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Moral Relativism vs. Moral Absolutes

Paul Sartre’s atheistic existentialism divides the world into 2 groups, authentic and inauthentic. Authentic people are distinguished by their deliberate choices to use their freedom to find purpose and meaning in their existence, while inauthentic people are characterized by passivity. John Gardner disagrees with moral relativism evidenced in Sartre’s existentialism and chooses to believe in moral absolutes. He portrays Grendel in his book Grendel as a condemnation of the moral relativism expressed by Jean Paul Sartre’s ideas of atheistic existentialism. Through Grendel's experiences with contrasting religions and his philosophical mentors, Grendel chooses to embody Sartre’s idea of authenticity by terrorizing the people around him.

Through Grendel’s initial attraction with the Shaper, a scop and a symbol of the Old Testament, Gardner shows how Grendel is able acknowledge moral absolutes like music. The Shaper’s stories and music fascinate Grendel. He deeply moves Grendel and through his songs, even manages to convince Grendel that he is a monster shunned by god and a descendant from Cain. “I believed him. Such was the power of the Shaper’s harp! Stood wriggling my face, letting tears down my nose, grinding my fists into my streaming eyes, even though to do it I had to squeeze with my elbow the corpse of the proof that both of us were cursed” (Grendel 51). Grendel knows that the Shaper tells lies, but the Shaper’s beautiful music and persuasive voice convinces Grendel that he is a terrible race cursed by God. Grendel believes the Shaper’s portrayal of his purpose is wrong and becomes overwhelmed. He runs to the humans in hope of communicating with them. “I sank to my knees, crying, “Friend! Friend!” They hacked at me, yipping like dogs” (52). All Grendel wants is to be accepted and find purpose to guide his life. So when the humans reject him, he chooses to ignore what the Shaper says about him. Gardner uses the Shaper to show how even after Grendel is introduced to moral absolutes, he rejects them.

In denial of what the Shaper has said about him, Grendel decides to visit the dragon, which Gardner uses to represent sartrean and nihilistic values. The dragon tells Grendel: My knowledge of the future does not cause the future. It merely sees it, exactly as creatures at your low level recall things past . . . I do not change the future, I merely do what I say from the beginning. That’s obvious, surely. Let’s say it’s settled then. So much for free will and intercession! (63) The dragon educates Grendel by saying that there is no free will in this universe, no choice, that things are already pre-determined, and there is nothing anyone can do to change it. The dragon also says, “That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality . . . spins it all together with harp runs and hoots, and they think what they think is alive, thinks Heaven loves them. It keeps them going” (65) He is trying to prove to Grendel how humans use and make up God and Heaven as a source of comfort and faith. The dragon also blatantly says to Grendel that there is no god, no heaven, and no hell, that the universe has no purpose. He solidifies this idea by saying: A swirl in the stream of time. A temporary gathering of bits, a few random dust specks, so the speak –-- pure metaphor, you understand --- then by chance a vast floating cloud of dust specks, an expanding universe . . . Complexities: green dust as well as the regular kind. Purple dust. Gold. Additional refinements sensitive dust, copulating dust, worshipful dust! Complexity beyond complexity, accident on accident until . . . (71) The dragon believes that the universe is all just a pile of dust, that there might be different types, but in the end everything is just dust. He is also trying to say that the universe and everything in it is all really an accident. The dragon represents Sartre’s atheistic existentialism and nihilism when...
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