Grendel–John Gardner

For my contemporary fiction class we read “Grendel” by John Gardner. What strikes me most about the novel is the language and why we tell stories.

Some of my favorite lines:

  • “Stars, spattered out through lifeless night from end to end, like jewels scattered in a dead king’s grave, tease, torment my wits toward meaningful patterns that do not exist.” (11)
  • “Inside the hall I would hear the Shaper telling of the glorious deeds of dead kings–how they’d split certain heads, snuck away with precious swords and necklaces–his harp mimicking the rush of swords, clanging boldly with the noble speeches, sighing behind the heroes’ dying words. Whenever he stopped, thinking up formulas for what to say next, the people would all shout and thump each other and drink to the Shaper’s long life.” (34)
  • “When he [Shaper] finished, the hall was as quiet as a mound. I too was silent, my ear pressed tight against the timbers. Even to me, incredibly, he had made it all seem true and very fine. Now a little, now more, a great roar began, an exhalation of breath that swelled to a rumble of voices and then to the howling and clapping and stomping of men gone mad on art. They would seize the oceans, the farthest stars, the deepest secret rivers in Hrothgar’s name! Men wept like children: children sat stunned. It went on and on, a fire more dread than any visible fire.” (43)
  • “If the ideas of art were beautiful, that was art’s fault, not the Shaper’s.” (49)
  • “It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and set out the sun and moon as lights to landdwellers, that brothers had fought, that one fo the races was saved, the other cursed. Yet he, the old Shaper, might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, his cunning trickery. It came to me with a fierce jolt that I wanted it. As they did too, though vicious animals, cunning, cracked with theories. I wanted it, yes! Even if I must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of his hideous fable.” (55)
  • “‘Except in the life of a hero, the whole world’s meaningless. The hero sees values beyond what’s possible. That’s the nature of a hero. It kills him, of course, ultimately. But it makes the whole struggle of humanity worthwhile.'” (89)
  • “There have got to be stabler things than love.” (115)
  • “I think of the pastness of the past: how the moment I am alive in, prisoned in, moves like a slowly tumbling form through darkness, the underground river.” (146)
  • “Only in a world where everything is patently being lost can a priest stir men’s hearts as a poet would by maintaining that nothing is in vain.” (159)

As an artist and a writer in particular, I was really drawn to Gardner’s idea of what a Shaper is and how the Shaper can push people’s minds. Gardner explores why we tell stories.

The book covers many ideas like religion, hope versus cynicism, knowledge and wisdom, heroism, and art. You can read the novel without prior knowledge of “Beowulf,” but at least know that Beowulf was the original hero and Grendel the villain.

Gardner writes from Grendel’s point of view in the novel. Who is the hero in “Grendel”? I would argue there are multiple ones, including the Shaper, art, and Grendel.

Have you read “Grendel”? What do you think of the novel?


  1. Hi Suzy,
    You’ve captured the essence of the novel quite nicely. I enjoyed the quotes you posted and was able to appreciate and savor and appreciate them even more out of the context of their ‘home,’ the novel.
    GRENDEL is entertaining, but buried in the drama are specific philosophies that make me marvel at how much work must have gone into this creation.
    Thanks for the post!

  2. [oops. One “appreciate” would suffice, of course.]

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