Friday, August 03, 2012

Grendel by John Gardner

This was one of the first books I re-bought after the flood, and perhaps the first I deliberately re-read as well. Of course, it's short and pointed, very much a quick read, which undoubtedly had something to do with it.

What I had forgotten is how word-besotted Grendel is, how much it's an exercise in language. It is a retelling of Beowulf from the monster's point of view, yes, but it's even more so a Whitmanian barbaric yawp across the world, the cry of a creature considered barbaric and evil by its very existence, and furiously playing both to and against type the whole way. Grendel is not a book for any reader who just wants a story told plainly; this book is all in the telling and not in the tale.

Grendel is our narrator, our main character, our voice. Beowulf is just the unnamed nemesis who kills him in the end, a monstrous Geat who gets lucky and grabs Grendel's arm at just the right time. (Or so Grendel says: his last line, after all, is "Poor Grendel's had an accident; so may you all." He claims not to have been defeated by force, but by luck.)

Grendel has little in the way of plot; Grendel is a monster who revels in doing monstrous things, mostly to the local Danes, but those monstrous things don't build, as a scheme does: he's just toying with them, twisting them, and causing whatever trouble it comes to his mind to cause that day. But he's a magnificent monster, and a wondrous creation, and his words are like strong liquor: sometimes lovely and flowing, sometimes too much, but always rich and heady and intoxicating.

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