The Deconstruction Of The Heroic Ideal In John Gardners Grendel

The heroic ideal is perhaps the most important aspect of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The poetry and literature of the Old English age celebrated heroic deeds and encouraged those listening to emulate heroic values at any and all opportunities. The epic poem Beowulf sets out to articulate this heroic code, which values strength, courage, and loyalty in its warriors. In contrast, John Gardner’s novel Grendel establishes a deconstruction of this heroic ideal. Through its exploration of various veins of philosophical thought, including nihilism and solipsism, Gardner’s work introduces alternatives and challenges to the practicality of heroism.

The primary goal of the Anglo-Saxon warrior was to act in accordance with the heroic code and to hopefully perform an action worthy enough to be remembered throughout history, passed down from generation to generation within poetry. The code encompasses several values that men of this era were expected to observe: bravery in battle, loyalty to king and kinsmen, and selfless acts that could help to achieve a greater good. This code was paramount to these societies as a means of understanding their places in the world and the threats that hovered outside their established communities. All people’s moral judgments stemmed from the framework of the heroic code and heroic ideals; individual actions could be judged in a clear-cut manner as either conforming to or violating the code. In this way, the code was an important source of stability for a people whose very society was perpetually in a precarious state, constantly threatened by outside invading forces.

The text of Beowulf exhibits several instances that support the idea of a heroic code. Beowulf himself can be seen as the archetypal hero. For example, Beowulf demonstrates the heroic virtue of fairness by refusing to bring weapons with him to a fight with Grendel, as Grendel is known to rely on brute strength alone (Beowulf, 32). He desires a fair fight, even with the primary enemy threatening the survival of his kinsmen. He also demonstrates that glory is of the utmost importance to the people of the Anglo-Saxon period; in the description of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, the author remarks that “glory in battle was given to Beowulf” and that Beowulf “rejoiced in his night’s work, a deed to make famous his courage” (37). Another ideal that corresponds to the code is that of proper vengeance; Anglo-Saxon warriors were expected to exact revenge against those who harmed their family, king, or community. Beowulf fulfills this ideal when he offers counsel to Hrothgar, saying, “it is better for a man to avenge his friend than much mourn” (45). This practice of seeking revenge was called “wergild”, literally meaning man-price, and was an important value of the time period.

Another important aspect of the Anglo-Saxon worldview was the belief in the existence of God and the possibility of an afterlife. These beliefs lent significance to the actions of the people while they lived on earth; if their actions were to be judged later, either to be rewarded or punished, then their decisions could be considered meaningful. Heroes held on to this belief throughout their lives and their struggles; not only did they want to establish a good reputation for the legacy that would endure even after their mortal deaths, but they also considered the consequences of their actions in the greater scheme of possible eternal life. This Christian perspective is evident in Beowulf’s final speech before his death; he refers to God as the “King of Glory” and the “Eternal Prince” while giving thanks for his victory. Throughout the poem, God is referred to as the one who ordains an individual’s fate. Before Beowulf’s encounter with Grendel, he says: “may wise God, Holy Lord, assign glory on whichever hand seems good to him” (36). These instances further emphasize the faith that the Anglo-Saxon’s had in an afterlife. This faith rendered their actions on earth meaningful and gave them a specific end for which to strive.

The magnitude of the threat that Grendel poses to Hrothgar and the people of Heorot Hall is explored in John Gardner’s novel Grendel. Grendel is more than just a physical threat, tearing down the walls of the mead hall and cracking the skulls of the Scyldings; he poses a threat to the very values, the very worldview that the Anglo-Saxons relied on so faithfully. The heroic ideal is specifically challenged and deconstructed throughout Grendel’s musings and attacks. According to critic John M. Howell, “Gardner deconstructs the original epic’s characters and actions (and many of its lines) by placing them in an ironic context which implicitly questions the vision of the original work while saluting its literary power” (Howell, 62). As Grendel wages his lonely war against Hrothgar, he holds particular disdain for the thanes who view him as an avenue for the heroic deed that they will be remembered for. He calls these men “damned pompous fools”, and is sickened by their “blear-eyed heroism” (Grendel, 80). The thanes want to kill Grendel out of respect and homage to Hrothgar, to show gratitude for the hospitality he has shown them and to prove their unwavering loyalty. However, Grendel mocks these men, describing the entire spectacle as “outrageous: they came, they fell, howling insanity about brothers, fathers, glorious Hrothgar, and God” (35). Grendel perceives the world as a pointless mechanism, and believes that all people are simply “brief pulsations in the black hole of eternity” (74). This renders the heroic ideal completely futile, and the struggle to become a hero a fruitless one. His nihilistic vision of the world makes the strivings of the hero seem completely preposterous.

Chapter 6 presents the most powerful argument against the institution of the heroic ideal. Unferth begins his battle against Grendel in the typical fashion of an epic hero; he makes poetic speeches that exalt his moral code and highlight his bravery in battle. Grendel disrupts this invocation, surprising Unferth with his ability to communicate in man’s language. He also humiliates the struggling hero and undermines his attempt by hurling apples at him, in full view of his peers and competitors. Obviously, being pelted with fruit is not in the heroic concept of a valiant death. Grendel mocks what Unferth considers a serious battle and turns it into something ridiculous. Despite this embarrassment, Unferth follows Grendel back to the mere in order to argue his defense of heroism, an ideal that he feels Grendel has heinously slandered. According to Unferth, the value of heroism lies not within the fame it yields or the poetry that it inspires, but within the fact that it gives man something greater for which to strive. To this assertion, Grendel responds:

I’ve never seen a live hero before. I thought they were only in poetry. Ah, ah, it must be a terrible burden, though, being a hero – glory reaper, harvester of monsters! Everybody always watching you, weighing you, seeing if you’re still heroic…and the awful inconvenience. Always having to stand erect, always having to find noble language! It must wear on a man. But no doubt, there are compensations. The pleasant feeling of vast superiority, the easy success with women…and the joy of self-knowledge, that’s a great compensation! The easy and absolute certainty that whatever the danger, however terrible the odds, you’ll stand firm, behave with the dignity of a hero, yea, even to the grave! (84-85)

Grendel picks apart Unferth’s very argument and reveals his disdain for the entire man-made institution of heroism. Unferth struggles with the same point of view that Grendel does: that the world is essentially and irrevocably meaningless. The difference is that Grendel decides to deny the option of imposing his own meaning in the world, while Unferth chooses to use the heroic code to create meaning for himself and for his fellow men. In the end, Grendel does not even allow Unferth the dignity of death; instead he gently carries him back to Heorot hall. His final thought on the matter, which he considers trifling, is this: “He [Unferth] had glimpsed a glorious ideal, had struggled toward it and seized it and come to understand it, and was disappointed” (90).

Grendel adopts elements of a nihilistic view of the world and the essential meaninglessness of life. Nihilism argues that the world is devoid of meaning, purpose, concrete truth, or essential value. Grendel argues that all events are “accidents”, random and meaningless incidents in the “cold mechanics” of the universe (9). To him, the “sun spins mindlessly overhead, the shadows lengthen and shorten as if by plan” (7), only he denies that there is such a plan. Grendel adopts most of these viewpoints after his visit with the dragon in Chapter 5 of the text. The critic Howell argues that the dragon is not a character “existing apart from Grendel’s consciousness” (Howell, 69), but rather a manifestation of the dark or evil depths of Grendel’s mind. The dragon is the “cold-eyed objectification of alienation, nihilism, and chaos” (Howell, 69). This nihilistic viewpoint is summarized most clearly in the dragon’s very words; he says that humanity and life as we know it is simply “a swirl in the stream of time. A temporary gathering of bits, a few random dust specks…then by chance a vast floating cloud of dust specks, an expanding universe” (Grendel, 70). With all of these ideas battling for foreground in Grendel’s mind, it is no wonder that he has no patience for the “blissful, swinish ignorance” (Grendel, 77) displayed by the Scyldings; their efforts to become heroes and live by the heroic code are rendered pointless in Grendel’s lonely musings.

The philosophical theory of solipsism is also explored throughout Gardner’s novel. Solipsism asserts that an individual can only know his own mind; the external world and other minds cannot be known and thus might not exist at all. Chapter 2 of Grendel makes explicit reference to this field of philosophical thought. Grendel is trapped between two trees after getting his leg caught in the divide, and as he hangs suspended for hours he contemplates the essence of his existence. One of his conclusions is blatantly solipsistic. He says:
I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against…I create the whole universe, blink by blink (22).

With this definitive view, Grendel makes clear that he has no use for any heroic ideal, and thus is further isolated from the community of which he subconsciously wishes to be a part. If one believes that the only thing known is that which our own minds perceive, the existence of a god, the possibility of an afterlife, or the idea of a greater good for humanity become obsolete; subsequently, the heroic ideals of the Anglo-Saxons are rendered obsolete as well.

John Gardner’s Grendel is a complex retelling of the epic poem Beowulf. Not only is the story told from a new perspective, the monster’s, but it also presents alternatives to the themes and morals within the epic. The heroic ideal of the Anglo-Saxons is specifically challenged and deconstructed throughout Gardner’s work. The reader is left to contemplate a very important question; in a world devoid of concrete meaning, should one create his own meaning or accept the true nature of the chaotic universe? Grendel chooses the former. Because of this choice, he sees no rational basis for the heroic code or the ideals and values that it illustrates. As Grendel mocks after his humiliation of Unferth: “So much for heroism.” (90)

Work Cited

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage Books. 1989.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2002.

Howell, John M. “Grendel”. Understanding John Gardner. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. 1993. 61-69.

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