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Grendel by John Gardner

Cover to Grendel by John Gardner

Lurking in the shadows of the Dark Ages is the howling form of Grendel. He is the monster of midnight, the bone-gnasher, the ardent hunter of warriors who strews their bones and howls his fury to the world as he wreaks havoc on the safety of civilization. No hall fire burning brightly, no line of armed men can keep him back when he desires destruction. 

But, as John Gardner tells of Grendel, this was not always so. For the bane of the Hrothgar’s hall has a soul much tormented by his desire for good and fellowship with the humans even as his demonic appearance frightens them into violent action. To them, he is a thing, and so he becomes what they believe him to be—an adversary whose fame has spanned the centuries. Beowulf, the mysterious poem set down in Old English, uses quick strokes of short-coupled words to tell a warrior’s tale. Gardner’s Grendel is a philosopher’s tale, but it is easily and conversationally so. There is comedy here as Grendel mocks “the drunken little men” and their hero Unferth, pelting them with apples and tearing down their inflated egos with his completely unexpected wit.

For Grendel, the nightly torment of Hrothgar’s hall has almost become a dull exercise. Too easy by far. He and his dragon friend talk of the stupidity of the humans and their futile war on the dark.

Grendel had not much to admire or keep him entertained in his game until the coming of Beowulf. The warrior was the answer to a doomed creature’s desires: “The watchful mind lies, cunning and swift, about the dark blood’s lust, lies and lies until, weary of talk, the watchman sleeps. Then sudden and swift the enemy strikes from nowhere, the cavernous heart. Violence is truth…”

But the cold-eyed visitor is not a mass of shuddering emotions, to be toyed with until finally splayed out choking and spent as were Grendel's other victims. Beowulf's cool gaze considers his surroundings and the night’s work. Hrothgar’s hall will soon be strewn with blood once more. But whose?