This smallish book, published in 1972, is an interesting exercise in examining a well-known story from an unexpected viewpoint – in this case it's Beowulf
retold by the monster Grendel. It could have been a bit naff, like one of those awful ‘reinventions’ that certain novelists seem to knock off every couple of months, like Hamlet
narrated by Ophelia. And actually I didn't really like it at first, for exactly the reason that it seemed a bit gimmicky. But by the end (and it's not a long book), it becomes clear that this has more substance than that, and the book's stayed on my mind since I finished it a couple of days ago.
It's not a total success by any means. Gardner clearly knows the original poem well, and expects his readers to, but his attempts to adopt an Old-English alliterative stylee are not very convincing. His sense that he is working from an epic poem also tempts him to get a bit overblown at times:Space hurls outward, falconswift, mounting like an irreversible injustice, a final disease.
Blimey – it's just the sky. But if the language isn't quite there, it does at least have its own sort of momentum, so that by the end it's started to sound more reasonable, and build up some force. More to the point, Gardner's grasp of what Grendel means in the world of Beowulf is excellent. One by one, we see a series of descriptions or explanations of what it means to be a human being, with Grendel always used to provide a logical opposition to every aspect of ‘humanity’. Men seek companionship and sexual partners; Grendel's all alone. Men worship gods and invent abstract moral codes; Grendel, a born nihilist, sees that the world is meaningless.
If that sounds a bit cerebral, it's really not. It's actually quite tragic – Grendel can't help being the way he is. He hates humans primarily because they have hope for the future, whereas he does not. The more he kills them to try and break down their naïveté, the more they continue to put their faith in things like heroic ideals and the power of love – things which, to Grendel, are patently absurd. The fight with Beowulf himself – who is never named in the novel – is a clash of ideas for Grendel. He doesn't want to die exactly; but if a hero defeats him, then maybe it would mean humans have a point, after all, with their talk of heroism and justice? And secretly, wouldn't he love for them to be right and him to be wrong…?
The end, which we all know is coming, proves to be unexpectedly moving, and the last lines of the book linger. I would definitely recommend this one if you can find a copy of it.