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Grendel Essay, Research Paper

“Nihil ex nihilo, I always say”(Gardner 150). These are the words of the infamous Grendel from the novel, titled that same character, by John Gardner. They represent the phrase “life itself is meaningless” which is taught to Grendel by a few different people throughout this novel. In the following essay, the explanation of this phrase, the way Grendel learns about nihilism, and how Grendel develops the concept of nihilism, as it is known, will be discussed.

First, we attack the nihilism itself. What is Nihilism? Well, this is one of the main components of the book. It means life itself is meaningless. What is meant by that phrase is that anything you do or decide to do, means nothing. For example, if you make a huge decision that you think will affect you for the rest of your life, according to a nihilist it means nothing. To them, it will all turn out how it is supposed to turn out and that is that. Nihilism also refers to people who do not believe they should be told how to live their life by the government. One major example of a nihilism uprise was in Russia during the 1860’s. During this decade, nihilism was primarily a rejection of tradition and authoritarianism in favor of rationalism and individualism. In Lament’s terms, live your lives how you want to live it and do not let anyone tell you how.

In the novel, Grendel first learns this theory indirectly from the hypocrisy of man. This starts in chapter three where Grendel is observing man for the very first time. He watches in horror as they fight and scream over land and treasure. After all of this nonsense and chaos, they still have the nerve to make speeches about how honorable or great they or their king is, even though they still kill one another. This is an early sign in the book of the hypocrisy of man. From chapter three: “Terrible threats, from the few words I could catch. Things about their fathers, and their fathers’ fathers, things about justice and honor and lawful revenge, their throats swollen, their eyes rolling like a newborn colts, sweat running down their shoulders.”(Gardner 35). This quote is Grendel talking about what he sees and only what he sees. This is where he is wrongly taught about how the humans live out their hypocrisy. You could compare this situation to a toddler watching an adult and learning by repeating and mimicking everything done by the older one. This is exactly how Grendel is learning.

In Chapter four, Grendel’s learning is furthered even more when he comes in contact with the people of Herot. At first, he comes to the hall and offers peace and mercy. Immediately the humans hack away at him with their swords. This really gets Grendel angry since he just offered his peace. He then becomes part of this hypocrisy by fighting man himself. From chapter four: “I staggered out into the open and up toward the hall with my burden, groaning out, ‘Mercy! Peace!’ The Harper broke off, the people screamed. (They all have their own versions, but this is the truth.) Drunken men rushed over with battle-axes. I sank to my knees crying, ‘Friend! Friend!’ They hacked at me yipping like dogs?.”, “?. I crushed the body in my hug, then hurled it in their faces, turned, and fled.”(Gardner 52) This was the event that really made Grendel into a nihilist. The only thing left was to develop this daring new concept. Enter stage left, the Dragon.

The Dragon, the mentor, the teacher to Grendel of nihilism. Grendel is awakened by the dragon and is brought to his lair. The Dragon, not caring at all about Grendel as a person, helps Grendel develop his nihilist ideas. To do this, he explains to him that repetition is the key to nihilism. No matter how hard the universe try’s to stop repetition, it always goes on. For example, if Grendel were not there, some other evil would be tormenting the humans. From chapter five: “The essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order. The universe refuses the deading influence of complete conformity.”(Gardner 67) The Dragon’s teachings do not get through to Grendel very well and finally the Dragon just lets it all out. “You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.” (Gardner 73) After that comment, Grendel stubbornly blurts out that he does not want to be the brute. The dragon sarcastically replies by telling him to feed the hungry and help the poor. The dragon knows that it is inevitable for Grendel to be the brute but Grendel does not yet understand this.

By chapters seven and eight, Grendel realizes his role in the hypocrisy. He realizes that when the queen is brought to Hrothgar that letting her live is the best thing to do after she loses her trust in the king. In chapter eight Hrothulf is the student of nihilism as Grendel observes. Grendel learns by listening to Red Horse about the corruption of the government. This is all in contribution to Grendel’s developing of his idea of nihilism. By chapter ten, Grendel says to the reader, “Nihil ex nihilo, I always say.” (Gardner 150) He now knows his role.

In conclusion, this essay has gone through the development of the idea of nihilism throughout the book. From its early stages in chapters three and four, to its development in chapter five, to its full blown out ideas in chapters seven and eight. Grendel at the end of chapter ten sums up the whole hypocrisy in a simple phrase. “A stupid business.” (Gardner 150)

Difference of Character Development in

Beowulf and Grendel

The main difference between the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, and John Gardner’s modern retelling, Grendel, lies in the development of the characters. In the epic poem, the characters are basically static, and their actions are predictable. In Grendel, Gardner calls this stereotypical thinking about heroes and monsters into question. In particular, the monster in this modern work is dynamic, and his awareness grows as the action unfolds. Gardner remakes Grendel from the Anglo-Saxon incarnation of blind evil, unthinking and senseless, to a conscious, rational force, and Beowulf from a honorable, courageous, and epitome of goodness, to a irrational, psychotic, cold blooded killer.

The epic poem Beowulf describes the most heroic man of the Anglo-Saxon times. The hero, Beowulf, is a seemingly invincible person with all the extraordinary traits required of a hero. He is able to use his super-human physical strength and courage to put his people before himself. He encounters hideous monsters and the most ferocious of beasts but he never fears the threat of death. His leadership skills are superb and he is even able to boast about all his achievements. Beowulf is the ultimate epic hero who risks his life countless times for immortal glory and for the good of others. Beowulf is the prime example of an epic hero. His bravery and strength surpass all mortal men; loyalty and the ability to think of himself last makes him revered by all. Beowulf came openly and wholeheartedly to help the Danes which was an unusual occurrence in a time of war and widespread fear. He set a noble example for all human beings relaying the necessity of brotherhood and friendship. Beowulf is most definitely an epic hero of epic proportions.

A heroic trait of Beowulf is his ability to put his people’s welfare before his own as well as his inhuman strength. Beowulf’s uncle is king of the Geats so he is sent as an emissary to help rid the Danes of the evil Grendel. Beowulf risks his own life for the Danes, asking help from no one. He realizes the dangers but fears nothing for his own life. After Beowulf had served his people as King of the Geats for fifty years, he goes to battle one last time to fight a horrible dragon that is frightening all of his people. Beowulf is old and tired but he defeats the dragon in order to protect his people. Even in death he wished so secure safety for the Geats so a tall lighthouse is built in order to help the people find there way back from sea.

The most heroic of traits within Beowulf is that he is not afraid to die. He always explains his death wishes before going into battle and requests to have any assets delivered to his people. “And if death does take me, send the hammered mail of my armor to Higlac, return the inheritance I had from Hrehtel, and from Wayland. Fate will unwind as it must!” He is aware of the heroic paradox; he will be glorified in life or death for his actions. He knows that when he fights an enemy like Grendel or Grendel’s mother he will achieve immortality as the victor or the loser. “When we crossed the sea, my comrades and I, I already knew that all my purpose was this: to win the good will of your people or die in battle, pressed in Grendel’s fierce grip. Let me live in greatness and courage, or here in this hall welcome my death!” Even with the enormous amount of confidence Beowulf possesses, he understands that Fate or Wyrd will work its magic no matter what and he could be killed at any point in his life. He faces that reality by showing no fear and preparing for a positive or a fatal outcome.

Grendel is an unhappy soul in John Gardner’s book “Grendel”, because he feels useless in society and doesn’t want to accept his given role. Throughout this whole book Grendel feels he has no friend in the outside word and no one to except him besides his own mother. He doesn’t want to except his role in society which is to be the Great Destroyer. Man creates a huge problem in Grendel’s life and has had a major effect on the way he lives with man. Grendel is unhappy in many ways. He wants to be accepted by man but never knew why he was always shunned out of there society. Grendel in the beginning never set out to hurt man just understand him. When Grendel shows up the first time in the mead hall he yells “Mercy! Peace!” But no one even gives him a chance when he walks in holding a dead body and using it for protection against the drunken men swinging axes and swords at him. Grendel dose not understand this as he says “they were doomed, I knew, and I was glad.” showing the hope for destruction of the human race. In Grendel’s eyes humans are going to destroy themselves and he will be glad when it happens. Grendel is very lonely in the world of man. He has only one person close to him and that is his mother. She cares for Grendel but just with the natural motherly instincts which Grendel sees as mechanical. Grendel doesn’t understand, “Why can’t I have someone to talk to?” as the world starts to look darker in his eyes. Animals of all sorts are enemies of his because they don’t understand him. Grendel is more superior Grendel’s role in society is to be the great destroyer. The Dragon tells Grendel this ” You improve them, my boy! ? You stimulate them!” but Grendel dose not want to except it. HE want to be part of the humanistic world. He want a different role in society. This makes Grendel very unhappy that he cannot be accepted. The Dragon puts a spell on Grendel that lets weapons not harm him. At first he dose not like this because he thinks that the fun of destroying men would be to easy at this point. He starts to grow into this though and plays his role as the great destroyer. This book shows how Grendel put up with man and learned to adapt to the humanistic ways of life. It took him a while to adapt but he did find it fun to reck the humans world. Since he was not excepted he would have to take the role of the great destroyer at the end of the story.





the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

Who, squatting upon the ground,

Held his heart in his hands,

And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good friend?”

“It is bitter-bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it

Because it is bitter

And because it is my heart.”

-Stephen Crane

This reflects how both Grendel and Frankenstein must have felt during

their lonely lives. “Seeking friends, the fiends found enemies; seeking

hope, they found hate”(Neilson back page). The monsters simply want to

live as the rest of us live. But, in our prejudice of their kind, we

banish them from our elite society. Who gave society the right to judge

who is acceptable and who is not? A better question might be, who is

going to stop them? The answer, no one. Therefore, society continues to

alienate the undesirables of our community. Some of the greatest minds

of all time have been socially unacceptable. Albert Einstein lived alone

and rarely wore the same color socks. Van Gogh found comfort only in

his art, and the woman who consistently denied his passion. Edgar Allen

Poe was “different” to say the least. Just like these great men,

Grendel and Frankenstein do not conform to the societal model. Also

like these men, Grendel and Frankenstein are uniquely superior to the

rest of

mankind. Their superiority is seen through their guile to live in a

society that ostracizes their kind, their true heroism in place of

society’s romantic view, and the ignorance on which society’s opinion of

them is formed.

Grendel, though he needs to kill to do so, functions very well in his

own sphere. Grendel survives in a hostile climate where he is hated and

feared by all. He lives in a cave protected by firesnakes so as to

physically, as well as spiritually, separate himself from the society

that detests, yet admires, him. Grendel is “the brute existent by which

[humankind] learns to define itself”(Gardner 73). Hrothgar’s thanes

continually try to extinguish Grendel’s infernal rage, while he simply

wishes to live in harmony with them.

Like Grendel, Frankenstein also learns to live in a society that

despises his kind. Frankenstein also must kill, but this is only in

response to the people’s abhorrence of him. Ironically, the very doctor

who bore him now searches the globe seeking Frankenstein’s destruction.

Even the ever-loving paternal figure now turns away from this outcast

from society. Frankenstein journeys to the far reaches of the world to

escape from the societal ills that cause society to hate him. He

ventures to the harshest, most desolate, most uninhabitable place known

to man, the north pole. He lives in isolation, in the cold acceptance

of the icy glaciers. Still, Dr. Frankenstein follows, pushing his

creation to the edge of the world, hoping he would fall off, never to be

seen or heard from again. Frankenstein flees from his father until the

Doctor’s death, where

Frankenstein joins his father in the perpetual, silent acceptance of


Frankenstein never makes an attempt to become one with society, yet he

is finally accepted by the captain to whom he justifies his existence.

Frankenstein tracks Dr. Frankenstein as to better explain to himself the

nature of own being by understanding the life of his creator.

“Unstoppable, [Frankenstein] travels to the ends of the earth to destroy

[his] creator, by destroying everyone [Dr.] Frankenstein loved” (Shelley

afterword). As the captain listens to Frankenstein’s story, he begins

to understand his plight. He accepts Frankenstein as a reluctant, yet

devoted, servant to his master. Granted that Frankenstein does not

“belong,” he is accepted with admiration by the captain. The respect

that Frankenstein has longed for is finally given to him as he announces

his suicide in the name of his father, the late Dr. Frankenstein.

On the other hand, Grendel makes numerous attempts to assimilate into

society, but he is repeatedly turned back. Early in his life, Grendel

dreams of associating with Hrothgar’s great warriors. Nightly, Grendel

goes down to the meadhall to listen to Hrothgar’s stories and the

thanes’ heroism, but most of all, he comes to hear the Shaper. The

Shaper’s stories are Grendel’s only education as they enlighten him to

the history of the society that he yearns to join. “[The Shaper]

changed the world, had torn up its past by its thick gnarled roots and

had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way-

and so did [Grendel]“(Gardner 43). Upon

Grendel’s first meeting with Hrothgar, the great hero tries to kill him

by chopping him out of a tree. “The king (Hrothgar) snatches an ax from

the man beside him and, without any warning, he hurls it at

[Grendel]“(Gardner 27). After being attacked by those he so admires, he

turns against them to wreak havoc on their civilization.

The more that society alienates Grendel and Frankenstein, the more they

come to realize the invalidity of “social heroism.” As Grendel’s

oppressors see it, heroism consists of the protection of one’s name, the

greater glory of their line, and most of all, their armor collection.

“Beowulf, so movingly compounded with self-vindication, looks to care

for his own name and honour”(Morgan xxxi-xxxii). According to

Frankenstein’s time, a hero is someone who protects their lady’s name,

earns greater glory for themselves and their country, and has a large

collection of prestigious degrees to hang on their walls. Social

heroism is not a single event, it is properly defined as a

“revolution.” It is an on-going, ever-changing series of “heroic”

events. This “revolution is not the substitution of immoral for moral,

or of illegitimate violence for legitimate violence; it is simply the

pitting of power against power, [hero against hero,] where the issue is

freedom for the winners and enslavement of the rest”(Gardner 119). This

revolution is built on intimidation by the powerful of society to

oppress the undesirables. “Murder and mayhem are the life and soul of

[the] revolution”(Gardner 118).

This revolution is most evident in John Gardner’s Grendel. In

Hrothgar’s meadhall, his thanes are discussing the heroic revolution

with the Shaper. According to the Shaper, the kingdom, those in power,

pretends to be protecting the values of all people. Supposedly, the

revolution causes the kingdom to

save the values of the community-regulate compromise- improve the

quality of the commonwealth. In other words, protect the power of the

people in power and repress the rest? [It] rewards people who fit the

System best. The King’s immediate thanes, the thanes’ top servants, and

so on till you come to the people that don’t fit in at all. No

problem. Drive them to the darkest corners of the kingdom, starve

them, arrest and execute a few, or put them out to war. That’s how it

works. (Gardner 118)

In Grendel’s time, violence is the common denominator in all

righteousness. “The incitement to violence depends upon total

transvaluation of the ordinary values. By a single stroke, the most

criminal acts may be converted to heroic and meritorious deeds”(Gardner

117). Certainly the only difference between appalling acts of violence

and heroic deeds is the matter of who commits them. What might be

appropriate for a king would be unheard of by a peasant. This is

obviously a social commentary that fits today as well, if not better,

than it did then. The rich and powerful still succeed in oppressing the

poor and helpless in every culture around the world. “If the Revolution

[ever] comes to grief, it will be because [the powerful] have become

alarmed at [their] own brutality”(Gardner 117). Then, as the rich

descend, the poor will rise

to power in order to complete the revolution. “The total ruin of

institutions and [heroism] is [in itself] an act of creation”(Gardner

118). To break the circle would cause “evolution,” forward progress,

that would enhance the natural progress of mankind. But, according to

Gardner, this will never happen because the powerful enjoy their present

state of grace; and when they helpless rise up, they are immediately

repressed in a “cry [of] common good”(Gardner 119).

Though not as overt as Grendel, the concept of “revolution” is also

displayed in Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s society ostracizes its

undesirables by chasing them to the darkest corners of the world in much

the same way that Grendel’s society does. Frankenstein is driven from

his birthplace by his creator only to find that he must hide in shadowed

allies to avoid social persecution. In the theme of revolution, the

rich control what is acceptable, and to them, Frankenstein definitely

does not fit the mold. Next, Frankenstein seeks asylum in the barn of a

small farmer. The place where he finds refuge is a cold, dark corner

symbolic of how society forces the non-elite from their spheres to

places where they cannot be seen, nor heard, and therefore do not

exist. After Frankenstein saves the starving family by harvesting their

crops, they repay him by running him off their land. This incident

repeats itself throughout Frankenstein’s journeys. Finally,

Frankenstein is forced into the cold wasteland of the Arctic circle. In

this uninhabitable place there is no one to persecute him. Yet the

doctor maliciously continues to follow Frankenstein, hoping to

completely destroy his creation. When Dr.

Frankenstein dies, his monster is the first to come to lay his body to

rest and follow him into the afterlife.

Frankenstein fits the idea of a true hero, rather than the romantic

view of heroism shared by society. He is chivalrous, loyal, and true to

himself. Frankenstein shows his chivalry by helping a family in need

and still accepting their hatred of him. He acts to help others

although he receives nothing in return. Frankenstein holds absolute

loyalty to his creator. Dr. Frankenstein shuns his creation,

Frankenstein, and devotes his life to killing the monster, yet

Frankenstein is the first to show respect to his fallen master after his

death. Frankenstein builds a funeral pyre to honor his master and

creator who despised him during his life. Frankenstein’s loyalty

extends as far as the ritual suicide he commits while cremating the body

of his creator. Most importantly, Frankenstein is true to himself.

Society wishes that he would cease to exist, so their opinion is

irrelevant to him. His creator shuns him, but Frankenstein learns to

cope with his own emotions in order to support himself. Frankenstein

relies solely on what he believes in, not in what society believes to be

important. His actions are based upon his own assessment of situations,

rather than what is socially acceptable.

Grendel is also isolated from society, and his actions also classify

him as a true hero. Like Frankenstein, Grendel has little outside

influence and has to rely on his own emotions to make decisions.

Grendel possesses bravery, yet he does not have the foolish pride of

Beowulf. “The first virtue [of heroism] is bravery,

but even more, it is blind courage”(Nicholson 47). Grendel is the

epitome of “blind courage.” For example, when the bull attacks Grendel,

he simply calculates the bull’s movements and fearlessly moves out of

the way. Even when the bull rips through his leg, Grendel is not

afraid. Grendel repeatedly charges into the meadhall and destroys its

best warriors without a second thought. Grendel even has the courage to

taunt Hrothgar’s bravest thanes by throwing apples at them. Grendel

“breaks up their wooden gods like kindling and topples their gods of

stone”(Gardner 128). It is this type of “blind courage” that Grendel

believes saves his life in battle. “Fate will often spare a man if his

courage holds”(Gardner 162). Beowulf, on the other hand, is foolish in

his approach to battle. He goes to fight an immortal opponent, the

dragon, and is killed because of his pride. “His very valor, wisdom, and

magnanimity, expended unstindtly, lead only to a hero’s grave in a land

soon to be conquered”(Brodeur 105). Grendel’s “blind courage” is far

superior to the “blind stupidity” of Beowulf.

Just as society’s heroes fight foolishly, their opinions are made by

prejudice and reflect the ignorance of humankind. Both monsters are

seen as the minions of evil, and even of Satan himself. “Grendel is

placed in a Biblical lineage of evil reaching back to the first

murder”(Hamilton 105). Even the author of the poem alludes to “the

descent of the race of Grendel from Cain”(Donaldson 1688). Frankenstein

is proposed to be of “accursed origin”(Milton 130). However, neither of

the two can be properly defined as Satanic,

especially on the information known to the rest of society. Continuing,

this belief causes extended prejudice of the monsters even in our

society today.

Through the predetermined opinions of society, Grendel is seen as an

evil come to destroy all of mankind. Grendel is a victim of society,

he was not born inherently evil. “Woe to him who is compelled, through

cruel persecution, to thrust his soul into the embrace of fire, to hope

for no solace”(Kennedy 9). Society unduly restrains Grendel to heinous

stereotypes that he does not fit. For example, another character more

closely fits the description of Cain than Grendel. “The only one of the

personages of the poem who is clearly said to be destined to suffer in

hell is Unferth, who, in his responsibility for the death of his

brothers, has committed the sin of Cain”(Brodeur 218). Clearly, it is

not Grendel that should be condemned. He only tries to assimilate into

society, but after being continually rejected he turns to violence in

response to society’s hatred of him.

Similar to Grendel, Frankenstein is also pictured as satanic. Brooks

concurs in saying that society “views [Frankenstein] to be a unique

creation, like Adam ‘united by no link to any other being in

existence’(Milton 129), yet by his condition more resembling

Satan”(210). “There are times when he scarcely seems to be of this

earth”(Venables 59). Also like Grendel, Frankenstein was not born evil,

he was forced into his way of life by the society that rejected him.

After this rejection, Frankenstein “like the arch-fiend, bore a

hell within him”(Shelley 136). To each man his own god, and to each man

his own devil as well. Frankenstein, “like Coleridge’s wedding guest,

leaves ‘a sadder and wiser man’”(Scott 201). He now better understands

his existence and how society wrongfully rejects it. Frankenstein

simply wants society to have the “knowledge that might enable [him] to

make them overlook the deformity of [his] figure”(Shelley 114). “Man?

how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!”(Shelley 201).

Grendel’s and Frankenstein’s superiority to humankind is made obvious

by their ability to live in a society that has ostracized them, the

monsters’ true heroism in place of humankind’s romantic view, and the

ignorance on which society’s opinion of the monsters is based. “The

monsters not only embody our fears of the way certain entities can

artificially pervert nature in ourselves and our society, they also

speak to us knowledgeably of nature and in a human voice, to tell us we

need not be afraid [of them]“(Scott


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