John Gardner’s Grendel, which narrates the life of the monster from Beowulf from a first-person point-of-view, is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read: Gardner intricately weaves together philosophy and astronomy to create an engaging and thoughtful novel.
Decades ago, a teacher and three of her students sent Gardner their essays on his novel, and he responded with this sassy letter. Certainly, this letter contains way too many gems for me to cover in just two paragraphs, so I’ll just focus on the two things Gardner touched on that stood out the most to me (+ a little comment about the actual Beowulf epic).
(So here’s the little comment about Beowulf: It’s really interesting that Gardner hints at Beowulf begin pessimistic. Certainly, I’ve only read a section of a mediocre translation, but the way I perceived it, Beowulf was meant to laud the accomplishments of the Anglo-Saxon culture and Beowulf himself was the “perfect human” that everyone should strive to be like (at least, isn’t that what an epic is supposed to be?) Gardner suggests that in Beowulf, the hero “does everything he can to be a perfect hero, and in the end he’s killed, for reasons he doesn’t understand, dies deluded –thinking he has saved his people when in fact the treasure he’s captured is worthless…” I wonder if the scopes who first told Beowulf meant that, but either way, Gardner’s point is very much valid.)
Anyways, on the rest of his letter. The three students who wrote to Gardner apparently all came to the conclusion that his opinions on life echoed that of the dragon (and that he was advocating for only one philosophy of life). But Gardner (the author) disagrees, saying that a “good writer is indeed a careful philosopher; but his method is not to argue for a single position—but rather to explore, with all the care and wisdom he’s capable of mustering, the various implications, contributing factors, etc., that must be considered when any serious philosophical question is raised.” Rather, the author must “develop the gift of mimicry and become able to present various points of view on any given question.” Gardner does exactly that: in twelve chapters, he explores the major perspectives on the biggest question: what is the purpose and meaning of our lives?
Grendel, with his man-eating lifestyle and absolutely terrifying thoughts (especially later in the novel), still serves as a foil against society and its corruption — the making up of noble (or ignoble, as Gardner notes) values that forces Grendel to”give up all hope and faith, becoming a mere enemy, a mere brute.” But neither is the novel a statement about society’s corruption; rather, anything can corrupt, including isolation. And then he adds, “In the long run, I hope, an imperfect society is better than a solitary monster.”
But dang. Gardner is a pure genius, and he wants us to know it (it being that his novel is a masterpiece, that he’s a genius, and that everything in Grendel is EVERYTHING).