a lengthy time span far exceeding that of man.
Accidentally he discovers the world beyond the mere and at first explores it only by night, fleeing
at dawn back to his lair. He visits the meadhall only at night or under cover of winter storm. On
the night when he goes to spy upon the nearly arrived Geats, "darkness lay over the world like a
coffin lid." ...
As he moves from mere to meadhall, Grendel moves from night to day or, more particularly, to
twilight which is their meeting place and to the human illumination of the hall by which man
endeavors to dispel darkness....
Grendel's mother too is a subterranean beast to whose lair Beowulf descends in order to slay her.
In like manner Beowulf goes to the dragon who is himself a creature of night....
Darkness, the universal unknown, is also the poet's metaphor for death....

Darkness, night, depths and hiddenness stand through the epic in radical juxtaposition to the
ordering, illuminating deeds of man, the openness and generosity of great kings and the fidelity of
kinsmen and subjects. Man comes as man to that interaction which is society and to that light
which is understanding.
This duality is played out not only in the sphere of symbols but personified in the relationships
enacted by characters in poem and novel. Beowulf and Hrothgar embody the poem's
preoccupation with the dichotomy of youth and age. By direct references to fate (or necessity,
cosmic structure) and by linking images the authors juxtapose Beowulf and Grendel to the
Dragon and Beowulf. Finally, in evoking the nature of the hero both works present a dichotomy
which binds Grendel and Unferth on one hand and Beowulf and the poet/Shaper on the other....
[The] dragon is Beowulf's fate as Beowulf was Grendel's. This Beowulf sees clearly.... "Fate,"
Beowulf acknowledges, "goes ever as it must." ... When Beowulf rides to the dragon he is
declared to ride to his death, with fate against him, and the dragon is identified as his fate.
Gardner has fully explored this implication of the poem. When the Geats' ship has beached,
Grendel goes to see it: "It drew me as the mind of the dragon did once." ... Beowulf is described
in terms of fire, from Grendel's first vision of him, and the shining images in which he is portrayed
recall precisely Grendel's visit to the dragon's lair. Both monsters are creatures of accident.
Gardner's Grendel insists that he has lost his mortal encounter with Beowulf because of an
accident. Surely by a caprice of fate which can hardly be deemed other than accidental the
dragon is roused from his tower and hence comes to embody Beowulf's fatal challenge. A slave
counted for nothing in the society of the Beowulf poem; yet a slave's pilfering angers the dragon
and sets him upon the Geats.
These linking suggestions acquire definition in the novel's climax when Grendel, his arm having
been wrenched off, in pain and vision, sees Beowulf in a guise which identifies him with the
dragon....
Gardner's dragon, indeed, possesses a temporal overview, all time seen as retrospective, while
Beowulf in the poem no less than the novel bears witness to a different kind of vision, that blind
mad vision which he shares with the Shaper. On the side of reason, logic and truth as no more
than demonstrable experience stand Grendel and Unferth (who is not only, as his name implies,
un-peace but also anti-hero).
Both enemies of Beowulf, the human who taunts him with a false report of his youthful deeds, and
the monster, are consigned by Beowulf in poem and novel alike, to hell. Both are, of course,
linked by the sign of Cain: Grendel comes of the race descended from Cain; Unferth in a drunken
stupor has slain his brother.
The monster is, however, unlike man, unredeemable. With words Unferth attacks Beowulf and
with words is defeated. His is precisely a nature which can share with Beowulf at least an
acknowledgement that the heroic vision exists. Yet as developed in the novel, his
acknowledgement is a factual, visionless, earth-bound stab at the ideal which must of its nature
fall short.
In Gardner's presentation, Unferth is a mock hero....

But as man Unferth is ultimately able to aspire to redemption, lending Beowulf his sword Hrunting
to use against Grendel's mother, a symbol of his knighthood that it may be wielded by a better
man....
Reason makes possible the presumed redemption of the man Unferth who shares with the
monsters the mark of Cain but is able to atone for his sin, as the monster is not. But to the estate
of heroes Unferth cannot aspire. Reason can bring him to acknowledge Beowulf's superiority but
is not the stuff of vision.
Ranked against logic is madness: heroic vision in Beowulf and the shaping vision of the poet. The
Shaper shares with the archetypal poet Homer and the archetypal prophet Tiresias blindness,
seeing obviously beyond the world of fact which Unferth sees. Gardner's Grendel describes
Beowulf's eyes as unseeing....
Later he identifies what he sees in Beowulf's eyes: "I understood at last the look in his eyes. He
was insane." ... Both the deeds which the evidently unseeing eyes of Beowulf see and the
kingdom which the Shaper has remade in the image of his dream are visions of a higher order
which is for the hero, honor, and for the poet, art. It is praise which unites these orders and praise
which is the final word of the poem. In praising the hero the Shaper makes real the vision which
madnessvision beyond truthmakes possible.
This, ultimately, is the ordering principle of the poem, through which structurally the various
dualities ... are reconciled by elements which themselves speak to the concept of praise: by
monsters which make heroic praise possible and by mortality and time which make it necessary.
The monsters suggest several hierarchies of choice and functions. Gardner chooses the monster
who stands, obviously, closest to men, rejecting both Grendel's mother who is principally beast
and hence less than man and the dragon which is in Gardner's terms extra-temporal and in
traditional lore superior in power to man.
Beowulf himself confronts the monsters in an order which suggests their progressive distance
from man and slays them through means and with weapons both commensurate with their
natures and suggestive of the particular man-enemy relationship involved. Unferth, the brotherkiller, appears in the guise of human monster because of the inhuman nature of his crime. He
attacks Beowulf with words; and by words, the peculiarly proper weapon of rational beings, he is
defeated.
Grendel in Gardner's hands resembles man both in his capacity to think and in his sense of
relationship. He sees himself as a focus in the world of men: "a new focus for the clutter of space
I stood in." ... But it is in language that Gardner hints most perceptively at the fundamental parallel
between man and monster, wherein the monster represents some older form of ourselves, that
lone, chaos-proclaiming, violent alien to society from which our fraternal, ordered, ethical selves
have sprung. Grendel speaks a language like man's, but "not in a language that anyone any
longer understands." ... [When] the pagan priests perform their rites they use "a language closer
to mine than to their own." ... Beowulf slaying Grendel slays his own dark origins, much as he
slays the archetypal Cain who stands against the entire ordering of society, Beowulf's heroic
context, when he defeats (one would not much err in opting for the colloquialism: when he puts
down) Unferth....

Monsters, then, whose being denies order, give ironically the greatest pattern to man's actions
because in confrontation with the monsters man transcends petty human enmity. The monster
gives man an opponent worthy of him, effecting ultimately man's self-transcendence, as the
dragon had explained to Grendel.
If the monsters provide the substance through which man immortalizes himself through great and
proper deeds, fulfilling his fate and winning praise thereby, the exigency of this immortality is
grounded in turn in consciousness of mortality and the all-embracing reign of time. Mortality
bespeaks the fate of individual and society alike....
The link between mortality and time, the requisite experience of death, is by Gardner placed in
Grendel's mouth, "December, approaching the year's darkest night, and the only way out of the
dream is down and through it." ... Time, to which all bears witness, is the organizing principle
greater than and yet containing consciousness of mortality. It embraces even the dragon who
sees the future, Grendel's mother who sinks into the past as well as Grendel who mediates
between ages and realms and man whose humanity is spelled out in his confrontation with time.
In the poem time has two guises: an epic face turned to the deed that wins eternal praise; and a
Christian one which through the artist sees all things sub specie aeternitatis. Time explains the
process which is caught in the contrast of youth and age, explains history, gives meaning to
praise which in turn bestows immortality.
Gardner portrays Grendel as insisting upon the meaninglessness of time and the artist. "Back
there in Time," he tells us, "is an illusion of language." But as Gardner sees the monster caught in
processes which he denies, the Christian poet sees a structure beyond time in which the monster
plays an ordained part.
At its moment of greatest illumination, the novel portrays Grendel's requisite though unwilling
witness to meaning in time.... The vision of time becomes, ultimately, the power through which
Grendel, the denier of meaning, is slain; as he grips the monster's arm and Grendel tries not to
listen Beowulf speaks to him:
As you see it it is, while the seeing lasts, dark nightmare history, time-as-coffin; but where the
water was rigid there will be fish, and men will survive on their flesh till spring. It's coming, my
brother. Believe it or not. Though you murder the world, turn plains to stone, transmogrify life into
I and it, strong searching roots will crack your cave and rain will cleanse it: The world will burn
green, sperm build again. My promise. Time is the mind, the hand that makes (fingers on
harpstrings, hero-swords, the acts, the eyes of queens). By that I kill you.
This vision of time gives meaning to process. Obviously the meaning embraces not only Beowulf
but the tribe, the kingdom, human society. Hence it gives meaning also to history....
Beowulf is itself uniquely a summation, for it exemplifies the meeting of myth as subject matter
(folklore, legend, the accounts of history) and myth as meaning (the artist's interpretation of
legend, history, etc.) with a perfection almost nowhere else to be encountered in occidental
literature. As such it makes possible Gardner's novel, for Gardner need not and does not tell the
entire tale.... [Grendel's] vision is grounded in the myth of the poem and in its structure and
analogies, out of which the novel's vision rises and to which it pays consummately perceptive
homage.

Fate in Beowulf establishes a sense of absolute extratemporal order against which Grendel
impotently rages and which the mortal Shaper affirms, and a heroic (in the AristotileanSophoclean sense) tension between what is and what is willed, between, therefore, necessity and
freedom. Grendel denying pattern appropriately speaks a prophecy in his curse and an ironic
summation of fate in his ultimate denial of causality. His arm torn off, wandering through the
winter countryside and recognizing the proximity of his death, Grendel watches the animalshis
old enemiesgather to observe his death. He defies, curses and spells out structure
paradoxically for them, as he interprets his own fate in the novel's closing lines: "Poor Grendel's
had an accident. So may you all. "
Grendel ignoresperforce must ignorethat man can interact and transcend his origins, while
he, the monster qua monster cannot. In this he defines monster. Beowulf knows the nature of
courage, man's mortality and immortality as fame. Thus he defines the nature of the hero. The
Shaper knows one truth beyond the truth of time: that vision which orders things and makes new
truths. Commentary can illumine truth but changes nothing. Gardner's dragon would make a
wonderful critic.
But vision extends truth, because it extends insight itself, as in this novel, which bears witness to
the power of the poem, which is the power and the will of myth to create....

Source Citation: "Even Monsters Have Mothers: A Study of `Beowulf and John Gardners

`Grendel,." DISCovering Authors. Online Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center Silver. Thomson Gale. Abington Sr High School. 18 Oct. 2007
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