John Gardner's novel Grendel give the reader a new perspective on the classic "good vs. Evil" plot. From the start of the book the reader can tell that there is something very unique about the narrator. It is evident that the narrator is a very observant being that can express himself in a very poetic manner. The story is one the reader has most likely seen before, the battle between the glorious thanes and the "evil" beast. In this case, however, the "beast" is the eyes and ears of the reader. This, of course, forces the reader to analyze situations in the book in the same way that Grendel does. By using this viewpoint, the author allows his readers to see the other side of the coin. Therefore, throughout the course of the novel the reader is able to understand how important Grendel is in defining the humans.
Grendel's first encounter with the human beings that he literally defines is not a pleasant one. After accidentally trapping himself in a tree he is discovered by a group of thanes out on patrol. Grendel expresses absolutely no hostile intentions towards these "ridiculous" (ch.2, pp.24) creatures that "moved by clicks." (ch.2, pp.24) The thanes do not understand what Grendel is and are very uneasy about the whole situation. Like animals they are frightened of anything that is different from what they are used to. When Grendel attempts to communicate they show their ignorance and simple-mindedness. Instead of taking the time to understand the anomaly in their world they panic and decide to destroy it. Without being able to view the story from Grendel's point of view the reader might assume that the humans had every right to attack. Another example of the same type of simple-mindedness is their second premature attack on Grendel. After hearing the shaper's words Grendel weeps, "'Mercy! Peace!'"(ch.4, pp.50) in the hopes of salvation from the god of these men. The men, in a drunken state, merely misunderstand Grendel's intentions and attack him once again. Instead of killing the men, which would have been an easy task for the giant, Grendel escapes into the night. This action alone defines the men as the "beasts" and Grendel as the victim.
Another aspect of the humans in the story that Grendel defines is their concept of a hero. Not only does he allow for heroes to exist he gives them their purpose in life. Grendel is the monster in the darkness that every loyal thane would defend his king against. Without Grendel this unique situation would not exist. On the other hand, Grendel has the ability of humiliating and causing a man to be named a coward. He does this to none other than Unferth. Unferth is treated like a hero because he would defeat the "monster" Grendel, or die trying. When Grendel does not allow him to complete this task he is shamed by his fellow thanes. Grendel realizes that by killing the man he will be defining him as a hero in the eyes of the humans. Considering the way Grendel was treated by Unferth, and others like him, it becomes easy to sympathize with him extracting this tiny bit of revenge. Later on in the story, however, Grendel gives a man the glory of being a hero at the cost of his own life. This man is Beowulf. By defeating Grendel in battle Beowulf becomes a legend and fulfills his destiny. In these instances Grendel defines what a hero is and what a hero is not.
The last example of Grendel defining what the humans are is brought out by the only creature that Grendel fears, the dragon. The all knowing dragon can see that Grendel doubts the need for his existence. Although it apparently makes no difference to the dragon, or to the rest of eternity for that matter, he tells Grendel, "'You are mankind'."(ch.5, pp. 73) He further explains that without Grendel the men would have nothing to compare their lives to. In order to glorify themselves they need something even more "evil" than they are. This is clearly seen when the shaper describes Grendel as being a part of "The terrible race God cursed."(ch.4, pp.51) The conclusion the shaper makes, however, is not consistent with his fellow man's actions. Humans, in this case, are the ones who should be cursed. They, not Grendel, lie, cheat, and kill each other for no reason. No matter how unfair it seems the shaper forms his stories and others believe without question.
It should become evident to the reader how important Grendel is to making the humans in the story have meaning. Without Grendel's interaction with the humans the reader may have never seen the truth behind some of their actions. The story of humans being the light side of all that is good and evil is one that is told throughout the ages. The novel Grendel, however, shows us that this is not necessarily true. Grendel defines the humans as the "evil" ones simply by bringing out the true nature of humanity. It is a pity that we, as a race, have no Grendel to define us.
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