Probably the most famous lines in Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf go like this:
In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
The bane of the race of men, God-cursed. In the original, these lines are motivation enough for Grendel. He’s a monster who does monster things, like barging into a mead hall and eating as many men as he can grab. Beowulf slays him because that’s what you do to a monster, if you’re a hero.
We live in an era of laboriously complicated villains, of course, so our reflex is to want more. Revisit the iconic baddies and make us feel empathy for them. Give us a Dracula who went through childhood trauma. A werewolf with complicated feelings for a close friend. If you want to tell a story about a mythical character, be they a scabrous Agamemnon or a valiant Enkidu, give them modern interiority. Make them worry about how their hair looks or whether their job is fulfilling.
John Gardner’s Grendel is both the predecessor and the superior of sprawling lineages of Revisited Villain and Modernized Myth stories. Predecessor because Gardner revived Grendel way back in 1971, before repackaging the same stories and characters for eternity became the lifeblood of streaming services. Superior because Grendel is good enough to transcend gimmick and become a classic in its own right.
Grendel’s voice, via Gardner, is simultaneously one of the most distinctive and one of the most protean in Anglophone fiction. Here’s Grendel right after his talk to the nihilistic, nearly omniscient, meanderingly philosophical dragon:
Nothing was changed, everything was changed, by my having seen the dragon. It’s one thing to listen, full of scorn and doubt, to poets’ versions of time past and visions of time to come; it’s another to know, as coldly and simply as my mother knows her pile of bones, what is. Whatever I may have understood or misunderstood in the dragon’s talk, something much deeper stayed with me, became my aura. Futility, doom, became a smell in the air, pervasive and acrid as the dead smell after a forest fire—my scent and the world’s, the scent of trees, rocks, waterways wherever I went.
I smiled typing that out, because the final turn away from abstraction and toward the concrete at the end of the paragraph—“trees, rocks, waterways”—dovetails perfectly with the point I planned to make.
A writing teacher I’ve referenced in this newsletter before once gave me a cantankerous commentary letter on a story of mine he felt indulged in too many “longwinded abstractions.” Toward the end he said that what he wanted was “rocks, trees…” I guess Grendel gave him what he wanted, in the end.
Yet before that, we have a lot of abstract interiority, which might be the single hardest thing to pull off in fiction. In a cantankerous essay of his own, Leslie Epstein once said, “The only thing that really interests us about other people is what they say and what they do.” We are generally not as interested in what other people think, especially when it’s both neurotic and pretentious, as cascades of ideas from intelligent, troubled minds tend to be. There are plenty of counterexamples in the literary canon—Virginia Woolf being an obvious one—but Epstein has a point.
Maybe all those abstractions work for Grendel because Gardner doesn’t have to persuade us of the realness of a monster already enshrined in myth. And to be sure, there are plenty of viscerally convincing moments in Grendel, such as Grendel’s description of surfacing from the snake-guarded underwater cave where he lives with his mother:
I feel my anger coming back, building up like invisible fire, and at last, when my soul can no longer resist, I go up—as mechanical as anything else—fists clenched against my lack of will, my belly growling, mindless as wind, for blood. I swim up through the firesnakes, hot dark whalecocks prowling the luminous green of the mere, and I surface with a gulp among churning waves and smoke. I crawl onto the bank and catch my breath.
Still stylized, still an overbearing intellect ensnaring the physical and adorning it for us. But “hot dark whalecocks prowling the luminous green of the mere” is top-tier description, giving us the simultaneously gross and foreboding feeling of pushing through menacing slime.
Grendel is about many things, but most of all it’s about a raging narcissist. Grendel wants to matter, wants to find meaning, and reacts to his failure to do so by brutally killing everything in his path. He may be a sympathetic narrator, but only in the sense that he gets us to care about his misery. The closest thing to a redeeming quality he has is a sincere desire, at least early on, to communicate—and commune—with humans, which almost always fails. When it fails, he does some more killing.
John Gardner is perhaps best known as one of the prophets of fictional craft. His book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers is one of the most popular craft manuals in circulation, almost four decades after it was first published. Grendel, meanwhile, is his most widely read novel. And Grendel, beginning at the sentence level and spiraling out toward the arguably mawkish premise, is an ebullient rejection of craft convention. I would say the lesson here is that the “young writers” in the subtitle of Gardner’s craft tome is crucial: You learn this thing we call “craft” in order to learn how to write. Once you’re good enough, you can risk letting a canonical monster rant about his existential torment like a furry, overeducated, blood-crusted Holden Caulfield.
The most interesting strain in Grendel, for me at least, is the narrator’s suspicion of storytelling. Here’s our antihero processing his run-in with the harp-playing bard who narratively embroiders the expansive reign of King Hrothgar:
It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and set the sun and moon as lights to land-dwellers, that brothers had fought, that one of the races was saved, the other cursed. Yet he, the old Shaper, might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, his cunning trickery. It came to me with a fierce jolt that I wanted it. As they did too, though vicious animals, cunning, cracked with theories. I wanted it, yes! Even if I must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of this hideous fable.
So Grendel loves a good story, even if it provides another source of despair. Grendel both resists and yearns for seemingly everything—love, fame, joy, respect. A big part of his enduring appeal, for me, is that he has this same tormented relationship with being a character in a story. He’s the outcast, cursed by the rules of our fable, even when it’s his story and he gets to narrate.
There’s a lot more to be said, but this piece is already getting long. Highly recommend reading Grendel—or re-reading. If you know a teen who’s transitioning from fiction for younger readers to more mature work, this novel tends to hit the spot. That’s how I first read it, and I expect to keep coming back.
Calvin and Hobbes Corner
We’re still negotiating with Susie:
I made fun of this leaf collection arc for dragging a bit last week, and well, here we are. Still dragging. Someone on Twitter, who loves this arc, told me that they believe it may be Watterson commenting on the drudgery of doing a comic strip every single day. I find that easy to believe, especially given the uh pacing.
Look let’s be clear: Susie Derkins is a dweeb. She respects authority, excels within conventional boundaries, and is earnest to her core. I was a lot more like her than I was like Calvin, so I can’t hate too harshly. She’s the kind of kid everyone looks at and says, she’ll go far in life, even if she’s not exactly cool now. (I wouldn’t say I’ve gone far in life, though I do have a newsletter.)
All that said, who is Calvin to call someone else a dweeb? His only real friend is a stuffed tiger. He’s not particularly good at anything other than questioning authority or various forms of play. No one would call Calvin “cool.” A young male fixated on being cool who is anything but cool? Put this in the column of evidence in favor of Calvin being an ideal Twitter user.
Alice Oswald meets a fox
This was good!
Have you ever read Kindred by Octavia Butler? I'd love to hear you explain why the prose was so off-putting to me for the first hundred pages and then suddenly really compelling.
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!
has been imprinted in my brain for about 15 years, though, given when I read it, I'm surprised that the hot dark whalecocks, with or without the mere's luminous green, didn't worm their way deeper into my memory. Have you read much else by Gardner? I read this and liked it, then read On Moral Fiction and was turned off by the approach he espoused there so never read anything else of his, but that was almost certainly unfair of me.
I'd be interested in your thoughts about the space between craft advice and novelistic practice that you bring up a bit here, maybe in a future Q&A post.