2022 Reading Review: “Grendel”

More than a decade’s worth of moons before, I read Beowulf. If you were an English major, I assume you might have as well. I’m going to admit something to you, readers: I don’t remember Beowulf all that well. I remember the Old English and having a fascination with that. I remember the old King who had slept with Grendel’s mother and sired Grendel, and how Beowulf went to fight her after killing Grendel—but instead fathered his own monster.

And then I remembered that—NO, that actually didn’t happen at all. That was that 2007 film. And, yes, I did realize this only after I decided to Google the story just now.

Clearly, I remembered NOTHING at all about the actual book. And to read a story from the perspective of the monster Grendel himself… well, perhaps I should have refreshed my memory before I read the book, and not after I started typing my review.

I’m delayed in writing this up and am now two months removed from reading it. Which means I’ve read a few more books since. I’ll do my best to reflect on it honestly. And, as always, I’ll try to keep bigger spoilers in the Opinions section.

Story

I don’t really know where to begin with this one. Because while we follow Grendel through his short life, so much of this story isn’t really a story. It’s more a reflection on life than the telling of a story.

Certainly, we see the threads that tie this to Beowulf. We hear about Grendel attacking Hrothgar’s mead halls; meet Unferth during one of these attacks; and see the titular Beowulf when he arrives on their shores. Yet with this, we also see things that were not evident in the Beowulf story—the relationship that Grendel has with his mute mother; Grendel’s visits to the mead halls, crying for mercy and peace, which are interpreted as attacks and violence; Grendel’s home life and inner wisdom. These are the pieces that are put together here, that which we never see in Beowulf, for the story isn’t about the monster.

But Grendel is more than the figure we read about in Beowulf. What Grendel shows of this mythical figure is a being questioning his own existence and the meaning of life. In that sense, the story shows a more complex side to this antagonist of classic literature. He struggles to communicate and is attacked for his own horrifying visage. Grendel is more than the monster he is made out to be.

Characters

Psst! It’s Grendel!

Could you guess?

Honestly, Grendel is our main dude here. There are a few other characters popping up that you’ll know if you remember the book (unlike me). Grendel’s mother obviously makes an appearance or two. The dragon—who appears in Beowulf as well—also shows up.

But really we’re spending the entirety of this short book with Grendel. Through his attacks on the mead halls, to his fascination with the bardic storyteller (the Shaper), to his further captivation by Wealtheow’s beauty. All throughout, Grendel reflects on his beliefs and feelings on everything he sees and experiences in his life, and we are along for his inner journey.

Writing

This was a very complex read for me. I was just coming off of Make It Happen (like, literally. I was in a cafe, finished that, and immediately started Grendel), so my brain could have been in the wrong space for it. But I think Gardner was also trying to evoke a certain tone in his writing. The original Beowulf is one of the earliest written books in the English language—so old that even the English is old! (Get it? It’s written in Old English? You get it?)

I think Gardner was attempting to write in a more modern way, while still evoking some elements of that Old English style. If you are not in the right headspace for reading something like that, it can throw you off.

There were a few times where I flat out did not understand what I had just read. Again, this could be due to my own headspace at the time. I was in a cafe, just finished a personal development book with conversational language, and then immediately went into this. Maybe I should’ve taken a breather before hopping into this book.

But it is something to be aware of before you dive into this book.

Will You Like This?

Are you interested in reading about various philosophical ideals regarding life and existence from the point-of-view of one of classic literature’s most famous monsters?

If so, there’s probably no better book for you than this one! You may find it beneficial to brush up on the Beowulf story, just to get a feel for the characters and setting again. But you also don’t need to do that. Just be prepared for lots of deep thinking about existence and its meaning.

Opinion (Spoilers)

Man… honestly, I didn’t care for it. I hate to say it, as it was recommended to me by a family member whose recommendations I’ve enjoyed. And who was kind enough to give it to me to read, so I know it was a personal recommendation.

But it felt so nihilistic. Grendel’s thoughts seemed to insist a meaninglessness to life and existence. And while I understand that mindset—and enjoy debating such topics—I really felt down while reading it.

And, yet, I get that for this character. The little that we know about Grendel and his own existence makes it obvious why he would think such things about life.

…You know, as I type this and continue thinking about this book, I am finding deeper significance to it, which is making me reconsider my stance on it.

Here’s the thing: I can separate myself from art. I might not like a book—whether for its writing style or its plot or whatever other issues I have with it—while still recognizing its significance and praising what it’s trying to do.

It’s the same thing with Grendel. While this might not have been for me at this time, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great things about this book.

So I’ll Do Some Praising

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of things that I recognize are great about this book, even if I didn’t care for it.

The writing can be challenging, but it does emulate that sort of Old English vibe in its complexity. In that, it does feel like it can fit in with a tandem reading of Beowulf.

I also admit that I felt for Grendel. He was clearly a very lonely creature, surrounded by human beings who hated and feared him and with a mother who he couldn’t communicate with. He was purely all alone, and in those instances, we all can find ourselves more reflective on the meaninglessness of life. I’ve definitely there mentally when I’m feeling lonely. So, he’s relatable in that sense.

But the big scene that I did find myself enjoying was Grendel’s conversation with the dragon. Grendel found himself at a loss for the things it spoke of. Clearly, the dragon was a being of superior intelligence, and Grendel’s own intellect couldn’t meet it. In some ways, I found that relatable: the idea that the world is so big and complex, and we are just these small things who can’t comprehend it all. We can try, and perhaps we get a fraction of it. But we’ll never get it all.

Some people might find this negative, but I find this a good reminder that we can always strive. And that we don’t all have to solve every problem. Hey, there are billions of people in this world; it’s good that we all have different knowledges and skills to donate to improving it.

So, at the end of all of it, maybe I did find my own positivity in Grendel.

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