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The Meaning of Life in the Story about Grendel

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In the Old English epic poem, Beowulf, Grendel is described to be an inhumane, evil monster said to bear a curse as he is a descendant of Cain. He attacks the Danes during the night as a reaction to the joy that he cannot empathize with. His home is revealed to exist under a body of water that is littered with sea monsters and dragons, murky with blood. Yet his eventual death is avenged by the one with whose bond is strongest to ever exist: his mother, raising the question of whether or not Grendel was really a “monster.” John Gardner, in his retold story of the old poem from the monster’s point of view, called Grendel, humanizes the life of the legendary monster by taking readers through Grendel’s spiritual journey, answering questions that lie behind his alienation and outbursts that label him a “monster.” By giving Grendel a voice that was never heard of for centuries, Gardner proves to readers that Grendel’s struggles and spiritual journeys are no different than those experienced by humans, blurring the lines that differentiate human from monster. Grendel’s reflection of his existential view of life in parts of the story resonate with my understanding of what life means to me, opening the doors to many possibilities that exist beyond my scope of imagination: that life if simply what I make of it. For Grendel, it was his inevitable death.

Existentialism, as described by William Barrett in his novel Irrational Man, began after World War II, where disillusionment was rampant and post-war emotions included pessimism and hopelessness (Barrett). The term was first introduced by French writer Jean-Paul Sartre, turning into a “cultural movement that flourished in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s.” Existentialism is a philosophical inquiry that states that human beings cannot be described nor understood simply by “categories found in the conceptual repertoire of ancient or modern thought” (Crowell). The fundamental scientific concepts that seems to be understood by humans is therefore insufficient to describe the depth of the human existence; these tools can only achieve a limited amount of understanding of physical processes, but not the emotional ones. Existentialism concludes that current methods of rationalization and giving meaning to life and human existence are not enough to grasp full understanding (Crowell).

Existentialism was created with the underlying question of what it means to live. It recognizes the difference between human existence and existence in general, because generalities can be understood with knowledge, while humans cannot (Burnham). When one adopts existentialism as their way of life, they succumb to one of the following beliefs:

“Nature as a whole has no design, no reason for existing.” The sciences that seem to define nature do not actually explain the reason to why things occur the way they do, but are simply description of what is observed.
“Freedom will not only be undetermined by knowledge or reason, but from the point of view of the latter my freedom will even appear absurd.” Every aspect of choice will have moments of absurdity, even when it seems that a path taken to arrive to a specific conclusion does not appear absurd itself.
“Human existence as action is doomed to always destroy itself.” Actions are always bound to the world around them, and no action can occur independent of other factors. A “free” action, once done, is no longer free (Burnham).
With these, existentialists arrive at the conclusion that human existence is what it is not. Existence is then separate from humans themselves, and in order to be “free,” one cannot be bound to the world of cycles. In short, existentialism is a representation of the choice one makes to live their life, regardless of whether or not that way is true. One can set their own value, and live to fulfill it. Such is the vagueness of the philosophy.

At the entrance of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is inscribed the phrase, “Know thyself!,” a saying attributed to Socrates in regards to the beginning of a philosophical journey: to know oneself first (Barrett). Grendel’s philosophical journey in attempts to figure out the true meaning of life revolved around understanding the world around him; he already knew what he was. The beginning of Grendel’s journey begins as an allusion to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which a group of men sat, chained, inside a cave, staring at shadows on the wall in which they perceive is reality. Only when one man breaks the chains and ventures into the outside world does he realize that the world is more than just a perception of what people think of it, although perception and truth may overlap. Grendel, in his journey, parallels this journey as he ventures outside his lair and breaks the physical barrier that exists between his world at the outside world, which was the body of water filled with sea dragons. During Grendel’s first encounter with humans, he realizes that he is very much like them, with the only differences being the way he looks and the way he grew up in isolation. It can be argued that the reason for Grendel’s anger and actions in the rest of the book can be rooted in the isolation and alienation he felt when the humans shut him out as he tried communicate, since they both spoke the same language. The humans’ instinctual expressions of hate towards the different creature may be the tipping point that catalyzed Grendel’s need to find out the meaning of his existence, as if it were different from anyone else’s. Hence Grendel’s need to find where he really belongs.

Grendel’s isolation allowed him to observe the world as a third party, as if his being was independent of the world’s mechanics. Multiple times in the novel, Grendel criticizes the cyclic nature of the universe, shown through his frustration with the ram that kept attacking him, the mountain goat that was determined to climb the mountain regardless of the impossibility, and the humans that killed for no reason. Grendel, preventing himself from succumbing to this cyclic nature, ventured to find meaning to his existence that had nothing to do with the stupidity, as he thought, of the world. The only thing he knew for certain was that he was alone. He says, “I understood that the world was nothing; a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist” (Gardner, 22). This idea of existential absurdity allows for Grendel to define the values of his life that separate him from the rest of the world and its mechanics that others succumb to (Burnham). The only thing that matters to him is his own existence, as he is the only one that can shape and give meaning to his life.

Perhaps the meaning that Grendel gave to his own life was the determination to figure out why he existed. While Grendel felt confused at multiple points in the novel, the reason he kept living the way he did was because his goal was to figure out the meaning to his existence. Unlike the dragon, who retired from a normal life to “sit on gold” (Grendel, Chapter 5), Grendel kept observing the world to find the answers to his own life. Unlike nihilists, he had a reason to live and reason behind the things he did. For example, when Grendel wreaks havoc in the mead hall to encounter the Queen, a symbolism for innocence and faith, he did not kill her despite his ability to. He says, “I have not committed the ultimate act of nihilism: I have not killed the queen” (Gardner, 93). Grendel reflects on this possibility and concludes that there simply is no benefit to killing Queen Wealtheow. Killing her would prove acknowledgement in the faith that Grendel opposes, giving in to a nihilist nature that denies any reason behind the world. The recurring idea throughout the novel is that Grendel knows there is a reason to his existence, and he lived to figure it out.

Grendel recognized that the cyclic nature of the world was made up of actions and reactions; he made it a goal that his existence would not be a simple reaction to what the world made him face. His death, however, proved otherwise. Grendel fights Beowulf in the mead hall, believing he has won before the fight even begins. The lack of Grendel’s presence is what ultimately causes Beowulf to win the fight, taking Grendel’s arm as a trophy. Until his death, Grendel recognizes that the reason behind his loss was not a result of his weakness, but rather an “accident.” While he fights, he says, “My sanity has won. He’s only a man; I can escape him. I plan. I feel the plan moving inside me like that-time waters rising between cliffs… I have fallen! Slipped on blood. By accident, it comes to me, I have given him a greater advantage” (Gardner, 169). The ending lines of the novel also say, “‘Poor Grendel’s had an accident,’ I whisper. ‘So may you all’” (Gardner, 174). With Grendel losing the fight, readers realize that Grendel falls into the pattern of the cyclic nature that he tried so hard to dissociate from. His “plan” and the way he fought were simply responses to what he was given to face. While readers realize it, Grendel did not. Perhaps this is the way he fulfilled his existential life goal: to not be a part of nature, and die separate of it.

The beauty of existentialism is that is allows us to turn life into what it is not, allowing us to fill the pages of a book that is only known to us. In his vast sea of loneliness and the love that his cruel world deprived him of, Grendel found the reason to his own being, to not fall into the set path that nature guides for everyone else. Existentialism allows for one to define the meaning of their own life, allowing them to choose the way they live and create their own guidelines for their existence, aside from societal values and religious expectations. Disappointment and unhappiness is rooted in failure to meet expectations that are set too high in the first place; however, setting one’s own expectations of how they want to live solves the problem of unhappiness before it can even happen. While to a much lesser degree than Grendel’s, existentialism has solved the problems of many and given hope to many others. Life is not a one size fits all, but a creation of journey that one aims to achieve in a world made as their own.

Works Cited

Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1958. Print.

Burnham, Douglas, and George Papandreopoulos. “Existentialism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2017. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/existent/>.

Crowell, Steven, “Existentialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/existentialism/>.

Greenstreet, Stuart. “On Being An Existentialist.” On Being An Existentialist. Philosophy Now, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2017. <https://philosophynow.org/issues/115/On_Being_An_Existentialist>.

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971. Print.

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