Grendel, Beowulf and the Relationship Between Nihilistic and Christian Archetypes
The Wisdom god, Woden, went out to the king of trolls…and demanded to know how order might triumph over chaos.
“Give me your left eye,” said the king of trolls, “and I’ll tell you.”
Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye.
“Now tell me.”
The troll said, “The secret is, Watch with both eyes!”
Woden’s left eye was the last sure hope of gods and men in their kingdom of light surrounded by darkness. All we have left is Thor’s hammer, which represents not brute force but art, or, counting both hammerheads, art and criticism…
The philosophies expressed in the Beowulf epic complement the exploration of existentialism throughout the modern work, Grendel, by John Gardner. Both works portray different perspectives of the same story, involving the same characters; Beowulf, the ancient Anglo-Saxon hero who destroys Grendel, and Grendel, the monster who terrorizes Hrothgar’s hall. Beowulf and Grendel act as archetypes that explore humanity’s perception of the world. In the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf and his companions represent good, and the monsters, including Grendel, represent evil. When Beowulf kills Grendel, the world is less evil, but since Beowulf’s companions die in the struggle, the world is also less good. Ultimately, the two forces of good and evil will destroy each other, but the story maintains that God will interfere and save mankind from destruction. In Gardner’s story, the progression of society begins when mankind creates a monster and then creates a hero to fight the monster. Once the greater power of the hero had been established, once the conflict’s resolution strengthened society’s power, than a greater monster developed out of the more powerful society. Gardner’s Grendel (G) refuses to be shaped by society; he defines himself by nihilistically destroying men because of their “untiring dogmatism.” By defying the pattern that mankind used to identify and thus control him, Grendel (G) asserts his independence. Beowulf (G), the hero, is able to identify Grendel (G)’s pattern and destroy him. Since mankind could only defeat Grendel (G) by creating a hero more powerful than him, the hero represents a kind of process that ultimately creates a greater monster. Therefore, using these archetypes, Gardner and the Beowulf poet use the same story to illuminate the difference between ancient and modern society; Beowulf (AS) is the proper representative of the Anglo-Saxon society, and Grendel (G) is the proper representative of the modern world.
Grendel’s role remains the same in both books; the role of a monster that embodies humanity’s fears, a creature that human society creates. Grendel (AS) exists as a mindless perversion of nature. He represents one branch of the human society created by God that is distorted by evil. However Grendel (G) exists as just another aspect of nature, outside of human society; until he is transformed by his contact...