THE EXCELLENCE OF A STUDENT PAPER DESERVES RECOGNITION.
THIS STUDY OF BEOWULF WAS RESEARCHED FOR
MY JUNIOR HONORS BRITISH LITERATURE CLASS.
THE AUTHOR IS MARY FRANCIS FITZSIMMONS
Grendel and Beowulf: Illuminating the Relationship Between Nihilistic and Christian Archetypes
[Throughout this paper, G after a character's name refers to Gardner; AS to Beowulf the poem.]
The Wisdom god, Woden, went out to the king of trolls
and demanded to know how order might triumph over chaos.
Give me your left eye, said the king of trolls, and Ill tell you.
Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye.
Now tell me.
The troll said, The secret is, Watch with both eyes!
Wodens left eye was the last sure hope of gods and men in their kingdom of light surrounded by darkness. All we have left is Thors hammer, which represents not brute force but art, or, counting both hammerheads, art and criticism
The philosophies expressed in the Beowulf epic complement the exploration of existentialism throughout the modern work, Grendel, by John Gardner. Both works portray different perspectives of the same story, involving the same characters; Beowulf, the ancient Anglo-Saxon hero who destroys Grendel, and Grendel, the monster who terrorizes Hrothgars hall. Beowulf and Grendel act as archetypes that explore humanitys perception of the world. In the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf and his companions represent good, and the monsters, including Grendel, represent evil. When Beowulf kills Grendel, the world is less evil, but since Beowulfs companions die in the struggle, the world is also less good. Ultimately, the two forces of good and evil will destroy each other, but the story maintains that God will interfere and save mankind from destruction. In Gardners story, the progression of society begins when mankind creates a monster and then creates a hero to fight the monster. Once the greater power of the hero had been established, once the conflicts resolution strengthened societys power, than a greater monster developed out of the more powerful society. Gardners Grendel (G) refuses to be shaped by society; he defines himself by nihilistically destroying men because of their untiring dogmatism. By defying the pattern that mankind used to identify and thus control him, Grendel (G) asserts his independence. Beowulf (G), the hero, is able to identify Grendel (G)s pattern and destroy him. Since mankind could only defeat Grendel (G) by creating a hero more powerful than him, the hero represents a kind of process that ultimately creates a greater monster. Therefore, using these archetypes, Gardner and the Beowulf poet use the same story to illuminate the difference between ancient and modern society; Beowulf (AS) is the proper representative of the Anglo-Saxon society, and Grendel (G) is the proper representative of the modern world.
Grendels role remains the same in both books; the role of a monster that embodies humanitys fears, a creature that human society creates. Grendel (AS) exists as a mindless perversion of nature. He represents one branch of the human society created by God that is distorted by evil. However Grendel (G) exists as just another aspect of nature, outside of human society; until he is transformed by his contact with mankind, the concept of monster does not apply to Grendel (G.) In viewing the monstrous body as a metaphor for the cultural body
beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends are symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervades a society and shapes its collective behavior. (Cohen). This is especially true of Grendel (G), whose attempts to interact with humanity leads to disaster. The men cannot define Grendel (G,) until the Shaper gives him a distinct seat in society:
He told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world into darkness and light. And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect. The terrible race God cursed.
(Gardner, p. 51)
The humans label Grendel (G) as the son of Cain; therefore, he exists outside the myth, and that attempt to force him into understandable terms proved disastrous. Oh the other hand, Grendel (AS) is immortalized as the son of Cain long before Gardner conceived his nihilistic identity:
Nor had Cain cause to boast
Of his deed of blood
Of his blood was begotten an evil brood
Marauding monsters and menacing trolls.
Humanity has found a place for Grendel (AS); the poet has defined him as a monster, as what society finds most troubling about itself, just as his ancestor Cain represented the evil side of humanity. Grendel (AS) truly is the son of Cain, in that both he and Cain exist as the archetype of humanitys dark side. Grendel (Gs) relationship to Cain represents a metaphor, a pattern that the Shaper identifies and uses to influence society.
Their relationship is symbolic; Beowulf (AS) exists because Grendel (AS) exists, the hero created by man to face the monster. The only thing that separates the two is the moral definition that the role of a hero assigns- Beowulf (AS) is in fact more dangerous than Grendel (AS), but he aids society, whereas Grendel (AS) destroys it. Gardners Beowulf (G) becomes a frightening, mechanical, soulless creature:
He had a strange face the eyes slanted downward, never blinking, unfeeling as a snakes he smiled as he spoke, but it was as if the gentle voice, the childlike yet faintly ironic smile were holding something back, some magician-power that could blast stone cliffs to ashes as lightening blasts trees the sea pale eyes of the stranger were focused on nothing. He and his company moved like one creature, one huge, strange machine. (Gardner p.154-155)
If Beowulf (G) behaves mechanically, than he can react perfectly to any situation, he can observe life more accurately than the human, more accurately than even Grendel (G). However, Beowulf (G) is simply a monster that fights for humanity, hinting at the inevitable outcome of mankinds progress- the creation of a hero more dangerous than the monster, when the definitions of hero and monster are separated only by the subjective morality of the people describing their own creations.
Grendel (G), created as evil by men, is however, not evil. Tim Johnson writes: What prevents Grendel (G) from being fully absorbed by the Shapers vision is that the Shaper only has use for Grendel (G) as a foe (G,) who, like Grendel (G), does not fit easily into the definitions of good or evil.
Quite the opposite is true of Beowulf (AS), who clearly represents the good in human society:
Year after year of struggle and strife,
An endless scourging, a scorning of peace
With any man of the Danish might.
No strength could move him to stay his hand
Or pay for his murders. The wise knew well
They could hope for no halting of savage assault
Then tales of the terrible deeds of Grendel
Reached Hygelacs thane in his home with the Geats;
Of living men he was the strongest,
Fearless and gallant and great of heart.
This portrayal of Beowulf (AS) as good is the difference between them; Beowulf (AS) is good, Grendel (AS) is evil. After Grendel (ASs) death the world is less evil, but it is also less good, since some of Beowulf (ASs) men died as well. Since the hero represents progress, more powerful people create more powerful monsters- where will it end?
Beowulf (G) seems a more mechanical being than a moral one. At first, Beowulf (G) seems to operate by observing patterns, like all humans, until Grendel (G) realizes that he can only see Beowulf (G) with the same artistic view the Shaper viewed Grendel (G), not by objective instinct, but flawed knowledge, an incomplete picture of reality:
I found myself not listening, merely looking at his mouth, which moved, it seemed to me, independent of the words, as if the body of the stranger were a ruse, a disguise for something infinitely more terrible
I understood at last that look in his eyes. He was insane.
Beowulf (Gs) insanity arises from his own state of existence- he is the creation of humanity, and he, like Grendel (G), exists as the incarnate of societys most fearsome trait. Grendel (G) does not realize that Beowulf (Gs) existence is based on Grendel (Gs) attempts to destroy society although the dragon tells him:
You improve them, my boy! Cant you see that for yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to
all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves
You are mankind, or mans condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain.
Grendel (G) does not understand, but it soon becomes apparent that the dragon is correct, as the men continue, time and time again, to ward off Grendel (G,) and his attempts to kill their hope had the end result of inspiring a different fear that Beowulf (G) comes to embody- the fear of losing ones soul.
The idea of losing ones soul is by far the most frightening characteristic of modern society, for the loss of the soul represents the loss of innate humanity. It is not mere irony that Beowulf (G) the savior of the people and seemingly the embodiment of goodness, is portrayed as lacking that which truly can objectively define goodness, for Grendel (G) quickly perceives that Beowulf (G) has no soul, it is a dark and frightening turn of events following the peoples rejection of God:
Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
Offerings to idols, swore oaths
That the killer of souls might come to their aid
And save the people. That was their way
Deep in their hearts
They remembered hell O cursed is he
Who in the time of trouble has to thrust his soul
In the fires embrace, forfeiting help;
He has nowhere to turn.
Therefore, Beowulf (G) could in fact be the Destroyer, that of the peoples satanic prayers, the Devils response to their pleas. Does progress then lead mankind to sell its soul, to lose hope, to set a price for grace? Did Grendel (G) succeed in his mission to destroy society? He certainly warped it in such a fashion that he caused all the people to lose hope.
Grendel () witnesses the crumbling of society, the rejection of God, and the subsequent descent into insanity, as one priest raves to another:
Merely rational thought leaves the mind incurably crippled in a closed and ossified system, it can only extrapolate from the past. But now, at last, sweet fantasy has found root in your blessed soul! The absurd, the inspiring, the uncanny, the awesome, the terrifying, the ecstatic-none of these had a place for you before
A vision of the Destroyer! Cant you grasp it, brothers? Both blood and sperm are explosive
and inexplicably fascinating! They transcend!
When even the religious figures of a community reject spirituality and confuse terrifying with sacred, than the hero created by that community will not truly save anyone, he will merely perpetuate the growing fascination with demonic forces. The priest has become so desperate that he concludes blood and sperm are transcendent imagery, that violence and perversion represent truth, that the Great Destroyer, or Satan, will save the people, if they are willing to pay the price. Grendel (G) is an agent of societys doom, but he does not cause the peoples downfall- mankind created Grendel (G) in the first place, therefore, mankind destroys itself. Progress becomes nothing more than the search for more destructive means to counteract man-made evils, ending eventually; with the price humanity will set for its soul.
What do the hopeless pray for? Nothing. Who do the hopeless pray to? No one. What do the hopeless give up to survive? Everything, even the soul- the only truly valuable part of a human being. Beowulf, a Christian worldview template, portrays Beowulf (AS) and Grendel (AS) as incarnations of good and evil. Grendel documents the imbalance that prompts progress, where each stage of humanitys development creates a more powerful monster. Beowulf (G) could be the savior of society, or he could be its Destroyer, the incarnation of either Christ or Satan, the symbol of either good or evil. The question is of the moral affiliation of Beowulf (G) is determined by that of the people he comes to save. After all, they are his creators, and ultimately, they determine whether he frees them from hell or severs their connection to heaven.
The ancient epic allows for hope; in fact, it is the saving grace of mankind: the hope that God will save society and establish harmony and justice. The modern story takes the opposite view; it shows what happens when hope is lost, when society has nowhere to turn: it is a more pessimistic, more complicated view of humanitys progress.
Gardner, John. Grendel , New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989.
Gardner, John. Moral Fiction. New York: Basic Books Inc, 1977.
Heany, Seamus. Beowulf: A Modern Translation. New York: Farrer, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
B. Web Sites
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory. George Washington University: www.upress.umn.edu/Books/C/cohen_monster.html, 2001.
Johnson, Tim. Grendel. New York: www.panix.com/~iayork/Literary/Grendel/grendel2.html, 2001.