Essay, Research Paper: Grendel And Life

Literature: Beowulf

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"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
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 death. 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 201).
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