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John Gardner's Grendel: a story retold and transformed in the process.

JEROME KLINKOWITZ, IN AN ESSAY TITLED "JOHN GARDNER'S GRENDEL," describes the academic environment of the sixties as a time of new and expanding universities, a boom time for fledgling writers, and a time when the young John Gardner enjoyed a remarkable freedom to find his own way as a student, writer, and teacher of medieval literature and writing. Some understanding of ancient myths would still seem to have been required then, and Gardner took on a personal responsibility to retell the old stories since they could be forgotten, "unless," Klinkowitz adds, "they're memorized for doctoral comps" (63). But in at least some of the American graduate schools of the sixties and seventies students were required to read the stories of earlier times and to learn to read Old English.

That second requirement was a cause for protest. One of my University of Florida colleagues told me that he once found himself wishing the Beowulf manuscript had gone up in flames along with the other manuscripts that were destroyed in the 1731 Cotton Library fire. Another colleague, a highly respected scholar, said the only thing that saved him was a carefully hand-written translation of Beowulfthat he found far back in the drawer of a desk in his graduate student office. And one day--I remember this well, even though it was back in the days of blackboards--I came to my own Old English class and found this gentle protest written on the board: "We fall upon the b b b b b b b b b b b b [thorns] of life, we bleed!" (1)

John Gardner was not one of those protesters. He may have been the "literary outlaw" the title of Barry Silesky's biography identifies him as, but he chose to study Old English. As Silesky tells this part of Gardner's life story in John Gardner: The Life and Death of a Literary Outlaw, (2) Gardner, who had been awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study creative writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, immediately enrolled in the University of Iowa graduate program to study medieval literature instead. He signed up for John McGalliard's Old English course his first semester and then took his Beowulf-course the following semester (57-58).

And Jay Ruud, if the close attention he gives to the language of Beowulf in "Gardner's Grendel and Beowulf" (3) can be taken as evidence, could hardly have been one of those protesters either. In his presentation of Gardner's Grendel as a "three-sided figure: part monster, part devil, and part human" (7), Ruud provides quotations of Beowulf lines 112a-114a, 86a-90a, 850b-852b, 154b-158b, and 168a-169b, along with translations and explication with reference to the scholarship available at the time of his study.

Having begun my own studies as an English major at a time when the "intentional fallacy" prohibition was still in effect, (4) I think Ruud may overstep when, continuing, he writes that the Beowulfpoet's "main purpose in his characterization of Grendel was the depiction of horror--the horror of the outside, the 'other,' the infinite circle of darkness enclosing the briefly lit beer-hall" (7-8), and I could more easily agree with his claim that "When John Gardner adapts Grendel to the environment of the modern novel, he is primarily interested in the creature's human side" if Ruud had provided a direct quotation of a statement of purpose in support (8). But, be that as it may, I can readily acknowledge that Grendel's life story, as Gardner enables him to tell it, embodies varied aspects of human experience. Gardner's Grendel does, like the central figures of Old English elegiac poetry (Ruud cites lines from "The Wanderer," "The Wife's Lament," and Beowulfin illustration here), endure the suffering of an outcast from society. And, while his attacks on Hrothgar's hall dramatically reveal his monstrous origins, the fact that in Gardner's version of his story Grendel cannot resist the attraction of the songs of the Shaper he is permitted to hear only from outside the mead hall represents an important aspect of the human experience of alienation that Ruud singles out for attention.

Joseph Milosh, in "John Gardner's Grendel: Sources and Analogues," also draws attention to the monstrous and human qualities of the central figure of Gardner's novel. Milosh sees the actions of the BeowulfGrendel as predictable and static. When he first approaches Hrothgar's hall, this monster has a well defined purpose: he will enter, he will kill, and he will feast on the body of the warrior he kills--and "he will return regularly to find his human dinner" (49). But, like Ruud, he sees Gardner's Grendel's human capabilities and devotes the greater part of his essay to Gardner's step by step development of these capabilities. Then, approaching his conclusion and citing lines from the 1971 edition of Grendel, Milosh briefly considers what he refers to as "Gardner's self-conscious parody of rhetoric" with reference to "alliterative phrases like 'fireforged' (167) and 'squeal and screech' (12); etymological reconstructions like 'bone-fire' instead of 'bonfire' (14), and litotes like 'I am no stranger here'" (56), an ironic understatement Grendel makes upon entering the hall of Hrothgar after years of earlier attacks.

This essay will focus on Gardner's use of "tricks" (his word for the impressive skills he learned by translating and re-creating the works of earlier writers) to re-tell Grendel's story, but I should note that Gardner was hardly the first twentieth-century writer of fantasy to draw upon the distinctive features of language and style of Beowulf and other Old English poems. J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son," a sequel to the poem to which editors have given the title "The Battle of Maldon," for example, is written entirely in what Tolkien, in his brief introduction to the poem or "recitation," called "a free form of the alliterative line," and a speech Tolkien assigned to Treebeard in The Two Towers provides an excellent example of Tolkien's alliterative style.

Here Pippin, speaking for the group of hobbits who have entered Treebeard's realm, asks Treebeard to identify himself. Then Merry, who is not satisfied with Treebeard's response that he is an "Ent" and that his name is "Fangorn" or "Treebeard," demands to be told what an Ent is. Treebeard responds--this is after all his country--by saying that he is the one who has the right to ask questions and demanding to know who and what the intruders are. But he continues with a list of living creatures--delivered with an occasionally interrupting "hm hm," since this is after all the speech of a tree empowered to speak an understandable language--that he remembers having learned in his childhood.

First come two lines of learn-this-lesson instruction that provide more alliteration than the rules for Old English poetry required. The primary obligation of the composer of alliterative poetry was simply to make the first stressed syllable of each b-verse alliterate with the first stressed syllable of the preceding a-verse. But, since any vowel could alliterate with any other vowel, we can readily see that the phrases with which Treebeard identifies the living creatures of his world do follow (or almost follow, since they violate another rule that prohibited the use of the same alliterator in two successive lines) the rules. But, in any case, this is Treebeard's speech:
 Learn now the lore of Living Creatures!
 First name the four, the free peoples:
 Eldest of all, the elf-children;
 Dwarf the delver, dark are his houses;
 Ent the earthborn, old as mountains;
 Man the mortal, master of horses:
 Hm, hm, hm.
 Beaver the builder, buck the leaper,
 Bear bee-hunter, boar the fighter;
 Hound is hungry, hare is fearful...
 Hm, hm.
 Eagle in eyrie, ox in pasture,
 Hart horn-crowned; hawk is swiftest,
 Swan the whitest, serpent coldest ... (Two Towers 84-85)

And then Treebeard adds the half-grown hobbits, the hole-dwellers, to his list, identifying them, as he has identified the dwarf, beaver, bear, and boar, by adding an "-er" suffix to a verb to create an agent noun.

Tolkien's use of "-er" here, like the word-forming process that produces the compounds "earthborn" and "horn-crowned," carries no burden of negative judgment. Beavers do build, bucks leap, bears seek out honey, boars fight, and hobbits dwell in holes in the ground. The hobbits may have entered a world of fantasy (or "Faerie," to use the word Tolkien uses in "On Fairy-stories," the essay in which he defined the genre for twentieth-century readers), but each of the creatures Treebeard names would seem to be as simply an inhabitant of his natural world as, say, the fish that engender offspring in the water and the birds that fly high in the air in lines 27-28 and 38-39 of "Maxims II," a poem Tolkien scholar and medievalist T. A. Shippey includes in Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English.

When Gardner's Grendel emerges from the "underground world" in which he lives with his mother to enter the "above ground world," his entry, since the world he enters is strange to him, may be seen to satisfy one of the criteria for fantasy creation that Tolkien established in his Andrew Lang lecture "On Fairy-stories," published in essay form in 1947. As we shall see, when Grendel refers to creatures he encounters in this world he uses the same basic wordforming processes Treebeard used to refer to the inhabitants of his world. But there is an immediately perceivable difference. Grendel's agent nouns and compounds are loaded with negative connotations. He, in fact, calls upon the compounding process to produce two hyphenated adjectives and call his own mother a "life-bloated, baffled, long-suffering hag" (Grendel 11), thus making a particularly distinctive use of the element of Language that Tolkien found to have enabled Man to give new form to thought. It was the adjective, Tolkien wrote in "On Fairy-stories," that enabled Man to create fantasy (48-49). But this is getting ahead of a story I intended to start not just at the beginning, but back before the beginning.

Before proceeding further, I will give brief attention to an approach to writing Gardner presents in The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, a product of his own extensive writing and teaching experience. Here Gardner considers the question of how a writer goes about telling a story in ways that relate directly to Grendel, the book Gregory L. Morris identifies in A World of Order and Light as "Gardner's first novel to attract genuine and lasting critical acclaim" (51). "The writer works out plot," Gardner writes, "in one of three ways: by borrowing some traditional plot or an action from real life...; by working his way back from his story's climax; or by groping his way forward from an initial situation" (Art 56-57).

Gardner chose the first option when he decided to rewrite the story of Grendel. The basic plot he borrowed for development was, as Tolkien, who had grown thoroughly impatient with critics who read Beowulf primarily as a source to be mined for data related to their own research interests, defined it in "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," a story of monster fights in which Beowulf first fatally injures Grendel in Hrothgar's hall; then descends to Grendel's mere to avenge Grendel's Mother's killing of Hrothgar's most trusted friend and confidant; and finally, though he himself is fatally injured, with the help of young Wiglaf kills the dragon who threatens his own people.

By choosing to re-tell this story from the past, and then deciding to tell it from the point of view of the first monster killed in the story, Gardner created a difficult task for himself. This was the question he was now required to answer: How could he re-tell the whole Beowulf story from the point of view of the first monster killed? This was not an easy task. John M. Howell writes that "Gardner suggested in interviews that his major problem with the novel was keeping Grendel alive once Beowulf had arrived at Hrothgar's court" (80). But Gardner expresses a broader concern in On Writers and Writing. Here, looking back to the late 50s and early 60s, a time when "people were still arguing about whether or not Beowulfis a Christian poem," he says that he wanted to understand the structures of the works of the Gawain poet and Chaucer and Beowulf. (5) He decided that he would learn how to "[unearth] tricks of the craft that nobody'd known or used for a long, long time--tricks one could turn on one's own work, making it different from anyone else's and yet not crazy, not merely novel" (233).

We can see from the opening words of Grendel's first chapter--they reflect not just the alliteration to which Milosh refers but accepted patterns of rhythm as well--that Gardner intends to recapture not just the basic plot, but a sense of the language of the poem that served as his source. Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, basing their description on the late nineteenth-century work of Eduard Sievers, provide this succinct statement of the rules that governed the rhythms of Beowulf: "Sievers observed that all the intact verses of Beowulfand of other Old English poetry fall into some variation of five basic patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and that the verses are bound into pairs by alliteration, the first (and only the first) accented syllable of the second verse in the pair alliterating with one or both of the accented syllables in the first verse of the pair" (Beowulf: An Edition 30). John Gardner of course was not bound by these rules. He was, after all, for the most part writing Modern English prose in Grendel. But Gardner's prose often echoes the sound patterns and rhythms of Old English poetry.

This is the case when Grendel exclaims, "The pain of it! The stupidity!" at the bottom of the first page of Grendel chapter 1. Here Grendel is given words to speak in which the first stressed syllable of what we would call the a-verse if we were describing Old English poetry alliterates with the first stressed syllable of the following b-verse, and there is more to his use of repeated sounds than this, as we can also hear if we read his words aloud with forceful aspiration. The stressed "p" consonants can take on an annoyance-enhancing value of their own. Grendel also calls upon a repetition of "b," the voiced counterpart of "p" when he first emerges from the underground world in which he lives with his mother--or the consonant cluster "br" to be more precise, to express his distaste for different features of the above ground world. His response to the trees and birds that surround him is "I hate these brainless budding trees, these brattling birds" (6), and the familiar adjective "brainless" has an automatic negative association, while "brattling," even if we do not turn to the Oxford English Dictionary to find that it has onomatopoeic associations with hoarseness and roughness, (6) can almost be heard to pick up a degree of animosity by association.

Did Gardner intend to use the consonants he chose for this purpose? To claim that he did would invoke the intentional fallacy. But it is nevertheless clear that from the moment he begins to tell his story Gardner enables his narrator Grendel to skillfully use the sounds of language to present himself as an outsider who looks upon the world of men from the position of an antagonist.

Grendel, having received the gift of language, which can perhaps in itself be considered evidence of Gardner's "humanizing" intention, uses his gift in ways that reflect not just the alliteration of Beowulf, but Gardner's concern with the effective use of rhythmic patterns as well. In The Art of Fiction Gardner advises students that "By keeping out a careful ear for rhythm, the writer can control the emotion of his sentences with considerable subtlety" (152), then cites the opening sentence of Grendel, providing notation of stressed and unstressed syllables to show how he used rhythm to establish the character of his narrator:


The old ram stands looking down over rockslides, stupidly triumphant (153).

The three stressed syllables of "the old ram stands," Gardner explains, are intended to communicate a sense of harshness (153), while the "tumble into difficult-to-manage supernumerary unstressed syllables" of "stupidly triumphant" suggests a certain clumsiness on the part of the monster-narrator (153).

And thus the stage is set for Grendel, who represents himself as a creature "Talking, talking, spinning a spell, pale skin of words that closes me in like a coffin" (Grendel 15), to tell his story. The rhythm of this sentence can, I think, be represented in this way:


Talking, talking, spinning a spell, pale skin of words that closes me in like a



and, read aloud, its repeated pattern of stressed followed by unstressed syllables can be heard as Grendel's response to the tedium of his existence.

By the time Grendel meets the dragon--Gardner manipulates the Beowulf time sequence skillfully enough to make it possible for the first monster to be killed in his source to meet Beowulf's third adversary--he has begun to feel a degree of remorse for his persecution of human beings. The dragon, we learn, has also been given the power of language, and thus the monster/human Grendel is enabled--if not to communicate with a living being of another species by the "magic" Tolkien sees as an important component in works of fantasy ("On Fairy-stories" 41)--at least to make an attempt to understand what the dragon is saying. Grendel gives expression to an emotion that approaches sympathy for his victims, and the dragon responds with a "fiddlesticks" epithet followed by "I know you're sorry. For right now, that is" and this "f" loaded sequence: "For this one frail, foolish, flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity. I'm unimpressed" (61).

The dragon does not hesitate to use "f" alliteration to express his contempt for Grendel, and as we later hear, Gardner's Hrothulf uses the same consonant to accomplish a comparable purpose. Hrothulf, the son of Hrothgar's younger brother, has only a minor role in Beowulf, but here Gardner gives him a speaking role and the ability spontaneously to compose a poem that, breaking a rule of course, uses the same alliterator in successive lines to communicate his contempt for human beings of a lower status:
 In ratty furs the peasants hoe their fields,
 fat with stupidity, if not with flesh. Their foodsmells
 foul the doorways, dungeons dark.... (113)

But enough of these "f" words. I will move on now to a subject Milosh, who included "etymological reconstruction" as the second item in his list of rhetorical devices, might refer to as "etymological construction," a topic generally given attention in courses like Introduction to Linguistics and History of the English Language.

In American universities of today such courses often seem to be as separate from the study of literature as they were when, as Humphrey Carpenter recalls, the already established Lang-Lit divide of Tolkien's Oxford widened after World War I (Tolkien: A Biography, 63, 137). But the study of language and literature, as Shippey demonstrates in J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, was not separate in the mind of Tolkien. And, though Gardner characteristically downplayed his own study of language--as he did when he wrote that "Beowulf bristles from end to end with curious echoes and parallels, repeated or pointedly juxtaposed details of language, imagery, or thought which bind the poem together and establish its assumptions and values--if [italics mine] we can figure the equations" ("Guilt and the World's Complexity"14)--the two also seem to have been inextricably bound together in Gardner's mind. In fact, Gardner's skillful use of basic word formation processes to create the language of Grendel leads to his remarkably successful use of "variation," which Arthur G. Brodeur defined as "a double or multiple statement of the same concept or idea in different words, with a more or less perceptible shift in stress" (Art of Beowulf 40), and Fr. Klaeber considered to be "by far the most important rhetorical figure, in fact the very soul of the Old English poetic style" (Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg lxv). Gardner, as we shall see, did learn how to "figure out the equations."

But first, to return for a moment to the word formation process with which we began, an agent noun, Randolph Quirk and C. L. Wrenn explain, can be made by adding the suffix "-end" or "-ere" to a verb, as in "cwellere" (killer), a noun based on the verb "cwellan" (An Old English Grammar 107). And Modern English agent nouns are formed by adding suffixes like "-er," "-ist," "-ant," or "-ent" to verbs. For example, "shoot," a verb, plus "-er," an agent suffix, becomes "shooter," an agent noun referring to one who shoots. The structure of "shooter," then, can be represented in this way: [ [ shoot v ] er N ].

A second basic fact from the Lang side: Old English compounds, like Modern English compounds, were formed by combining two or more independent meaning units. To take the Modern English word "underground" as an example, this compound consists of "under" (an adjective) and the noun "ground," and, to call upon a make-it-visible device again, the result of the word-forming process is [ under Adj [ ground N ] N ].

Gardner draws heavily on these word formation resources to describe the under-ground world from which Grendel emerges, the above-ground world he enters, and the inhabitants of the two worlds. Some of the words he uses to refer to inhabitants of the under-ground world are just pluralized compounds like "firesnakes" and "whalecocks" (9), but other more complex referents like "humpbacked shapes" and "brimstone-eyed" brothers or uncles (21) include compounds used as adjectival modifiers.

Grendel calls upon the same word-forming processes to give visible form to human inhabitants of the above-ground world. When he first gets close to men, he sees their "dead-looking eyes" and "gray-white faces" (18), and then distinguishes them from other creatures of the above-ground world by referring to them as "pattern makers" (27). One of the hyphenated adjectives with which Grendel first describes Hrothgar, the leader of men, is "white-bearded" (21). He further defines his adversary by referring to him with the agent nouns "tribute-taker" (39), and, in the short poetic sequence with which chapter 8 begins, as a "sword-hilt handler" and "bribe-gold bender" (111), nominalizations which obviously are not intended to confer respect.

And how do inhabitants of the above-ground world see Grendel? When Grendel first ventures into the world of men in chapter 2 and is caught in a tree, though men are at a loss to say what he is, they nevertheless get close enough to consider the possibilities: he may be a "beastlike fungus" (23) or an "oak-tree spirit" (25) or possibly "pigsmoke" (26). But Grendel has known what he is from the beginning of his story, and he is not just a "shooter." His creator, or re-creator, has used alliteration, his own word formation skills, and the literary device of variation he learned from close reading of his source to make him a "shadow-shooter, earth-rim roamer, walker of the world's weird wall" (7).

By chapter 3, which could have been titled "Hrothgar's Rise to Power and Glory" (but Gardner does not title his chapters), the cast of creatures living and working in the above-ground world has grown. "Various groups" of men are now referred to as "ragged little bands" and "crafty-witted killers" (31). The first reference is just four syllables long. The second has five syllables. The third has six, and the three can be read as an escalating series of pejoratively loaded references to the human beings whose actions Grendel closely observes.

The question we can now ask is this: how does the language get so loaded? Which, if you are reading from a closer-than-close perspective (perhaps too close for readers who may have celebrated the death of close reading), leads to the following analysis. First of all, we have an agent noun: [ [ kill [.sub.V] ] er [.sub.N] ]. The subscript V equals Verb and the N stands for Noun, and adding the inflectional suffix "s" to make the killers plural, of course, does not change the class of the word. But the "various groups," the "ragged little bands" have now become not just "killers." They are "craftywitted killers that worked in teams," and "crafty-witted" is a fairly complex modifier that can stand a step-by-step break-down into [ craft [.sub.N] ] -y [.sub.Adj] ] followed by [[wit.sub.N]] -ed Adj ].

Getting closer, Grendel hears the killers "boast" at the meadhall tables. One man says "I'll steal their gold and burn their meadhall!" which can, as far as the basic structure of the sentence is concerned, be seen to resemble the "boast words" of Beowulf, which function essentially as acts of promising, (7) but as "Cowface," the name-calling response, a plain insulting two-part two-syllable compound clearly shows, this "boast" hardly earns the killer the respect he hopes to receive for his "heroic" utterance.

So far what Grendel sees is just small-scale meanness: bickering over rights to respect or the occasional exile of individuals who violate a justified expectation, but now, with an alliterative sequence--and Gardner may be using alliteration to signal a shift to a higher level of formality here--comes "Then the wars began, and the war songs, and the weapon making" (34). Grendel, always the outsider, hears the Shaper's songs from his perch in a tree above the hall and eagerly listens. Identified by an agent noun name that may (with deliberate irony?) echo "Scyppend," one of the Beowulf poet's names for God, this Shaper sings, putting formulas, or conventionally used word phrases, together to, as Grendel first expresses it, "tell of the glory of dead kings," and then--this is after all Grendel's version of the story--"how they'd split certain heads, snuck away with certain precious swords and necklaces" (34).

And so it goes. The story of Hrothgar's rise to power is retold, and it is not the story of a brave and generous king, a man who protects his people and surrounds himself with loyal warriors he properly rewards which the Beowulfpoet tells. It is instead a story of Grendel's growing understanding of his own identity. He has learned from the Shaper's songs that he is a descendant of Cain, but, confident of his power over men, and having developed his verbal skills to a point at which he is able to use the device of "variation" (this term of course comes from the Lit side of the great divide) he can now define himself as "Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of kings" (80).

And now a new harper, a blind man, comes to Heorot and sings his song of Scyld, the story of a rise to power with which Beowulf begins. Gardner draws directly upon his source here to provide a translation of Beowulf 4-11 (41--42), then follows his translation of the sequence that tells of the accomplishments of the legendary hero Scyld Scefing by identifying its teller as "king of the Shapers, harpstring scratchers (oakmoss-bearded, inspired by winds)" (42).

Grendel chapter 4 continues with the response of Grendel, always the alien, always the outsider, to the sounds that come from Hrothgar's hall. Its opening sentence, "He sings to a heavier harpsong now, old heart-string scratcher, memory scraper" (46), recalls the sounds and sense of Beowulf. This sentence, with its stress on the first syllable of "heavier," and on "heart," the first element of the compound "heart-string," could easily satisfy the primary requirement of the Old English metrical tradition, and here Gardner is making use of variation as well. The pronoun "He" and the phrases "heart-string scratcher" and "memory-scraper" can all be seen to function as the subject of the verb "sings," and thus once again we see Gardner's demonstration of his ability to use the rhetorical as well as the word-forming skills he found in his source.


But back to the story. War has come to Hrothgar's kingdom. He has lost men in battle. As in the story told by the Beowulf poet, the scene of fire and "the scattered bones of thanes" will be a recurrent one; but the focus here is on the Shaper, who continues to encourage his king, and on Hrothgar's determination to build a "victory-seat," a hall that will stand against all attacks (47). Watching and listening through Grendel's eyes and ears, we can almost see and hear an oral composition in the making as Gardner writes "[The Shaper's fingers] picked infallibly, as if moved by something beyond his power, and the words stitched together out of ancient songs, the scenes interwoven out of dreary tales, made a vision without seams, an image of himself yet not-himself, beyond the need of any shaggy old gold-friend's pay: the projected possible" (49).

Grendel tells himself that "It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and set out the sun and moon as lights to land-dwellers" (55). He cannot believe that the Shaper's story is true, but it comes to him with a "fierce jolt" that he wants to believe what the Shaper sings (55). He cannot, of course, have that faith in the truth of the Shaper's story, and we may not be able to call the sounds back to life. But we still have the Venerable Bede's account of how Caedmon received the gift of song, and there can be little doubt that Gardner was drawing here on a text he must have read in McGalliard's University of Iowa Old English class and that he probably taught in his own medieval literature classes. (8)

Having exercised this freedom to reach beyond his primary source, Gardner now stretches his basic source-transformation connection to introduce Unferth in the sixth chapter of his re-telling of the Beowulf story. In Beowulf Unferth challenges Beowulf shortly after his arrival in Denmark. In Grendel Unferth addresses Grendel as "dread creature" and "wretched shape," to which Grendel, drawing upon his own cache of agent nouns and his skills of multiple reference, responds by calling Unferth a "Sidewayswalker," "glory reaper," and "harvester of monsters" (83-84), and then pelts him with apples. And this assault leads to a further divergence from Gardner's source. In Gardner's "parallel" to Monster Fight Two, the fight between Beowulf and Grendel's mother, Unferth, not Beowulf, descends to Grendel's mother's hall--and utterly fails to regain his sense of himself as a brave warrior, loyal to his king.

It is at this point that Grendel is able to display his confidence in his own identity by saying, "I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings" (80), and with this attribution of confidence Gardner once again shows his ability to adapt the dominant stylistic device of Old English poetry to his own narrative purpose. This is the way variation works for Grendel now:


Grendel's heightened self confidence does not remain unshaken. The opening sentences of chapter 7 recall what the dragon told Grendel about himself. The dragon told him then that he should "stick with" man and "scare him to glory!" (73), and he now understands that his enemies define themselves on him and gives the dragon credit for teaching him this lesson (91). But he is also certain that he can destroy all of his enemies in a single night, and this leads to a new difficulty. How could Grendel define himself then?

Reading from a Lang perspective, Gardner's development of Grendel's sense of self can be seen to depend on two pairs of "converse antonyms," words that establish a relationship of opposition between two entities: Grendel is the "attacker" and Hrothgar is the "attacked." But what if Grendel kills Hrothgar? The relationship would then be killer-killed, wrecker-wrecked, which leads Grendel to ask, "What will we call the Hrothgar-Wrecker when Hrothgar has been wrecked?" (91). And this unasked question would seem to follow: Can there be a killer if there is no one to be killed, or a wrecker if there is no one to be wrecked? If the "-er" suffix requires the continuing performance of an act by the individual to whom the agent noun refers, the answer would seem to have to be an unconditional No.

Grendel tries to deal with this new challenge to his identity by resorting to poetry, and this, if poetry requires a stronger control of language than prose, seems to be a reasonable response. But does it solve Grendel's problem? Hardly. The rhythm is fine and the rhyme works too, but the result is this merging of identities:
 Pity poor Grengar,
 Hrothdel's foe!
 Down goes the whirlpool:
 Eek! No, no! (92)

The pieces of names have come unglued. They re-attach themselves to the wrong halves. (9) So Grendel gives up on poetry and tries a common sense approach. He gives himself this bit of advice: "Care, take care of the gold-egglaying goose!" (93), which takes the advice to find gold and sit on it the dragon gave him back in chapter 4 a step further. (10) Since "-ing," the final syllable of the complex modifier "gold-egg-laying," adds the meaning of a continuing production of wealth, Grendel can now avoid coming to the conclusion that without the killed there is no killer, and without the wrecked there is no wrecker. He can continue to be his more or less human self.

In any case, Grendel continues to observe and try to understand what happens in the strange world of men. In a sequence that echoes Beowulf lines 171b-83a, which tell how Hrothgar's advisers go to heathen altars to find help, he hears priests pray to the gods they hope will tell them how to defend themselves against the terrible threat to their lives and safety. He hears the chief of priests address one of the gods, setting up this structure of opposition,
 Great spirit <--> the enemy
 ghostly Destroyer <--> the terrible world-rim-walker (127),

and realizes that he is the force defined by the second pair of agent noun phrases. He also hears a hapless priest address individual gods as the "wolfgod," "bull-god," and "horse-god," and with the phrase "happy smiling god with a nose like a pig's" (128). And thus a short passage from Beowulf that tells a story about men who often sat in counsel with the king and sometimes "geheton at hsergstrafum wigweorbunga" (Beowulf 175-76a, promised sacrifice at heathen temples) becomes the source for an extended scene that dramatizes the helplessness of Hrothgar's supporters.

Grendel meets Ork, who identifies himself as the "eldest and wisest of the priests" (130), and here, looking back to Old English, we could fill in "ealdost" and "wisost," two superlative adjectives that almost transparently show themselves to be ancestors of "eldest" and "wisest," and, determined to test the old priest, asks him what he knows about the king of gods. Ork responds with "The king of gods is the ultimate limitation" and "His existence is the ultimate irrationality" (131), answers which, I must confess, are too abstract for me to process, though I think Gardner may have intended to insert a satiric judgment of the existentialist philosophy that dominated much of the critical thinking when his writing of Grendel was in process into his presentation of the helplessness of Hrothgar and his advisers. (11)

A scene follows in which Ork's fellow priests counsel him and attempt to get him to come in out of the cold and stay inside the way an old man should. A drunken priest gets into the act, exulting in Ork's new found wisdom, and then it's back to reality--or to the "reality" of the source that gave Gardner his story to retell, and to the slumber of Hrothgar and Wealhtheow and the cold night.

As Gardner's version of the Beowulfstory continues, an old woman predicts the coming of "a giant across the sea who has the strength of thirty thanes" (142). (12) This will be Beowulf, but Grendel refuses to believe it. The Shaper dies, and the message of his death comes to the woman he loves and who loves him (Gardner's addition, one of many). Below ground Grendel's mother moves closer and closer to total insanity. (Beowulf killed her, we remember, back in Monster Fight Two of Gardner's source.) Above ground Grendel goes to the Shaper's funeral, where he hears old songs that tell how Hengest, who spent a cold winter as the guest of Finn, could not overcome his desire for revenge and killed the king to whom his sister Hildeburh was given in marriage. Here Gardner provides a condensed translation of Beowulf 1127b-59a, and then his expanded telling of the Grendel story and the story of the Finnsburg tragedy merge as Grendel watches a bone-fire burn.

Beowulf's arrival with his band of men and a challenge scene from Beowulf part 1 follow in Grendel chapter 11 as Gardner, who has neatly placed the beginning of the poem that provided his own starting point in a position that gives new life to his chosen narrator, approaches the end of his version of the Beowulf and Grendel story. As Beowulf and his men arrive Grendel exclaims, "Fifteen glorious heroes, proud in their battle dress, fat as cows!" (151), and with the adjectival phrase "fat as cows" Gardner undercuts the apparently positive phrases that precede it. He then employs a further stretching of the language as he retells the story of the Coastguard-Beowulf exchange. The coastguard of Beowulf 229-57 speaks to Beowulf with a voice of authority and is answered with respect, but Gardner's Grendel laughs at the coastguard's challenge and urges him on with "Attaboy! If they come at you, bite 'em in the leg!" (153), thus reducing a formal scene to one closer, by suggestion, to an animal fight. But he cannot deny the excitement he feels at the arrival of Beowulf and his men. The ship he sees approaching is "sea-eager, foamynecked [and moves with] white sails riding the swan-road, flying like a bird!" (151).

Looking back to the Beowulf text at this point may suggest some of the ways that the language of Gardner's source, different as its appearance on the page may be, survives in the English written and spoken today. First we see Beowulf referred to as "fiftyna sum sundwudu sohte" (207b-208a, one of fifteen [who] sought the sea-wood). He orders a ship to be prepared, and the poet has clearly stated the hero's intention: "he gudcyning ofer swanrade secean wolde" (199b-200, he wished to seek the war-king [Hrothgar] over the swan-road). And then, with these lines, we see how quickly Beowulf and his men move toward their destination:
Fyrst ford gewat; flota was on ydum
bat under beorge. Beornas gearwe
on stefn stigon; -- streamas wundon,
sund wid sande; secgas baron
on bearm nacan beorhte fraetwe,
gudsearo geatolic; guman ut scufon,
weras on wilsid wudu bundenne.
Gewat ba ofer wagholm winde gefysed
flota famiheals fugle gelicost (Beowulf 210-19)

Time went forth; the ship was on the waves,
the boat under the cliff. Eager men
rose up on the prow; -- streams eddied,
the sea along the shore. Men bore
bright ornaments, war gear splendid
into the hold of the vessel; men shoved off
the bound wood for the desired journey.
The foamy-necked ship driven by the wind
set forth over the surging sea most like a bird ...

Literal translations like the one I have supplied above can communicate the basic sense, but not, since they cannot capture the sounds of the language they translate, the whole sense of the original text, which depends at least in part on the sounds of words and the rhythms of sentences. But it seems clear that Gardner, as he retold the story of Beowulf's approach, was responding to the sounds of Beowulf and to the sense of action, of purposeful direction and determined intention they communicate, and thus he comes close to reproducing the original appeal of the story he chose to re-create. In any case, it is this action of men driven across the "swan road" by generous intention and supported by the power of wind and wave to which Grendel responds with eager anticipation.

And now with chapter 12, the concluding chapter of Gardner's transformation, we come to the first great monster fight--Grendel's battle with Beowulf. Grendel enters Hrothgar's hall, and his entrance is almost exactly as it was in the story that served as Gardner's source: He touches the door of the hall with his fingertips and it "bursts [open] for all its fire-forged bands" (167)--and then Gardner adds the sound of Grendel's laughter "like a terrified deer" and enables the monster to further undercut the drama of his entrance with an observation that the laugh is not one he would much like to wake up to himself.

The basic language is still the compound-heavy English we have come to expect. Grendel bites through the "bone-locks" of a sleeping man (168), and the word is a precise equivalent of the "banlocan" of Beowulf 818a. But he almost immediately realizes that nowhere on "middle-earth" (168, Gardner hyphenates the Tolkien compound) has he encountered a grip like Beowulf's. The words that first come into his mind as he feels his hand in Beowulf's grasp are "long-lost brother" and "kinsman-thane" (169) but he screams with pain.

The Beowulf Grendel encounters as he bursts into Hrothgar's hall has wings, terrible fiery wings he did not have in Beowulf, and his wings eerily suggest a relationship between the Beowulf Grendel meets in Gardner's twelfth chapter and the third monster Beowulf killed in his source. Norma L. Hutman, reading "[The stranger] has wings? Is it possible? And yet it's true. Out of his shoulders come terrible fiery wings" (Grendel 169), sees Beowulf through Grendel's eyes as a dragon-like opponent ("Even Monsters" 24), and Gregory L. Morris writes that in this sequence Beowulf is "transmogrified into the dragon" (69). But the strength of Grendel's opponent's grasp is still the same powerful grip of the original Beowulf, the hero with the strength of thirty thanes in his hand.

A plan moves inside Grendel "like thaw-time waters" (169)--which I take to mean that he still knows himself to be a creature of the earth and thus manages to keep some hold on reality. But this is the way he describes the effect of Beowulf's spoken words on his conscious awareness: "His syllables lick at me, chilly fire. His syllables lick at me, chilly fire. His syllables lick, at me, chilly fire. His syllables lick ..." (170), and the repetition shows that he is losing his ability to process the spoken word. The subject-verb connections are there, but he can't go from one sentence to a next sentence.

But Beowulf's words, as Grendel reports them, take on a biblical tone. They assume an evangelistic syntax when he says,
 The world is my bone-cave, I shall not want ... As you see it it
 is, while the seeing lasts, dark nightmare-history, time-as-coffin;
 but where the water was rigid there will be fish, and men will
 survive on their flesh till spring. It's coming, my brother.
 Believe it or not. Though you murder the world, turn plains to
 stone, transmogrify life into I and it, strong searching roots will
 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 (fingers on harpstrings, hero-swords, the acts, the eyes
 of queens). By that I kill you. (170)

Beating Grendel's head against a wall, Beowulf forces him to acknowledge the wall's existence and to sing of walls, and Grendel, speaking in a voice that does not seem to be his own, responds with the following prediction of collapse:
 The wall will fall to the wind as the windy hill
 will fall, and all things thought in former times:
 Nothing made remains, nor man remembers.
 And these towns shall be called the shining towns! (172)

And now Grendel becomes aware, with a flash like a stroke of lightning, that he has lost his arm. Knowing finally that he cannot win, that he cannot survive his bout with Beowulf, he continues to his last spoken words to deny any causality to the series of events that have led to his death. Ending his account of the years he has spent harassing the hall of Hrothgar, he whispers his next to final words, "Poor Grendel's had an accident" (174), which can be read as an example of the third stylistic feature to which Milosh draws attention in "John Gardner's Grendel: Sources and Analogues."

I did not expect to find, as I re-read Gardner's Grendel for the seventy-eleventh time, as many examples of litotes as Frederick Bracher found in Beowulf. Bracher cites 94 examples in 3132 lines! (233). But the following examples may suggest an indebtedness that has not yet been widely recognized.

I will begin by requoting Milosh's example. Converted to positive form, Grendel's negative assertion, "I am no stranger here," is easily understood to mean, "I am well known here," and can thus be read as an example of one type of litotes to which Bracher gives attention, the denial of the opposite. The immediately following sentence (and it is a sentence as Gardner punctuates it, not a phrase), "A respected guest," can also be read as an ironic utterance. Guests are invited and Grendel has hardly been invited; and he is feared, not respected. This leads to two further examples of litotes as Grendel says, "Eleven years now and going on twelve I have come up this clean-mown central hill, dark shadow out of the woods below, and have knocked politely [italics mine] on the high oak door, bursting its hinges and sending the shock of my greeting inward like a cold blast out of a cave" (12).

Hrothgar's people are not simply aware that Grendel exists. They fear him and regard him as an omnipresent threat. So "I am no stranger here" can be seen, not just as a denial of the opposite, but also as an understatement. And, having begun with a simple denial of the opposite that functions as an understatement, Gardner draws upon his own word hoard to fill in the details with further irony. Grendel does not really knock politely; he breaks down the door. Neither does he greet the men within who "squeal and screech" in the polite and friendly way that "greet" would seem to suggest; he attacks them, eating and laughing until he can barely walk.

Bracher includes Beowulf 109a, "Ne gefeah he bare fsebhe" ("[Cain] did not rejoice as a result of the hostile act") in a series of examples of the litotes of understatement. As in the example presented above, a negative assertion is made, but Cain did not merely not rejoice in the punishment meted out to him for killing his brother. He suffered. He endured a terrible punishment, the pain of exile. He was forced to live as an outsider, to play the role his descendant Grendel plays in Gardner's novel.

Grendel the outsider of Gardner's novel responds when he hears the story of Cain and realizes that he is a descendant of the brother killer with the words, "Oh, what a conversion!" (51), which can be interpreted with reference to an additional type of litotes to which Bracher gives attention, the assertion uttered with "mocking intention" (235). In Beowulf, Bracher writes, such assertions are directed against Grendel and Grendel's mother. Gardner's Grendel's "Oh, what a conversion!" seems to be directed both against himself, for having been taken in by the Shaper's power, and against the message the Shaper's retelling of a story from the biblical past communicates. At this point Grendel presents himself as having accepted the "truth" of the Shaper's words and as a sinner ready to repent and ask for forgiveness. Having come upon the body of a man he finds slain outside the hall, he approaches carrying the body and intending, as a sinner should, to ask for forgiveness. But, denied permission to join the host of believers who think he killed the man whose corpse he bears and begin to attack him, Grendel curses the "Bastards," "Sons of Bitches," and "Fuckers" (52), using words that, even though he says he does not understand them and has only picked them up from hearing the speech of human beings, underscore the irony of what might at first seem to have been a reference to a joyous response to the Shaper's song.

Grendel, as we have seen (the agent nouns he uses to refer to individuals and groups of men provide abundant evidence), takes a rather dim view of the human beings whose movements he watches from his outsider position. He also calls upon a type of understatement to denigrate what might at first seem to be the courage of a man who approaches him in Hrothgar's hall. Grendel describes the man as he approaches, "gloating in his blear-eyed heroism, maniacally joyful because he had bragged that he would die for his king and he was doing it," and then, with just three one-syllable words--the economy is a virtue in itself!--he deflates the grandiosity of the man's intention by saying "He did it" (81).

In Gardner's source Beowulf comes to Denmark to perform a genuine act of heroism. In his retelling of the story, Grendel attributes an apparently modest understatement of intention to Beowulf, who says, simply, "We've come on a fairly important errand" (154). But, embedded in a speech that begins, "We've come as friends for a visit with your lord king Hrothgar, protector of the people," since Hrothgar has not been able to protect his people and Beowulf has come to save him and his people, Beowulf's "fairly important errand" is invested with an irony it would be difficult to read into lines 260-85 of Beowulf.

But the most irony-loaded understatement I have found in Grendel--and there are many additional examples that could be cited--is Grendel's "Poor Grendel's had an accident" reference to the loss of his arm (174). First of all, if we attach the conventional association of triviality to "accident," as in "it was just an accident," the sentence can be read as a simple understatement, since Grendel, in losing his arm, has suffered a fatal injury. And if we consider the word "accident" with reference to the question of causality, we may see a further irony since, according to another common understanding, accidents just happen without cause or intention. But there is reason for Grendel to suffer death: he has been inflicting death upon Hrothgar's people for twelve long years, and now a hero has come from over the sea and firmly stated his intention to stop his attacks.

And how are we to read Grendel's final utterance, "So may you all"? (174). It may be simply a defiant utterance, a refusal to be defeated by the reprisal for his actions that fate has dealt him. On the other hand, it may be related to a recurrent acknowledgement of human mortality that contributes to the wisdom to be found in Beowulfand in a great many other Old English poems as well. But the purpose here has been to give attention to Gardner's transformation of the basic Beowulf story as a work of fantasy that resulted from its writer's intention to re-tell a story.

Addressing young writers Gardner presented two choices--they could retell stories from the past or tell stories from their own experience. He took the first option when he chose to write his transformation of Beowulf. But as he approached the end of his version of the Beowulf poet's story of three great monster fights, he also--"chose" is perhaps not the right verb, "permitted" might be better--his own life experience to enter the transformation process. Gardner wrote in On Becoming a Novelist that at this point he had reached a state that the successful novelist has to reach in which "the imaginary becomes the real" (57). He recalls associations that came into his mind as he wrote the story of Grendel's fall--a dream of a Blakean landscape centered on a huge twisted oak; an association of the oak tree with druidic sacrifice and with the crucifixion of Christ; and his childhood fear that, since the earth is round, he could fall off. And then he remembers the dream experience that re-shaped itself into the final scene of Grendel:
 A day or two before, my family and I had been watching Olympic ski
 jumpers practice--a terrifying business, to me at least, frightened
 as I am by heights. In a dream, the night before the writing of
 this passage, I'd found myself moving very slowly--but
 inexorably--toward the edge of the ski jump, the snow below me
 unspeakably far away. I'd felt in my nightmare, for whatever
 reason, exactly this same sense that I was willing the fall in
 spite of myself. (60)

And Gardner concludes--or comes as close as he can to concluding--his explanation of how he wrote the story of Grendel's fall with "All I myself know for sure, when I come out of one of these trance moments, is that I seem to have been taken over by some muse" (60).

In "On Fairy-stories," J. R. R. Tolkien--"condemned" is not too strong a verb--he writer of fantasy who concludes his story with an assertion that it was all a dream. This, of course, is not what Gardner did when he attempted to explain, in a separate work devoted to analysis of the creative process, how he wrote the last lines of Grendel. What happens at the end of Grendel can be more directly related to Tolkien's assertion that for the successful writer of fantasy what is imagined becomes real. Gardner's dream experience was real in the sense that he did dream of falling. And his dream entered into the creative process that gave new life to a fantasy drawn from a former time.

John Gardner borrowed a story from the past. He worked backward and forward through the details of the story he chose to borrow. He made decisions about which parts of Beowulfhe would retell. He incorporated stylistic features he found in what must have been countless readings of the poem he took for his starting point. And then he allowed a personal, real life experience to take over. The result of his submission to the requirements of the story he borrowed and to a fear that was part of his own human awareness is a transformation that stands, I believe, not just as a retelling of an enduring story, but as a splendid illustration of some of the things that can be learned from the re-telling process.

Gardner's Grendel ends his story by saying, first, "Poor Grendel's had an accident" (174), which, as I noted above, can be read as a litotes of understatement. It can also be read as evidence of a certain kind of strength. Having just suffered a fatal injury, he is still able to make a joke about what has happened. Then, with his defiant final words, "So may you all," he may simply be wishing the same fate upon the "evil, incredibly stupid" onlookers who witness his "destruction" (174). But there is another possibility. Gardner's Grendel's dying words may also be addressed to readers who follow him all the way to the end of his story.

The Beowulf poet, as Tolkien read his retelling of stories from the past in "The Monsters and the Critics," was concerned with the life of man on earth and "rehandled in a new perspective an ancient theme: that each man and all men, and all their works must die" (73). Gardner's version of the Beowulf story, told with the major changes in its basic structure necessitated by Gardner's choice of narrator and with dramatic re-characterizations of its principal actors, may, despite the differences noted here, be read, finally, as an acknowledgement of a basic lesson to be learned from human experience.

Works Cited

Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 1922. Ed. Fr. Klaeber. Boston: Heath, 1950.

Beowulf: An Edition. Ed. Bruce C. Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson. Malden: Blackwell, 1998.

Bracher, Frederick. "Understatement in Old English Poetry." Essential Articles for the Study of Old English Poetry. Ed. Jess B. Bessinger, Jr. and Stanley J. Kahrl. Hamden: Archon, 1968. 228-54.

Brodeur, Arthur G. The Art of Beowulf. Berkeley: U of California P 1969.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton, 1977.

Conquergood, Dwight G. "Boasting in Anglo-Saxon England: Performance and the Heroic Ethos." Literature in Performance 1 (1981): 24-35.

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: Harper, 1983.

--. The Complete Works of the Gawain Poet in a Modern English Version with a Critical Introduction by John Gardner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP 1970.

--. Grendel. 1971. New York: Vintage, 1989.

--. "Guilt and the World's Complexity." Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation for John C. McGalliard. Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson and Dolores Warwick Frese. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P 1975. 14-22.

--. On Becoming a Novelist. New York: Harper, 1983.

--. On Writers and Writing. Ed. Stewart O'Nan. Reading: Addison, 1993. Howell, John M. Understanding John Gardner. Columbia: U of South Carolina P 1993.

Hutman, Norma L. "Even Monsters Have Mothers: A Study of Beowulf and John Gardner's Grendel." Mosaic 9.1 (1975): 19-31.

Johnson, Charles. Introduction. On Writers and Writing. By John Gardner. Ed. Stewart O'Nan. Reading: Addison, 1993. vii--xxi.

Kirch, Claire. "Bringing Back John Gardner." February 2, 2004 <http://www. publishers>

Klinkowitz, Jerome. "John Gardner's Grendel." John Gardner: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982. 62-67.

Kowalcze, Anna. "Disregarding the Text: Postmodern Mediaevalisms and the Readings of John Gardner's Grendel." Year's Work in Medievalism 17 (2002): 33-55.

Mason, Kenneth C. "Of Monsters and Men: Sartrean Existentialism and John Gardner's Grendel." Thors Hammer: Essays on John Gardner. Ed. Jeff Henderson. Conway: U of Central Arkansas P 1985. 101--111.

Milosh, Joseph. "John Gardner's Grendel: Sources and Analogues." Contemporary Literature 19.1 (1978): 48-57.

Mitchell, Bruce. An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Morris, Gregory L. A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1984.

Nelson, Marie. "Beowulf's Boast Words." Neophilologus 89 (2005): 289-310.

Quirk, Randolph, and C. L. Wrenn. An Old English Grammar. New York: Holt, 1955.

Ruud, Jay. "Gardner's Grendel and Beowulf." Thoth 14.2 (1974): 3-18.

Shaw, Harry. A Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: McGraw, 1972.

Shippey, T. A. J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton, 2001.

--. Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English. Totowa: Brewer, 1976.

Silesky, Barry. John Gardner: The Life and Death of a Literary Outlaw. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2004.

Tolkien, J. R. R. "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Proceedings of the British

Academy 22 (1936): 245-95.

--. "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's Son." Essays and Studies 6 (1953): 1--18. Rpt. in The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 3-84.

--. "On Fairy-stories." Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1947. Rpt. in The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 3-84.

--. The Two Towers. 1954. New York: Ballantine, 1965.

Tommasini, Anthony. "Monster Inc.: Inside the Sensitive, Suffering Soul of Grendel, Terrorizer of Men." New York Times 3 July 2006: B6-7.


(1) This could have been a response to an assigned reading of the Old English "Rune Poem," in which each letter of the alphabet--the Old English alphabet included the letters "ae" (ash), "d" (eth), and "b" (thorn) along with a capitalized form for each--is presented along with a brief verse relating the letter to its meaning. (Beowulf-citations, unless otherwise indicated, are to Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg.)

(2) In her review of the Silesky biography, Claire Kirch refers to Gardner as a man "all but forgotten, remembered primarily by his contemporaries and by college English majors reading The Art of Fiction," but Anthony Tommasini's July 3 2006 New York Times review of an opening performance of the opera "Grendel" (composed by Elliot Goldenthal and directed by Julia Taymor) suggests that this recent transformation of Gardner's transformation of the Beowulf story may well have brought the memory of John Gardner--if it was indeed lost--back to a wider public consciousness.

(3) An editorial note identifies "Mr. Ruud's paper, under the title 'Grendel: The Monster and the Man' [as the winner of] the Frederick J. Hoffman Award for best paper submitted by an English graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1974."

(4) In his Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, Harry Shaw defines "intentional fallacy" as "a term used to describe the so-called error of judging the meaning and success of a literary work in terms of the author's expressed [italics mine] purpose in writing it" (148).

(5) Here again we can note a relationship between the work of Tolkien and Gardner. As T. A. Shippey observes in J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, "The Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight...was hardly known and certainly not a part of university syllabuses until it was edited by Tolkien himself and his junior colleague E. V. Gordon in 1925" (14), and in 1970 Gardner's Complete Works of the Gawain Poet in a Modern English Version made the Middle English poem available to twentieth-century readers.

(6) Gardner, though we cannot of course be sure of this, may well have drawn on the OED for elements he used in his creation of Grendel's vocabulary. Charles Johnson recalls in his introduction to Gardner's posthumously published On Writers and Writing that the archaic language of Gardner's Jason and Medea was, according to his wife Joan's account, a result of her having chided him for the lack of "big words" in his earlier works. In response, Gardner supposedly took a magnifying glass and read every word of The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (xiii).

(7) Explanation of "boastwords" as they are used in Beowulf can be found in Dwight G. Conquergood's "Boasting in Anglo-Saxon England: Performance and the Heroic Ethos" and Marie Nelson's "Beowulf's Boast Words."

(8) The text now appears under the title "Unmusical lay brother sings Christian song in alliterative verse" in Bruce Mitchell's Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England and is included in most, if not all, introductions to Old English texts.

(9) In an interesting extension of a creative process of transformation to a critical context, Anna Kowalcze uses Gardner's "ungluing-re-gluing" variety of compounding to label sequences of her consideration of postmodern readings of Grendel as "Grednal," "Grandulf," and "Derridel."

(10) This basic bit of wisdom can be traced back to lines 26b-27 of "Maxims II," a poem T. A. Shippey includes in Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English (76-79). The maxim reads, "Draca sceal on hlaewe, frod, fraetwum wlanc" (26b-27a, A dragon must live in a barrow, old and proud of his treasures).

(11) An explanation for this response may be found in an observation by Kenneth C. Mason, who, in his reading of Grendel, takes an approach that is radically different from the one I have taken here: "The book makes a penetrating critique of a major modern philosophy," Mason writes, "the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, showing its ethical limitations as a model for human behavior" (109). I have never pretended to understand existentialism.

(12) This may echo a reference to a speech by an old woman who speaks as the funeral fires for Beowulf burn and predicts that evil days, a fill of slaughters, the terror of war, humiliation, and captivity will follow (Beowulf 3150-55a).
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Author:Nelson, Marie
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
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Date:Sep 22, 2008
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