John Gardner's Grendel as Hero?
"'I cry, and hug myself, and laugh, letting out salt tears, he he! till I fall down gasping and sobbing."1 With these words the reader is introduced to the "hero" of Gardner's Grendel, and the mood is set for the coming pages. How is one to interpret this ambiguous, melodramatic narrator, whose phrases mix seemingly heartfelt emotional outbursts with witty (if cynical) observations, and ideological musings with ironic commentaries? Perhaps this is what makes Grendel such an extremely engaging narrator. A confounding juxtaposition is established in the first pages, in which the reader must somehow reconcile a hideous, murdering monster, with an apparently philosophical, intelligent, wry and thoughtful being. It is clear from the outset, that if Grendel is to be the hero of this novel, then he will not be so in the conventional sense of the word.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines a hero as, "a man of distinguished courage or performance, admired for his noble qualities."2 Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, possesses no readily apparent noble qualities, so how then is he to win over the reader? As the question suggests, Grendel has many elements of character that can nevertheless win over his audience, such as his humour, and his intelligence and self-consciousness. In addition to these personal qualities, there are several external factors which elicit sympathy in the reader, and tend to illuminate Grendel by a more favourable light. These include: his indoctrination by the dragon (who encouraged him to believe him that it was his natural role and duty to harass the Scyldings), and his imposed "immortality" (his view of which can be summarised in his comment, "So it goes with me day by day and age by age ... Locked in the deadly progression of moon and stars."3) Finally, it is worth noting that Grendel's jaded, sceptical view of society and life, and his general confusion and internal conflict with regard to his place in the world, and his self-image of outcast earth-rim-roamer together constitute a world-view that many members of the twentieth century audience can understand and relate to.
The book is filled with comical scenes and images, beginning with the amusing portrayal of the idiotic old ram; "His hindparts shiver with the usual joyful, mindless ache to mount whatever happens near"4; and continue through his ironic observations - when one can almost see Grendel rolling his eyes skyward in amused condescension - of the replacement of the shattered meadhall door, "for (it must be) the fiftieth or sixtieth time"5; to his hilarious taunting of the would-be hero, Unferth, whose righteous, poetic declarations are despatched by the most undignified means; "I was raining apples at him and laughing myself weak ... burying him in apples as red and innocent as smiles."6 These instances are so human and endearing, that the intermingled graphic descriptions of Grendel's consumption of human flesh seem to be...