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Grendel Meets Absurdity: Grendel Meets the Dragon
essay [ ]

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by [José María ]

2003-12-12  |     | 

In order to emphasize on a certain part, scene, or chapter of a book, play, or novel, authors sometimes tend to rely on the absurd. In this way, they can stress on the meaning or the message they want to portray, as well as they can use it to give the novel a pivotal change. For example, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the author uses the element of a vivified portrait, a pivotal change within the novel that gave meaning to it as a whole. In his novel, Grendel, John Gardner uses the element of absurdity, where he thrusts his main character into an irrational predicament and shows how, although he tries to defy it, he finally concedes to it.

Throughout his early life, Grendel, a human-like monster, shows us to be in a state of hopelessness towards life; he thought everything to be mechanic, monotonous, and dull. He expresses it this way:

It’s good at first to be out in the night,naked to the cold mechanics of the stars. Space hurls outward, falconswift, mounting like an irreversible injustice, a final disease. The stone face carved on the high cliff wall to show that the world is abandoned.

As the novel continues, he discovers human beings, and in his solitude, he tries to be part of them; nevertheless, they rejected him because of his monster-like appearance. However, the emergence of the Shaper gives Grendel a hope and a spark of life that he never before experienced. He commented it this way:

As a matter of fact, if the Shaper’s vision of goodness and peace was a part of himself, not idle rhymes, then no one understood him at all, not even Hrothgar…. “That could change,” I said, shaking my finger as if at an audience. “The Shaper may yet improve men’s minds, bring peace to the miserable Danes.”
Nonetheless, after an attack to the mead hall, Grendel was surprised of how the Shaper sang lies of how the people fought him, and could not understand how he can glorify death with the same delight as he was before glorifying goodness and peace.

Therefore, Grendel’s loneliness due to humans’ non-acceptance, the Shaper’s “betrayal,” and the feeling that his mother is “as deadlooking as a red-gray old sea-elephant stretched on the shore of a summer day,” made Grendel visit the dragon, as if a refuge. Right from the start, we know this dragon is not a benefactor; it is evident in this description: “The high eyelids wrinkled more, the corner of his mouth snacked up as he chuckled, sly, hardly hiding his malice.” The dragon, as an all-knowing entity, knows that he is part of Grendel’s history and that from that moment Grendel’s life was going to change. “I felt as if I were tumbling down into it—dropping endlessly down to a soundless void. He let me fall, down and down toward a black sun and spiders, though he knew I was beginning to die.” This whole chapter with the dragon represents the absurdity. The dragon treats Grendel as a baby, and mocks him with such pleasure that disconcerts Grendel. Even though the dragon is making fun of him because he looks like a rabbit, and tells him: “‘Now you know how they feel when they see you,’” still Grendel has good thoughts about humans. Instead of thinking that he should rebel against them, he thinks that he would rather stay clear of them. However, the dragon tries to convince Grendel that he is the “brute existent by which they learn to define themselves,” but Grendel does not believes him.

Grendel defies the dragon several times, always trying to remain true to his nature. The first time is in the beginning, when the dragon is mocking him about his appearance, and Grendel took an emerald to throw it him. The second time, when the dragon says: “’Nothing interests you but excitement, violence,’” and Grendel responds: “‘that’s not true.’” Then, the dragon is telling him about what will come in the future and Grendel defies him telling him that he does not believe him. Finally, Grendel thinks after all this dragon’s convincement:

I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure. Flattering me into tormenting them because he, in his sullen hole, loved viciousness. I said, ‘Let them find some other ‘brute existent,’ whatever that is. I refuse.

Sarcastically, the dragon responds: “‘Do something else, by all means! Alter the future! Make the world a better place in which to live! Help the poor! Feed the hungry. Be kind to idiots! What a challenge!,’” as the final way of convincing Grendel that he should accept what he supposedly knows as his destiny. Grendel knows that something will come out of all this, and the next day he thought:

Nothing was changed, everything was changed, by me having seen the dragon…Whatever I may have understood or misunderstood in the dragon’s talk, something much deeper stayed within me, became my aura… I discovered that the dragon had put a charm on me: no weapon could cut me.

From this moment on, Grendel starts his physical, mental, and moral decay. When he discovered that he would feel no pain to swords and weapons, he starts enjoying killing and even becomes addicted to eating human flesh and bone and drinking human blood. It is evident how the dragon’s irrational suggestions and explanations, which at first Grendel never believed, became Grendel’s reality and affected him until his death. Hence, we see how his philosophical hopelessness of the beginning that was starting to get shaped by the Shaper, is developed in his physical and moral hopelessness at the end, where he says:

I am weak of loss of blood. No one follows me now. I stumble again and with my one weak arm I cling to the huge twisted roots of an oak. I look down past stars to a terrifying darkness. I seem to recognize the place, but it’s impossible. ‘Accident,’ I whisper. I will fall. I seem to desire to fall, and though I fight it with all my will I know in advance that I can’t win.

I believe that if Grendel, or any human being on Earth, would have stayed true to feelings and thoughts which were good in nature, he would have eventually joined peacefully with humans, and would not have felt that solitude, darkness, and desire to fall which he experiences at the end.

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