Critique 20.1 (1978): 83-92. Reprinted With Permission Of The Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published By Heldref Publications, 1319 18th St. N.W. Washington, D.C. 20036-1802. Copyright 1978.

The Twelve Chapters of Grendel


In an interview John Gardner says of Grendel that he "wanted to go through the main ideas of Western Civilization. . . and go through them in the voice of the monster, with the story already taken care of, with the various philosophical attitudes (though with Sartre in particular), and see what I could do."[1] Gardner goes even further to explain the organization of the novel: "It's got twelve chapters. They're all hooked up to astrological signs, for instance, and that gives you nice easy clues."[2] These statements seem to be an instant explication of the novel, but they really only add up to a clue. The problem with the "nice easy clues" is that no two astrologers agree on anything. For example, one tells us that Arians arc "outgoing," another that they "like to-live in the mind," and a third that they arc "originators" and "sympathetic." It is difficult to see how one could blend these traits into a coherent whole, but even more difficult to see how the whole would point inexorably to some main idea of Western Civilization.

In examining each of the twelve chapters, we shall attempt to discern the philosophical center of each. By studying the philosophical discussions that occur between characters and in the musings of Grendel, we should be able to arrive at conclusions at least as reliable as those suggested by astrological charts. The first thing we need to do is to forget everything about Beowulf except its basic plot. True, Grendel is based on Beowulf and the dramatic action is very similar, but the motivation for actions in Grendel is completely different. In Beowulf the focus is always on heroic action and beastly malfeasance; in Grendel the focus is on philosophical ways of living in the world. Grendel dies in each work, but the meaning of his death is radically different.

Anyone familiar with Gardner's earlier work should not be surprised that the twelve ideas in Grendel are philosophical ones. His earlier work is peopled with philosophers (Chandler in The Resurrection and Agathon in The Wreckage of Agathon) and sages, mad though they may be (Horne in The Resurrection and Taggert Hodge in The Sunlight Dialogues). Grendel, however, is the first major character whose philosophical explorations are the single most important thing in the novel. The "Sunlight Dialogues" arc an interesting part of The Sunlight Dialogues, but Taggert's belief in the sanctity of the individual seems not to affect his actions. In Grendel philosophical ideas are always linked to ways of living in the world: a character does not simply describe an idea, he lives it.

Grendel is the arbiter of twenty-five centuries of philosophy because he is not human. Grendel has no vested interest in any one philosophy, he is searching for the best way to live in the world. The ideas that Grendel judges are not presented in a uniform format. Some of the ideas Grendel himself lives for a time; some of the ideas other characters live; and some of the ideas are so subtle that they need to be explained to us. If Grendel completely changed philosophies every chapter, the novel would be as much a story of character as philosophy, but if he never changed character at all, the novel would not show philosophy as having any real effects on action. The mixture of Grendel's action and observation, his mastery over others and others' mastery over him, then, allows us to see a history of philosophy in action.

Aries begins the astrological block and also begins the first chapter of Grendel: "The old ram stands looking down over rockslides."[3] The symbolic importance of Aries is that it marks the beginning of a new cycle just like the cycle that has ended. Grendel tells us he is in "the twelfth year of my idiotic war" (1), and this year appears that it will be substantially the same as the last. The ram acts the same way he did "last year at this time, and the year before, and the year before that" (2). Grendel realizes that he is caught in the same endless pattern: "So it goes with me day by day and age by age. . . . Locked in the deadly progression of moon and stars" (3). He will go down the hill and attack Hrothgar's village again, and after he has broken down their door they will build a new one to replace it "for (it must be) the fiftieth or sixtieth time" (8). All has happened before; all will happen again. Grendel and his world arc trapped in the "progression of moon and stars," the cycle of astrology. Grendel presents us in this chapter with the theory of the world as repetition and endless cycles, a philosophy, one of the oldest in the West, first presented by the Orphic sages.

Chapter Two, a flashback to Grendel's youth, begins Grendel's journey into the world of men. He leaves the cave of ignorance and enters the world of sunlight for the first time (an obvious reference to Plato's parable of the cave). Because the sunlight blinds him, Grendel always returns to the cave at daybreak. One night, he catches his foot in the crotch of a tree and is unable t o free himself. When he accepts that his mother will not come from the cave to rescue him and that he is alone against the world (represented by a bullóthis is the chapter of Taurusócharging him), Grendel concludes "that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that I alone exist.. . . I create the universe blink by blink" (16). When men arrive at the tree and begin to torture him, in order to determine what manner of beast he is, his shrieks of pain bring his mother to save him from the men. Safe in the cave, he repeats, "The world is all pointless accident.. . . I exist, nothing else" (22). From these statements, Grendel clearly begins his life in the world as a solipsist. His claim of unique existence is the fundamental basis for that philosophy. Alan Leo, an astrologer, tells us that Taurians "lean toward the objective and concrete" and base their actions on "extreme materialist thought.""[4] No philosophy better fits the description than solipsism, for it denies everything save the existence of the solipsist.

Grendel's solipsism is challenged when the Shaper, a poet-minstrel, arrives in Hrothgar's village. Shaper brings history to the village and forces Grendel to acknowledge exterior reality. Shaper creates a better world with his songs, an order untainted by the unpleasantness of certain facts of existence. He creates an order out of the pointless accident, and Grendel confesses that "even to me, incredibly, he had made it all seem true and very fine" (36). Shape's visions transform the grubby little village into a growing city-state, merely by changing the villagers' perceptions about themselves, their past, and Grendel. Shaper "had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his wayóand so did I." Geminis, symbolized by the "wobbly twins" Grendel sees, are supposed to be versatile, superficial, and inventiveóall part of their dual-nature. Shaper is all these things, as were the Sophists, who were so skilled at argument that they could argue any side of any question and win. They remade the world with their arguments just as Shaper does with his songs. All who hear Shape's visionary history believe in it, even though they remember what actually happened. Grendel wants to believe in it but cries out, "Lost!" (37), because be cannot let the dream replace the reality of his experience.

Chapter Four. Cancer the nourisher, shows us the growth of the religion that will nourish the new world Shaper has made Hrothgar's villagers see.

[Shaper] told of how the earth was first built, long ago: said that the greatest of gods made the world, every wonder-bright plain and the turning seas, and set out as signs of his victory the sun and moon. . . and gave life to the every creature that moves on land.
     The harp turned solemn. He told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light. And I, Grendel, was the dark side. . . . The terrible race God cursed. (43)

God created all things in the world and all was good, but an evil force arose that divided the world into good and evil. The man who follows the good shall go to heaven and "find peace in his father's embrace" (46), but the evil man shall burn foreveróbasic Old Testament theology. Grendel, the recognized evil of creation, is symbolized as brute natureónot really intelligent at all, merely a force that attempts to draw the villagers into evil. The vision is so compelling that Grendel desires it even if he "must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of this hideous fable" (47). Grendel even rushes into the midst of the villagers and asks for their forgiveness for his role in the fable, but they simply hack at him with swords. Grendel wants the vision to be true because it gives some order and purpose to the world, even if the order demands the vilification of his image.

In Chapter Five, the chapter of Leo the dramatizer, Grendel learns what his role will be in the new order Shaper has provided. Grendel goes to a dragon to ask about his part in the world and meets a metaphysician who explains everything's place in the world. Gardner says that the dragon is "nasty" and "says all the things that a nihilist would say."[5] Much of the dragon's advice is nihilistic and much is materialistic, but the most important part comes from Whitehead. The dragon begins his explanation of Grendel's place in the world by describing the fundamental connectedness of things and deploring the common-sense notions of reality. He then tells Grendel that:

Importance is primarily monistic in its reference to the universe. Limited to a finite individual occasion, importance ceases to be important.. . . Expression, however, . . . is founded on the finite occasion. (58)

The dragon is explaining the way in which eternal objects are expressed in actual entities, taking his explanation directly from Whitehead:

Importance is primarily monistic in its reference to the universe. Importance, limited to a finite individual occasion, ceases to be important. . . .
     But expression is founded on the finite occasion.[6]

The dragon uses Whitehead's metaphysics to explain an ordering of the world even more comprehensible and sensible than the one Shaper .provides. The problem is that Grendel can understand Shaper, but not the dragon. The dragon needs to stoop to particulars:

You improve them, my boy! Can't you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. . . . You are mankind, or man's condition. (62)

The dragon prevents Grendel from accepting the simplified theological world-view offered by Shaperó"What god? Where? Life force, you mean? The principle of process?" (63)óand helps Grendel recognize a more complex order in the world.

In Chapter Six Grendel finds his role in this order:

I was transformed. I was a new focus for the clutter of space I stood in.. . . I had become, myself, the mama I'd searched the cliffs for once in vain.. . . I had become something, as if born again. I had hung between possibilities before, between the cold truths I knew and the heart-sucking conjuring tricks of the Shaper, now that was passed: I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings! (69)

The most familiar formulation in existentialist thought is "existence precedes essence." This phrase means that people exist as things long before they create themselves as entities capable of acting coherently in the world. Before his realization, Grendel had possessed no real sense of himself: he accepted the images others had of him (his mother's image of him as "son," the villagers' image of him as "monster," and Shape's image of him as "devil") for his self-image. Thus, Grendel is reborn but reborn into scepticism. He accepts that beings other than himself exist, but he has postulated them all as enemies. Grendel is a sceptic, one who doubts everything with moral fervor, and has decided that his new role is to be the destroyer of all the hypocritical orders men have created. Grendel feels that all orders blind men to the truth: "So much for heroism. So much for the harvest-virgin. So much, also, for the alternative visions of blind old poets and dragons" (78).

Chapter Seven is the story of Wealthow, "holy servant of the common good" (86). She is given to Hrothgar by her brother as a tribute to Hrothgar's power. She brings such a great sense of peace and has a faith so deep that she protects the village from Grendel's ravages. Libra is the sign of conciliators, and Wealthow brings harmony not only between the two peoples, but within the village as well. Chapters Six and Seven are the heart of the novel just as Virgo and Libra arc the center of the astrological year. What we have is the scepticism of Grendel balanced by the faith of Wealthow. He is willing to sacrifice nothing; she"would give, had given her life for those she loved" (88) and has "lain aside her happiness for theirs" (90). He is a sceptic; she is the closest thing we see to a Christian in Grendel. Shaper brought the Old Testament to the village, but Wealthow brings the New Testament ideals with her. At the center of the novel, then, we have the two contrasting ways of viewing the world: Grendel's belief in chaos and futility balanced by Wealthow's belief in order and purpose.

The first seven chapters have transformed Grendel from a frightened solipsistic child into an angry sceptical monster. The village has evolved from a small collection of huts into a city-state. Everything necessary for Beowulf s arrival has been given to us, but Beowulf docs not arrive for four more chapters. The plot has been developed; the next four chapters develop philosophical ideas Gardner is interested in. Gardner says that "at about Chapter 8 there is a section in which you arc no longer advancing in terms of the momentum toward the end.. . . it's just the wheels spinning. That is not novelistic form; it's lyrical form.î[7] Gardner stretches Grendel to elucidate certain ideas about philosophy and the growth of society, not to add convolutions to the traditional plot. These chapters should reveal just how different Grendel is from a more traditional novel, for its underlying purpose is to explore philosophies, not character.

The purpose is made clear in Chapter Eight when Machievelli's ideas enter the village. Hrothulf, the "sweet scorpion" (98), learns statecraft from Red Horse:

"Public force is the life and soul of every state. . . . The state is an organization of violence, a monopoly in what it is pleased to call legitimate violence. . . . All systems are evil. All governments are evil. Not just a trifle evil. Monstrously evil. . . . If you want me to help you destroy a government, I'm here to serve. But as for Universal Justiceó" He laughed. (103-04)

Hrothgar's village has arrived at the age of nation-states and all that matters during such an age is the maintenance of power, or, for the disenfranchised, the achievement of power. Hrothulf is an orphaned nephew adopted by Hrothgar and Wealthow, but sentiments and obligations play no part in Machiavellian statecraft. With the replacement of Wealthow's love and charity by Hrothulfs scheming, we enter the modern age.

Chapter Nine shows us another indication that the village has entered the modern age. We saw the village's religion begin in Shape's passion delineation between the powers of good and evil, but we see now that the church has evolved into a pallid study of Whitehead's idea of process. Grendel hides among their idols one night and convinces an old priest to tell him the nature of the village's god. The priest tells Grendel,

The King of Gods is not concrete, but He is the ground for concrete actuality. No reason can be given for the nature of God, because that nature is the reason for rationality. . . . The King of the Gods is the actual entity in virtue of which the entire multiplicity of eternal objects obtains its graded relevance to each stage of concrescence. Apart from Him, there can be no relevant novelty. (114)

When the old priest tries to tell the other priests of his interview with "The Great Destroyer," as he had assumed Grendel to be, they laugh at him and his theories of god. The last great metaphysician speaks and no one will listen to him. Their religion has fallen from Shape's dualism to Whitehead's process to hypocrisyóthe young priests worry that "Lunatic priests are bad business. . . . One man like him can turn us all to paupers" (117). Grendel is so disturbed by the sight of the younger priests ridiculing the old priest who still has faith that he leaves them all alone. He cannot understand that the young priests are able to preach what they do not believe.

In Chapter Ten we see Grendel once more puzzled by man's insensitivity. Just as Grendel was the only listener moved by the old priest's explanations, so he is the only one truly moved by the Shaper's death. Capricorns are supposed to be pessimisticóand in this chapter Grendel develops a Nietzschean philosophy. Because Shaper is dead, Grendel feels that "we're on our own again. Abandoned" (130). They are alone because only Shaper's art made their world real. Shaper molded their reality and infused it with actuality. When Grendel says, "Nihil ex nihilo, I always say" (131), he is recognizing the emptiness otherworld without its creator. All of Grendel's despair and the conclusions he draws from his despair arc parallel to Nietzsche's writings when he faced the death of god.

Grendel's journey thus far, then, has been from solipsist to sceptic to nihilist. He has listened to the great metaphysicians explain their systems, but he could never believe that an order corresponded to what they described. As Nietzsche is traditionally seen as a predecessor of Sartre, Chapter Eleven gives us the most succinct version of Sartre's thought in the novel.

After Grendel sees Beowulf for the first time, he retires to his cave and meditates on his being:

All order, I've come to understand, is theoretical, unrealóa harmless, sensible,, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world. . . . "Am I not free?. . . I have seenóI embodyóthe vision of the dragon.' absolute, Final waste. I saw long ago the whole universe as not-my-mother, and I glimpsed my place in it, a hole. Yet I exist, I knew. Then I alone exist, I said. It's me or it. What glee, that glorious recognition!. . . For even my mama loves me not for myself, my holy specialness . . . but for my son-ness, my possessedness. (138)

"All order . . . is theoretical, unreal" is Grendel's explicit rejection of the dragon, the priests, and Shaper. Because "I alone exist," he feels that he must create his own order centered around himself and his perceptions of the world. He posits himself as the center of the world and arranges it accordingly: "For the world is divided, experience teaches, into two parts: things to be murdered, and things that would hinder the murder of things" (139). The ideas Grendel expresses of freedom, existence, and possessedness are all Sartre's ideas, all central to existentialism. In this chapter we can truly say that Grendel has become an existentialist. God (Shaper) is dead, and after his initial despair, Grendel has built a new world and new order without Him. Grendel's chosen essence, "absolute, final waste," does not seem very different from what it was beforeóthe important thing is that now he moves beyond a received definition of himself and defines the world in his own terms.

Chapter Twelve, the chapter of Pisces, the end of the astrological cycle, shows us the battle between Grendel and Beowulf. Beowulf has come to Hrothgar's village to kill the monster and bring a new age to its people. Grendel wants to kill Beowulf in order to maintain the village as his fief-dom. Grendel creeps into the sleeping hall, hoping to kill Beowulf by surprise, but Beowulf, instead, tricks Grendel and seizes him. Beowulf twists Grendel's arm behind his back and forces him to listen:

Though you murder the world, turn plains into stone, transmogrify life into I and it, strong searching roots crack your cave and rain will cleanse it: The world will burn green, sperm build again. My promise. Time is the mind, the hand that makes. . . . By that I kill you. . . . Grendel, Grendel! You make the world by whispers, second by second. Are you blind to that? Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point. Fed t he wall: is it not hard? He smashes me against it, breaks open my forehead. Hard, yes! Observe the hardness, write it down in careful runes. Now sing of walls! Sing! (149-50) Beowulf beats Grendel until he produces his first poem; satisfied with the poem, he lets Grendel wander off to bleed to death. As Grendel dies, he says, "Poor Grendel's had an accident. . . . So may you all" (152).

About the last chapter Gardner says, "Grendel begins to apprehend the universe. Poetry is an accident, the novel says, but it's a great one."[8] Grendel can no longer say "Only I exist" after he has sung of the beauty of walls. Beowulf forces Grendel to discard his existentialism and view the world without a screen. Beowulf beats Grendel against reality and turns him into an empiricist. Out of such contact comes poetry. Grendel can only understand that all knowledge, all truth, all art grows out of the contact with reality after he has been forced to give up his old philosophy. Grendel does not merely imagine the wall and posit that it is not-Grendel; he has his head smashed against it until he rejects everything but experience.

Grendel's philosophical journey is almost circular, just as the cycle of astrology is circular. He begins with solipsism, "Only I exist," and ends with empiricism, for which only objects of experience are real. The major difference between the two is that empiricism accepts the existence of other objects while solipsism denies other objects concrete existence. These two schools are closely related historically and often difficult to tell apart in certain philosophers, Hume, for example. Once the empiricist questions the existence of external objects, he becomes a solipsist. The cycle of astrology, then, is important as a symbol for Grendel's philosophical development as well as for some clues in the chapters. Grendel's first teacher, the dragon, reveals the beauties of metaphysics and his final teacher, Beowulf, reveals the hard truths of empiricism. Grendel's awareness of the flaws of the former and the limits of the latter allow him to create poetry, a new way of ordering the world.

Grendel's journey is not the only important one in the novel. The village of Hrothgar's people is almost a main character itself, and its journey is also circular: from an unimportant village to the prosperous years of Shaper and Hrothgar, and finally into a decline with neither a great poet nor a great leader. Shaper "sang of a glorious mead-hall whose light would shine to the end of the ragged world" (39-40). He sang of something that will happen in the future and then helped to bring it about. Grendel sings that "these towns shall be called the shining towns" (151). Shaper's prophecy came true, but its time of truth is already over. The Shaper heralds the village's growth; Grendel's poem signals its decline. Moreover, Grendel's death destroys the last, great symbol of the village's struggle over adversity. Statecraft and religion had already been cheapened, and when Grendel dies even brute nature is gone. Grendel shows in all ways the passing of one age and the birth of the next, and so the novel becomes a complete history of man's progress.



1. Joe David Bellamy, The New Fiction (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1974) p. 173 [Return to text]

2. Bellamy, p. 174. [Return to text]

3. John Gardner, Grendel (New York Ballantine Books, 1972), p. 1. Subsequent references arc to this edition. [Return to text]

4. Alan Leo, Astrology for All (Toronto: Borden Publishing, 1947), p. 18. [Return to text]

5. Bellamy, pp. 175. 177. [Return to text]

6. Alfred North Whitehead. Modes of Thought (1938; rpt. New York: The Free Press, 1968), p. 20. Another example of Gardner's use of Whitehead's analysis is the dragon's discussion of time (56) and that in Modes of Thought (141). [Return to text]

7. Bellamy, p. 186. [Return to text]

8. Bellamy, pp. 179-80. [Return to text]

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