Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

John Gardner's Grendel: A Story Retold and Transformed in the Process

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

John Gardner's Grendel: A Story Retold and Transformed in the Process

Article excerpt

JEROME KLINKOWITZ, IN AN ESSAY TITLED "JOHN GARDNER'S GRENDEL," describes the academic environment of the sixties as a time of new and expanding universities, a boom time for fledgling writers, and a time when the young John Gardner enjoyed a remarkable freedom to find his own way as a student, writer, and teacher of medieval literature and writing. Some understanding of ancient myths would still seem to have been required then, and Gardner took on a personal responsibility to retell the old stories since they could be forgotten, "unless," Klinkowitz adds, "they're memorized for doctoral comps" (63). But in at least some of the American graduate schools of the sixties and seventies students were required to read the stories of earlier times and to learn to read Old English.

That second requirement was a cause for protest. One of my University of Florida colleagues told me that he once found himself wishing the Beowulf manuscript had gone up in flames along with the other manuscripts that were destroyed in the 1731 Cotton Library fire. Another colleague, a highly respected scholar, said the only thing that saved him was a carefully hand-written translation of Beowulfthat he found far back in the drawer of a desk in his graduate student office. And one day--I remember this well, even though it was back in the days of blackboards--I came to my own Old English class and found this gentle protest written on the board: "We fall upon the b b b b b b b b b b b b [thorns] of life, we bleed!" (1)

John Gardner was not one of those protesters. He may have been the "literary outlaw" the title of Barry Silesky's biography identifies him as, but he chose to study Old English. As Silesky tells this part of Gardner's life story in John Gardner: The Life and Death of a Literary Outlaw, (2) Gardner, who had been awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study creative writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, immediately enrolled in the University of Iowa graduate program to study medieval literature instead. He signed up for John McGalliard's Old English course his first semester and then took his Beowulf-course the following semester (57-58).

And Jay Ruud, if the close attention he gives to the language of Beowulf in "Gardner's Grendel and Beowulf" (3) can be taken as evidence, could hardly have been one of those protesters either. In his presentation of Gardner's Grendel as a "three-sided figure: part monster, part devil, and part human" (7), Ruud provides quotations of Beowulf lines 112a-114a, 86a-90a, 850b-852b, 154b-158b, and 168a-169b, along with translations and explication with reference to the scholarship available at the time of his study.

Having begun my own studies as an English major at a time when the "intentional fallacy" prohibition was still in effect, (4) I think Ruud may overstep when, continuing, he writes that the Beowulfpoet's "main purpose in his characterization of Grendel was the depiction of horror--the horror of the outside, the 'other,' the infinite circle of darkness enclosing the briefly lit beer-hall" (7-8), and I could more easily agree with his claim that "When John Gardner adapts Grendel to the environment of the modern novel, he is primarily interested in the creature's human side" if Ruud had provided a direct quotation of a statement of purpose in support (8). But, be that as it may, I can readily acknowledge that Grendel's life story, as Gardner enables him to tell it, embodies varied aspects of human experience. Gardner's Grendel does, like the central figures of Old English elegiac poetry (Ruud cites lines from "The Wanderer," "The Wife's Lament," and Beowulfin illustration here), endure the suffering of an outcast from society. And, while his attacks on Hrothgar's hall dramatically reveal his monstrous origins, the fact that in Gardner's version of his story Grendel cannot resist the attraction of the songs of the Shaper he is permitted to hear only from outside the mead hall represents an important aspect of the human experience of alienation that Ruud singles out for attention. …

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