In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a classic fantasy novel that responds to the epic poem Beowulf
History, they say, is written by the victors. Although this isn’t universally true – there are many testaments and narratives by those who were on the losing side, or who were victim to tyrannies or empires which overran or subjugated them – it’s certainly broadly true of literature. If we think of Anglo-Saxon literature, for every ‘Battle of Maldon’ – the poem telling of the Saxons’ defeat at the hands of the Vikings in Essex in 991 – there are many examples of triumph, victory, and glory, of which Beowulf is the supreme example.
Beowulf is a fascinating poem in itself. It was effectively lost for the best part of a millennium, and it would have been lost from literary history altogether if it hadn’t been for one nineteenth-century scholar who made a copy of the single surviving manuscript, shortly before that manuscript was badly damaged in a fire. The poem tells, of course, of Beowulf – his very name supposedly meaning ‘bee-wolf’, i.e. a raider of hives, i.e. a bear, i.e. a big, strong warrior – who belongs to the tribe known as the Geats. Beowulf and his men arrive at Heorot, the hall of the king Hrothgar, to slay the monster Grendel who has been attacking Heorot and killing its men. The poem, like tales of St George slaying the dragon, is about man overcoming some primal threat to civilisation. Indeed, although Grendel is the monster everyone knows about from the poem, Beowulf actually kills two other monsters after he’s taken care of that one: Grendel’s mother and a dragon, which takes Beowulf off to the Hall of Heroes with it by inflicting a deadly wound before it dies.
John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel, as the book’s title suggests, tells this story but from the point of view of the monster rather than the hero. Grendel is also the book’s narrator: Gardner’s novel (although really it’s a novella, at barely 130 pages) literally gives a voice to the villain of the story. And in doing so, like the sections of Frankenstein where Mary Shelley allows the Creature – or Being, to offer the now-preferred name for him – to narrate his part of the story in his own words, Gardner’s novella prompts us to ask how much of a ‘monster’ Grendel really is, or at least what the character means in the original poem. And how we ‘tell’ a monster in any work of literature written since. After all, on many university English courses, Beowulf acts as the gateway, the great dragon folded in the gate to forbid all entrance, the beginning of ‘English Literature’.
And ‘tell a monster’ is just the right phrase. For one thing which Gardner’s short book does so deftly is explore the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we construct about our own lives, about our concept of heroism, and about our sense of ourselves as opposed to the ‘Other’. Grendel was published five years after Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, another short work of revisionist fiction which takes a classic work of literature and displaces the ‘hero’ (or, in this case, ‘heroine’), decentring Jane Eyre in favour of the ‘mad’ Bertha Mason. I’m not suggesting a chain of influence here based on these general similarities, merely drawing attention to the fact that, in the second half of the twentieth century as our attitudes to race and gender began to shift in a decisive and rapid way, writers sought to retell the old stories but from a new perspective. Grendel is perhaps the most archetypal example of such a retelling. There’s a moment when Grendel is talking with the dragon, and the dragon points out to his fellow beyond-the-pale creature that Grendel ‘improves’ the men at Heorot, because his primitivism and brutishness are a spur to them to create poetry, science, and religion, to prove themselves better than the rough and crude monster who attacks them. In other words, Gardner invites us to understand Beowulf as the oldest ‘us versus them’ narrative in English literature.
Such an analysis – far less than a review – can hardly do justice to Gardner’s almost poetic prose, the lyricism but also the irony he imbues Grendel with, the way he builds up a picture of this ‘monster’ over the course of this short novel without reducing Grendel to the ‘wronged villain’ stereotype. Grendel is barbaric: he kills the Danes just because he can, because they annoy him with their smug superiority, or because he’s bored. In other words, Gardner’s real insight into the character is to deny him any single motivation for being monstrous, because I think he understood that such monolithic understandings of the villain are always reductive and simplistic. But the star of Grendel for me was Beowulf himself, who is never named in the narrative (merely referred to as ‘the stranger’), a man whom Grendel observes before their inevitable face-off and whose smiling, beardless countenance and quiet insanity create a real character out of Beowulf in just a dozen or so pages.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.