John Gardner's Grendel
The archeologist's eyes combine the view of the telescope and the view of the microscope. He reconstructs the very distant with the help of the very small. - Thornton Wilder
These words, uttered by Thornton Wilder regarding his play Our Town express the antithesis of nihilism, a philosophy which stresses the lack of objective truth. Nihilism, as well as existentialism and a host of other philosophies are boldly explored in Grendel, a novel by John Gardner. The antagonist Grendel travels on a journey of self-discovery, eventually becoming a nihilist, only to be gallantly disproved by the hero Beowulf. In the end Gardner proves that the virtues of individuality and meaning triumph over meaningless violence and destruction.
While Gardner presents countless philosophies and thoughts in Grendel, the two most prominent are nihilism and existentialism. The monster Grendel begins life as an existentialist. After leaving his mother's cave, he is introduced to a vast, confusing world. As a defense against the rest of the universe, Grendel establishes existentialism as his philosophy. Grendel is initially confused about the things around him, but soon encounters humans, creatures who seem to share a common language and thought. He tries to decipher meaning out of the humans by watching them. Grendel witnesses the early evolution of Hrothgar's kingdom, watching them "season after season ... from the high cliff wall" (37) conquering each other and other kingdoms, quickly expanding into a powerful empire.
In Chapter 5, Grendel falls in the lair of the Dragon. Through his conversation with the Dragon, Grendel is introduced to nihilism. The Dragon it seems, is the ultimate nihilistic entity who knows "the beginning, the present, the end . all time, all space." (62, 63) The Dragon believes that all things in the universe will come to an end and are therefore meaningless and discounts existentialism as a philosophy. His final advice to Grendel is to "seek out gold and sit on it" (74) if for no sake other then doing it. Grendel leaves the Dragon's lair with a renewed confidence in himself. Believing the Dragon's words to be true, Grendel finds no reason to restrain his inherently destructive desires. Grendel proceeds as a terrible monster, fulfilling all of his evil fantasies.
Grendel's new found nihilism however, is quickly invalidated by the hero Beowulf, who comes to Hrothgar's kingdom after hearing of their trouble with Grendel. The coming of Beowulf is the ultimate...