Wednesday, 19 September 2012

'Grendel' - John Gardner (Gollancz)

'The Dirty Streets of Heaven' to one side, the books I've been reading have been getting shorter and shorter in length. This is down to it feeling like there isn't enough time in the day to read books and review them as well, part of the reason why I'm taking that break I was talking about yesterday.

John Gardner's 'Grendel' seemed like a real boon then in that respect, weighing in at only a hundred and twenty three pages long (about the same length as one of the old 'Doctor Who' books). I'd been meaning to start on the pile of unread 'Fantasy Masterworks' books, sat on the shelf, and 'Grendel' looked like the ideal place to kick things off. A nice quick read to get me going. Well, that's what I thought...
What I didn't realise, at the time, is that Gardner has a way with words that means 'Grendel' is packed with the kind of ideas and emotion that you would expect to find in a book five times the length. What I thought would be an afternoon's read then was more like two or three days worth. I didn't care though, it ended up being the best two or three days reading that I've had in a long time.

The original story of 'Beowulf' is one that everyone knows, even if (like me) they have never read it. It is a story whose influence you will find in any number of fantasy books; you know, the whole ‘hero saves a helpless village from the monster that preys on it’ kind of thing. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a story that attempts to retell the ‘Beowulf’ tale from Grendels perspective though. This is possibly because Gardner has already done it so well but also because it would be too easy to lend an air of sympathy to Grendel that ultimately wouldn’t quite gel with the savagery that he is capable of.

Gardner seems to opt for a different path entirely, eliciting a feeling of sympathy for Grendel in the reader even though the beast initially seems to do very little (if anything at all) to deserve it. Well, that seems to be the case at first but, as the book goes on you can’t help but wonder if that’s really true.

Grendel’s initial overtures to Hrothgar’s people are rejected, quite violently, and that on it’s own would be enough for the reader to understand why Grendel reacts in the way that he does. You might even feel a little bit sorry for him at the same time. Gardner takes things a little deeper than that though and I for one really felt for Grendel, especially as I knew how his story would end.

Man’s attempts to assert order, on his surroundings, seem to inspire real rage in Grendel as this is something he has never been able to do (his mother cannot help him and everything else either fears him or is too stupid). The only other creature that Grendel has a conversation with (the Dragon) has its own issues with communication and the resulting frustration means that Grendel is lucky to escape alive. Grendel cannot find meaning then and don’t we all feel a little bit like that sometimes? When nothing makes sense you can’t help but feel jealous of those who have made sense of their lives. I feel like that sometimes and I’ll bet that you do too. While I can’t condone what Grendel does I can’t help but sympathize with his predicament; we might not lash out like he does (I hope not anyway!) but we’ve all felt like that. Gardner conducts a searing character study that comes with a poignant note, as we all know what Grendel’s railing against humanity will ultimately lead to. He also gives us a reason for Grendel’s violent reaction to the music from the mead hall; one that resonates a lot more powerfully than a mere ‘it was too noisy’ (something I’d always thought was the case).

Having never read ‘Beowulf’ (well, I did read the film tie-in years ago but I really should read the original one day) I was surprised at how easy ‘Grendel’ was to get into. Gardner caters for the first time reader by taking the focus off the established story and putting it entirely onto Grendel. At the same time, I got the feeling he was also catering for people who have read the original. His further delving into characters such as Unferth and Hrothulf offers an alternative spin on the original text as well as providing all readers with a fully fleshed out tale that everyone can get behind. The only bit where that didn’t quite work for me was the conversation between Hrothulf and his advisor, if I’d read the original I reckon I would have got more out of it.

‘Grendel’ is a masterful read, on more than one level, and is fully deserving of its ‘Masterwork’ status. You’ll be hard pressed to find a copy (outside second hand bookshops) though so if you do, pick it up straight away. You won’t regret it.

Ten out of Ten

3 comments:

Elfy said...

I read Grendel earlier this year, it was a really intriguing piece and it probably deserves to be read more widely than it currently is.

matthew-iden.com said...

Grendel is a wonderful book. I read it every two or three years to see what a great writer can do with an old story...in a pretty short form. :)

matt i.

Felix said...

You really shouldn't put off reading Beowulf. In any case there is no reason regarding the diffuclty of getting into it (if you read a modern language version), apart maybe for its general tone, but it is very easy to understand and not very challenging. It is fairly straightforward and if there is any weird grammar as there sometimes is in old poetry, it is smoothed over. As far as I remember.