Friday, July 26, 2013

Seeking meaning in Gardner's "Grendel"

My summer reading for school marathon continues with Grendel, by John Garner. It's a retelling of part of the Beowulf story, but from the monster's point of view.

I had read this book years ago and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to rereading it.

But the rereading was not as satisfying as I had hoped.

I recognize Gardner's obvious skill as a writer. And the monster's perspective gives a whole new level of understanding to the myth.

At the same time, misgivings bubble beneath the surface as I read.

Sometimes I felt as if Gardner was writing to show off his skill. Look at what I'm doing: Admire it!

And there was a current of nihilism that troubled me. Much of the novel seems to be saying that there is no meaning to life - or art, poetry, religion - unless I create my own meaning, and ignore truth. I kept sensing Jean Paul Sartre's ghost! As for Grendel, he does create meaning for a while - in being a monster - though he is not fully satisfied. In a sense, he has become like an actor, playing a role, embracing that role, but uneasily sensing that there's something more, something "truer" that he just can't understand or accept.

Beowulf in their final battle helps to show that there is something more - a promise of spring, of life, of creation. But that comes only at the end - and only after the nihilism that dominated. It's like one of those old Bible movies where we wallow in sin and sensuality, and then have a redeeming moment at the end to make it all moral.

As I read, I also thought of Nikos Kazantzakis who in novels like The Last Temptation of Christ and St. Francis gives new visions of the characters but at the same time seems to be actually wrestling with his own demons. I don't know if that's true of Gardner in Grendal, but the thought kept nagging at me as I read.

Part of my reaction may be due to the fact that I have changed and grown (I hope) in the years since I first read the novel. Perhaps my own struggles and world-view at the time I first read it made it seem better in my eyes.

I can still appreciate the book, but with less enthusiasm than I once did. Perhaps it's because I've found meaning in my life, so the novel no longer resonates with me.

So ... worth reading. But not a ringing endorsement.

Pax et bonum

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