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“What happened in Grendel was that I got the idea of presenting the Beowulf monster as Sartre, and everything that Grendel says Sartre in one mood or another has said, so that my love of Sartre kind of comes through as my love of the monster, though monsters are still monsters-I hope” (Harvey 86). Authors may develop their works around personal ideas as well as the ideas of others. During the 1960’s, John Gardner became attracted to questions of evil, morality, and the meaning of existence in the world which can be found in the reemergence of existentialist philosophy during this time (Nutter 48). Existentialists believe in individual freedom as well as the personal responsibility that goes along with being free (OED). John Gardner ponders these universal questions about life and uses literature to help understand, develop, and dispense his ideas. He takes a stance against the mainstream and popular social movement of existentialism by satirizing the philosophy. Although he ponders about life’s meaning, Gardner opposes the “social benefits of adopting an existentialist posture,” while also believing that there is more to life than individual self-fulfillment (Nutter 50). In his novel Grendel, John Gardner comments on society using existentialism within the characters of Grendel, the Dragon, and the Shaper.
John Gardner begins by using Jean Paul Sartre’s existential philosophy to develop the character of Grendel. John Gardner is interested in Sartre’s philosophy, which he thinks is “paranoid and loveless and faithless and egoistic and other nasty things” (Mason 102). His negative perception of this philosophy colors the novel as Gardner portrays his thoughts through the monstrous narrator, modeled after Sartre, and attempts to expose philosophical problems relating to society’s acceptance of existentialism. Grendel’s “idiotic war” (Gardner 5) begins as the “poor old freak” (6) encounters nature. Grendel feels “abandoned” by the world, and those feelings correlate with Sartre’s “being-in-itself” argument. “The world resists me and I resist the world…the mountains are what I define them as” (Gardner 28).
According to Sartre, a “being-in-itself” lacks a consciousness while a “being-for-itself” has consciousness and the ability to create a personal “essence” using this consciousness (Mason 102). For example, Grendel perceives the mountains only through his consciousness or his own definition. The mountains represent a “being-in-itself” whereas Grendel represents a “being-for-itself.” Therefore, Grendel’s attempts to connect with nature fail because Sartre’s philosophy does not allow any sort of communication between the two beings. Moreover, Gardner presents readers with an objection to existentialism.
Internally, Grendel convinces himself that alienation from society is necessary because he is a “pointless, ridiculous monster” and a “poor old freak” (Gardner 6). His feelings of insecurity contribute to thoughts of a meaningless world. Grendel holds complete responsibility for these feelings because, according to Sartre, he creates his own world through his consciousness. This is another factor of existentialism Gardner refutes, and in addition, he uses this example to reference the popular existentialist movement of society in the 1960’s. Gardner responds to those who alienated themselves after World War II and Vietnam stating that if one clings to existentialism, then an external situation, or “being-in-itself,” should not incite feelings of despair; only one’s individual actions are cause for suffering and agony.
In addition, Gardner makes statements about the nature of existentialists. Through Grendel’s conversion from a humanistic character to a murderer, he shows that existentialism creates corruption and monstrosity in society (Mason 104). Also, Grendel “hammers the ground with [his] fists” (Gardner 3) in frustration at the world and the society he constructs in his mind. His desire for those around him to go beyond “staring at as much of the world as he can see” (6) represents Gardner’s plea for society to look beyond their construction of an absurd life. He believes his job as a writer is to “affirm the goodness of life and the badness of thinking you’ve got the whole answer” (Bellamy 21).
The next character infused with existentialism is the Dragon. The Dragon portrays an evangelist of existentialism, and Gardner hopes to inform readers of the negative aspects of succumbing to this philosophy. Gardner depicts the dragon as a negative, disturbing “beast” with “cold” eyes and a guarded collection of “gold, gems, and jewels” (Gardner 57). This positions the character as a materialistic, selfish, and greedy “old man” (58). He allows the readers to pass judgment on the Dragon, giving them the picture of an evil “miser,” (58) before revealing his vocal and intellectual characteristics. This initial judgment shows how society often gathers a narrow opinion without true understanding of a situation, or philosophy in this case. Gardner ascribes to the Dragon the voice of an “old old man” in order to address a stereotype about philosophers as being old fashioned and outdated. This also applies to the existential craze in America which becomes just as interesting to Gardner as “boobies, hemorrhoids, [and] boils” (59).
The dragon influences Grendel to make a complete existential conversion, showing how easily thoughts are manipulated. Grendel begins the conversation with an attitude that he needs to leave humans alone, as well as abstain from scaring them “for sport” (Gardner 61). However, the Dragon refutes this attitude while claiming to “know everything,” (Gardner 61) and the character of Grendel quickly accepts the Dragon’s vision of a meaningless universe (Ellis 48). As Grendel makes his “long dull fall of eternity” (Gardner 61) into existentialism, he loses admiration, beauty, and hope toward life, plunging further into the nothingness of existence. Grendel believes “stars, like jewels scattered in a dead king’s grave, tease, torment my wits towards meaningful patterns that do not exist” (Gardner 11). Grendel pushes himself away from the natural, divine beauty that lies in the stars and focuses on material “jewels” as well as his primitive desires.
The conversation between Grendel and the Dragon emphasizes easy deception and manipulation by those with questionable wisdom. The dragon communicates his philosophy like “an old man” while converting Grendel into a creature who believes that nothing of importance exists outside of the individual. The meaninglessness of life prophesied by the Dragon recognizes Gardner’s feelings about the limitations of existentialism and the people conforming to existentialism during the years prior to the 1971 publication of Grendel. Although these people have been faced with war, violence, and disillusionment, they cling to the popular movement without thought or argument as to other possible explanations. In the same way, Grendel concedes to the Dragon without resistance. The Dragon begins to control both the metaphysical and physical functions of Grendel (Ellis 52). The Dragon’s philosophy matches that of the society Gardner satirizes, with thoughts that “things come and go” as well as the opinion that each event is just “a swirl in the stream of time” (70). On the other hand, Gardner provides a solution repairing the problems found in existentialist philosophy. He gives society a new hope within the character of the Shaper.
In John Gardner’s world, the cure for despair lies within the character of the Shaper. In the novel, the Shaper tells stories to the court, and these stories portray the warriors as victorious heroes. The Shaper’s poetry allows the people of Hrothgar’s kingdom to find relief during difficult times of violence and destruction. The Shaper helps the kingdom prosper while promoting ideas of heroism and sacrifice (Winther 23). He sings of “a glorious meadhall whose light would shine to the ends of the ragged world” (Gardner 47). The Danes find a purpose to live from the serious and dignified poems about the beauty of men’s glory (Mason 105). “The Shaper comes along in a meaningless, stupid kingdom and makes up a rationale. He creates the heroism… he makes the people brave, and sure, it’s a lie, but it’s also a vision” (105).
The Shaper promotes a lifestyle of courage and nobility, while the Dragon believes in meaninglessness and greed. Although the Shaper’s vision is not an accurate account of the daily activities of the Danes, it seduces Grendel with its power and meaningful words (McWilliams 31). However, Grendel’s perception of the human’s lifestyle is different from that of the Shaper. This difference relates to John Gardner’s own fiction, which informs readers the importance of looking at a situation from a new, previously unaddressed perspective. This re-affirms Gardner’s argument that society in the 1960’s pursues a philosophical trend without questioning its ideas.
Throughout history, people have used art to make statements or respond to society. In Grendel, John Gardner takes the familiar story of Beowulf and allows many readers an opportunity to look beyond one way of thinking into a new, previously unacknowledged perspective. Gardner is responding to the popular trend of existentialism in the 1960’s, lead by Jean Paul Sartre, and he pleads for society to open their minds and truly discover other perspectives regarding life.
Bellamy, Joe David and Pat Ensworth. “John Gardner.” Conversations with John Gardner. Ed. Allan Chavkin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. 6-27.
Ellis, Helen and Warren Ober. “Grendel and Blake: The Contraries of Existence.” John Gardner: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. 46-61.
“Existentialism.” Oxford English Dictionary. 24 Apr. 2003 <http://www.oed.com>.
Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.
Harvey, Marshall. “Where Philosophy and Fiction Meet: An Interview with John Gardner.” Conversations with John Gardner. Ed. Allan Chavkin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. 84-98.
Mason, Kenneth. “Of Monsters and Men: Sartrean Existentialism and John Gardner’s Grendel.” Thor’s Hammer: Essays on John Gardner. Ed. Jeff Henderson. University of Central Arkansas Press, 1985. 101-110.
McWilliams, Dean. John Gardner. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Nutter, Ronald Grant. A Dream of Peace: Art and Death in the Fiction of John Gardner. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1997.
Winther, Per. The Art of John Gardner: Instruction and Exploration. New York: State University of New York Press, 1992.
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