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John Gardner's Life and Grendel

By mcurry23 Sep 16, 2010 1424 Words
11 March 2010
John Gardner’s Grendel
The author of Grendel, John Gardner, is considered one of the most influential and controversial authors in the twenty-first century. Known for his brutal honesty in religion and society, which is most commonly reflected in his novel. In his novel Grendel, John Gardner translates his personal tragedies into the text with depictions including his own life experiences, tragedies, and religious upbringing.

John Gardner was born in 1933, in Batavia, New York. He grew up in a Christian home. His father was a farmer as well as a preacher; and his mother was an English teacher. He had a younger brother that was tragically killed in a tractor accident, when Gardner was only six years old. After that incident Gardner’s religious views were forever changed, he did not necessarily turn away from God, but his views on religion were now more bitter then sweet. His Mother taught him everything he knew about literature. His mother is whom he got his enthusiasm about medieval and fiction literature.

Throughout his lifetime, with the inspiration from his Mother, Gardner accomplished many things in his novelist career. One of his biggest accomplishments was in 1972 when he was awarded the Nation Education Award. Again, in 1972-73 he received the Danforth Fellowship, and shortly after he had the same Fellowship named in his honor. He published many great and influential novels, the one novel that really put him on the map, as a novelist was Grendel. It is with certainty that Gardner has had a life full of noteworthy experiences, which he has used to his advantage. He not only wrote about his views and beliefs he was not afraid of using other philosophers and authors works that he looked up to. Critics agree that Gardner’s style of writing is rare. It is obvious how much work and research he put into each of his books. He wrote with such confidence and all of his hidden philosophies throughout the text help the reader to get a better understanding of the theme in his story. Grendel was not like any other book Gardner had written before. It contained alliterative and poetic accents relating to Anglo-Saxon Poetry. When Gardner first published Grendel critics respected his novel and though was both impressive and refreshing. Later Grendel was named one of the best fiction novels of 1971 by Time and Newsweek. Out of all Gardner’s novels, Grendel surpassed any work he had ever published. This made Gardner’s name more popular, and people were looking forward what to see next from him.

Gardner had many icons that he looked up and he would commonly mention the theories and philosophies of those he looked up to, this was a reoccurring pattern in Grendel. He does this in Chapter Two of the novel; this is where Grendel begins to explore the world of man. Gardner makes it significant in the text that Grendel is leaving his cave of ignorance and is entering a world of sunlight (Gardner 16). That is a clear reference to Plato’s parable of the cave, one of Gardner’s favorite parables. Another example of Gardner referencing other writers would be in Chapter Five, one of the more important chapters in his novel. In this chapter Grendel goes to converse with the Dragon to see if he has a place in this life. The Dragon’s advice is explaining how the order of the world works, and that this world does have a place for someone like Grendel, but it is not in the way Grendel wants it to be. As the Dragon goes on he explains the place for Grendel in this world in a more comprehensible way for Grendel to understand, “Can’t you see it 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,” (Gardner 62). This is direct translation to Whitehead’s philosophy of metaphysics. After, this encounter with the Dragon and with the help of Whitehead philosophy, Grendel thinks he has found his place and goes on a killing riot.

Another place where Gardner might let himself be seen through the text is through the characters. Gardner has said that he often will use character’s names from throughout his life as characters in his novels. Of course, for Grendel it was different story, since most of the characters were already named. For example, the man known as Red Horse who was a sorrel, but is actually intended to be George Sorel, whom was a popular actor during Gardner’s time. However, he never did mention the one character’s name that might arguably be of the most important. In the following quote Gardner explains his logic behind not naming Beowulf: At the end of the story, Grendel doesn’t know who he’s fighting. He’s just fighting something big and horrible and sure to kill him, something that he could never have predicted in the universe, as he understood it, because from the beginning of the novel, Grendel feels himself hopelessly determined, hopelessly struggling against—in the profoundest sense—the way things are. (McConnell 8) In addition, Beowulf represents a Christ-like figure in the classic Beowulf and Gardner wanted to somehow portray that in Grendel. By not mentioning Beowulf’s name it also gives the illusion that Grendel has been fighting with this omnipresent Christ-like figure throughout the whole novel, without realizing it.

Gardner believed that art and specifically poetry are the only things that give meaning to our otherwise pointless existents. This can be seen as a recurring theme throughout Grendel. Language is one of the biggest struggles for Grendel to relate to the society around him. That reason alone, was the largest contributing factor for the meaningless and empty feelings Grendel is experiencing. The meaning behind Gardner’s philosophy is that life is indeed meaningless unless you have to essentials of life such as: poetry, literature, music, art, and language. He verbally translates that into Grendel’s thoughts after the humans attacked him: I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understand that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly—as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. (Gardner 22) Many readers and critics are curious as to why Gardner chose Beowulf. And why did he want to, in a way, justify the view people once had of Grendel. Firstly Beowulf is one of Gardner’s favorite classics because of the story’s rich content and

background. Something Gardner is commonly known for in his style of writing is the visual picture he sets with incredible detail he depicts for each character. It is not something that one could animate into a movie or television. He also likes to relate the character’s feeling to the feeling of a real person would experience, or something he can relate himself into. Throughout Grendel, Gardner illustrates from page to page the mood changes of Grendel, and make them evident to the reader. Gardner’s intention in doing this is to make Grendel’s feelings seem more realistic. Everyone in one part of their life has felt the emptiness, frustration, and disbelief that Grendel is dealing with in the novel.

Gardner’s work is without question an inspiration to many. The way he relates himself into his texts is a refreshing edge he adds to his novels. Grendel, in particular is a magnificent accomplishment for John Gardner. It is clear and amazing, how he put his own creative and interesting logic is put into Grendel, attempting to relive the story. Gardner did not only make a phenomenal award winning novel, he also created a piece of art with the way he translated himself and his own life experiences into the text as a modern artist would put into their canvas.

Works Cited
Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Henningfeld, Diane Andrews. “Overview of Grendel.” Novels for Students. Diane Telgen and Kevin Hile. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. Student Resource Center – Gold. Wheeler High School. 22 Feb. 2010. Pilditch, Jan. “John Gardner: Overview.” Reference Guide to American Literature. Ed. Jim Kamp. 3rd ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Literature Resource Center. 22 Feb 2010.

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