Archive for ‘Beowulf’


“Bless with a hard heart those who surround me…”

After A Brief History of Time, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf must be one of the least-read bestsellers of the past 50 years. When Heaney’s translation came out in 2000, co-workers and acquaintances who heard about it on NPR asked me if they should read it, and the “should” struck me as odd; “do as thou wilt” really ought to be the whole of the law when it comes to recreational reading. (NPR’s capacity for instilling status anxiety is remarkable. They run a piece about Serbian gusle rhapsodies, and the next day every upper-middle-class white person in America has always been into Serbian gusle rhapsodies, or wants to seem to have been…)

With last month’s debut of Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf, the New Yorker published a smart but lengthy non-review by Joan Acocella, who doesn’t so much evaluate the book as provide a backgrounder for the same anxious culture mavens who need to bluff their way through the chitchat of the moment. Slate went there, too, with a piece headed “Is Tolkien’s Beowulf Translation Better Than Heaney’s?” The contrast isn’t very interesting: Heaney was commissioned by W.W. Norton to create a readable new poem from a language he only barely understood; Tolkien translated the poem from a language he knew well into English prose for his own edification.

What’s more, Tolkien composed his prose Beowulf when he was 34, before spending decades teaching the poem and reflecting on its larger meaning. This new 425-page volume includes that translation, plus more than 200 pages of commentary edited from Tolkien’s later lecture notes and 80 pages of previously unseen Beowulf-themed stories. It’s a curious melange, and the author’s son Christopher seems eager to lower readers’ expectations. “The present work should best be regarded as a ‘memorial volume,’ a ‘portrait’ (as it were) of the scholar in his time, in words of his own,” he writes in the introduction, calling his father’s translation a “vivid personal evocation of a long-vanished world.”

But is Tolkien’s Beowulf a good read—and if so, for whom? Well, here’s an excerpt, the aftermath of Grendel’s first attack on the Danes:

The glorious king, their price proven of old, joyless sat: his stout and valiant heart suffered and endured sorrow for his knights, when men had scanned the footprints of that foe, the demon cursed; too bitter was that strife, too dire and weary to endure! Nor was it longer space than but one night ere he wrought again cruel murders more, and grieved not for them, his deeds of enmity and wrong—too deep was he therein.  Thereafter not far to seek was the man who elsewhere more remote sought him his couch and a bed among the lesser chambers, since now was manifested and declared thus truly to him with token plain the hatred of that hall-keeper; thereafter he who escaped the foe kept him more distant and more safe.

There it is: Tolkien’s Beowulf. Beyond “good” or “bad,” it’s murky, twisting, archaic, steeped in learning, as precise as a poem, artful in a manner that’s all Tolkien’s own, and like no English ever before uttered or heard.

Sometimes there’s a wonderful rhythm to it, inspired by the rising and falling of Old English meter, with the stress falling on long vowels, or on short vowels followed by multiple consonants: “Many a mighty one sat oft communing, counsel they took what it were best to do against these dire terrors.” Sometimes the meter is decidedly post-1066, as in “[t]he spearmen slept whose duty was to guard the gabled hall,” a nice bit of iambic heptameter, and when Tolkien has a chance to work alliteration into his prose, he goes for the gusto, as in his glimpse of Grendel’s “great gobbets gorging down,” a line that’s pleased the book’s early reviewers.

To find those standout moments, you need to wade through 200 pages of this:

“Art thou that Beowulf who strove with Breca in swimming upon the wide sea, that time when ye two in pride made trial of the waters and for a rash vaunt hazarded your lives upon the deep? No man, friend nor foe, could dissuade you two from that venture fraught with woe, when with limbs ye rowed the sea. There ye embraced with your arms the streaming tide, measuring out the streets of the sea with swift play of hands, gliding over the ocean. The abyss was in tumult with the waves and the surges of the winter. Seven nights ye two laboured in the waters’ realm. He overmatched thee in swimming, he had greater strength! Then on the morrow-tide the billows bore him away…”

That’s Beowulf in Tolkienese: not the saga-like prosody of The Lord of the Rings, not at all redolent of sparse, economical Old English, but a cross between literally translated modern German and a makeshift, clattering pseudo-Middle English with modernized spelling and anachronistic “esquires” and “knights.” Yes, Tolkien knew that the root of “knight” was “cniht,” Old English for a youth, boy, servant, retainer, or warrior, and the agony of the philologist writhes in every choice of word—but that doesn’t mean most readers will find this lucid or pleasant. Translation isn’t about making the shades of Joseph Bosworth and Northcote Toller beam in Elysium, and sometimes even minor syntactic choices send the whole thing awry. When Tolkien translates “þaet waes god cyning” as “a good king was he,” how can we not hear nursery-rhyme echoes that cheapen the lofty tone?

The truth is, I’ve never loved Tolkien as a translator. His Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in paperback in 1975, leaves me cold, even though it’s another poem Tolkien knew intimately—perhaps, like Beowulf, too intimately to translate it beautifully into something wholly new, lest some beloved philological pebble be lost.

Tolkien excels, though, when he dreams up hypothetical Beowulfs in other places and times, as he does in two other original works in this book. The first, “The Lay of Beowulf,” retells the fight with Grendel in seven ballad-like stanzas, as if minstrels had inherited the story later in the Middle Ages. It’s a charming poem, all the more so because Christopher Tolkien recalls his father singing it to him when he was a child. The second, the terrific “Sellic Spell,” gets its name from a phrase in Beowulf, syllíc spell, meaning “a strange/wonderful story.” In 70 brisk pages, Tolkien imagines one of several folk tales that might lie behind the Beowulf story, telling it so convincingly that if Christopher Tolkien had claimed to have translated it from the collection of a 19th-century Danish ethnographer, I wouldn’t have doubted him. It’s great fun, and not just for veterans of grad-school Beowulf seminars; I can imagine “Sellic Spell” being used to get high-school students thinking about lost sources, folk memory, and hypothetical tales. Are more of Tolkien’s similar flights of fancy unpublished? I’d gladly read a volume of the stuff.

I was reassured to read that Tolkien himself didn’t like his own Beowulf. “I have all of Beowulf translated, but in much hardly to my liking,” he wrote to a friend in 1926. Nearly a century later, Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar Michael Drout concurs. “The translation itself is not a great piece of art,” he suggests, even as he praises the 222 pages of commentary culled from Tolkien’s lecture notes as “straight-up brilliant, a pleasure to read, and a significant contribution to Beowulf criticism.”

So who’s really the audience? I’m tempted to say that only Anglo-Saxonists and die-hard Tolkien fans will love this book—but arcane tomes sometimes find unexpected readers.

Eldritch prose! Six pages of painstaking descriptions of manuscripts! Hundreds of notes on Old English diction! I like to think that somewhere out there, a kid has been given this book but doesn’t have the foggiest idea what to make of it. In a moment of idle browsing, he glimpses a story that’s fated to haunt him, and he’s perplexed and bewitched by impenetrable notes and alien words that hint at the depths of one very old tale. Years later, he rises to grapple with Beowulf on its own formidable terms.

Tolkien’s Beowulf doesn’t have broad appeal, but I like that it exists. We won’t see many more cases of fantasy and fandom intertwining to push medieval literature toward the mass market, so I welcome this book, even if I may never read it again, because it’s weird and wonderful to see Tolkien, 40 years dead, beckoning readers to stranger and brainier worlds.

“…and a cross of gold as a talisman.”

“A light starts—lixte se leoma ofer landa fela—and there is a sound of music; but the outer darkness and its hostile offspring lie ever in wait for the torches to fail and the voices to cease.” Although that line could describe the experience of seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in a movie theater, it is, in fact, one of several lovely passages in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” the 1936 essay that helped scry a certain Anglo-Saxon poem on the prow of every English lit syllabus.

I returned to Tolkien’s essay yesterday after being shown a sign—this one.


That’s Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, across the street from American University here in D.C. This church last appeared on this blog when I spotted the curious “faux-tesques” on its spire, but I hadn’t known it was a locus of Tolkien fandom. (It’s certainly one of the most unexpected examples of public Tolkieniana since the hobbit dumpster and parking signs of Ocean City, Maryland.)

As it turns out, the church’s (presumably unlicensed) banners aren’t just an advertisement of affinity, but an invitation to a series of sermons:

“An Unexpected Journey”
Explore the Gospel Through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Writings
Sermon Series beginning Sunday, January 6
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is deeply rooted in the truths of his Christian faith. This powerful story has captivated readers for decades, as well as a new generation of moviegoers. With the new film The Hobbit arriving this winter, it is a good time to explore the Gospel through this wonderful narrative. Our sermon series, “An Unexpected Journey,” will take place on Sundays in January 2013 as we follow the path of Tolkien’s travelers. Echoing Gandalf’s words to Bilbo, worried about his chances of returning home from his journey, “If you do, you will not be the same.”

I’ll let Tolkien experts imagine how the Catholic author might have reacted to The Hobbit being used as a gateway to Methodist Bible study, but as a medievalist he would have understood the impulse. The Germanic literature he loved is tinged with Christian interpolations, revisions, and appropriations, and he knew it was de rigeur in the Middle Ages to outfit the creations of others as couriers of religious ideas.

He also knew that the best stories fight back a little. Here he is again, talking about Beowulf:

The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected. It is possible, I think, to be moved by the power of myth and yet to misunderstand the sensation, to ascribe it wholly to something else that is also present…

Whether he brings in new churchgoers or not, what the minister at MMUMC is doing has medieval roots. Whether it’s Tolkienesque I can’t say, but in its way, a Tolkien-themed sermon series makes more sense than the adoration of The Lord of the Rings by the 1960s counterculture. Whether one great story leads so easily to another remains to be seen, but what Tolkien said about Beowulf grows true of his own works as well: “it must ever call with a profound appeal—until the dragon comes.”

“Is this the age of the thunder and rage…”

[This post is a rerun from 2010; I felt like bringing it back for a second spin. – J.S.]

Few medievalists grace the saints’ calendars of American churches, but it’s fitting that back-to-school week coincides with the feast day of Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, observed annually on September 2 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and on September 8 by the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Danish bishop and polymath is little known outside his home country, but he was a monumental figure there—and if you’ve read any edition or translation of Beowulf, then N.F.S. Grundtvig was partly responsible for getting it into your hands.

After Icelander Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín published the first printed edition of Beowulf (with the support of the Danish government) in 1815, Gruntvig was the most vocal scholar to point out the many errors in Thorkelin’s transcription and Latin translation, from misreadings of Old English words to Thorkelin’s failure to recognize proper names. Thorkelin, a twitchy careerist, responded by accusing Grundtvig of “sweet dreams, absurd fantasies, and willful distortions of the original and of my work within the Chaos that surrounds him,” but Grundtvig, the superior scholar, was right. Grundtvig was also the first to notice that the Hygelac of Beowulf was the historical figure Chochilaichus named by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks, and Grundtvig’s 1820 version of Beowulf in Danish was the first translation of the poem into any modern language.

Although Grundtvig was peeved to see the Danes exeunt two-thirds into Beowulf, he never stopped grappling with the poem, seeking not only its universal lessons within the context of his own faith but also clues to the Scandinavian past. “[T]he language,” he wrote, “is ingenuous, without having the German long-windedness, and without remaining obscure in its brevity as so often in the Eddic poems.” Inspired by Beowulf, Gruntvig became an Anglo-Saxonist while rising through the Lutheran church, studying theology and languages, agitating for Norwegian independence, becoming the father of Danish folk schools, dealing with censorship and fines and exile, marrying three times, briefly serving in the Danish Parliament, and somehow finding time to translate hundreds of hymns and write countless poems and books. (For all I know, he even invented Lego and provided the theological foundation for his nation’s wonderful open-faced sandwiches.)

Something of an Anglophile, Grundtvig practically begged the English to appreciate their native poets, and the tone of his 1831 proposal for an Anglo-Saxon book subscription program will amuse any medievalist who’s been accused of cultivating obscure interests:

I know there are tastes, called classical, which will turn away in disgust when they are told that this poem consists of two fabulous adventures, not very artificially connected, except by the person of the hero,—and that these episodes, which relate to historical traditions of the North, are rather unskillfully inserted. But I think such classical scholars as have a squeamish repugnance to all Gothic productions, should remember that, when they settle themselves down in the little circle of the ancient world, they have banished themselves from the modern, and consequently have made their opinions on such a subject of very little importance.

“For all his faults of expression,” writes Tom Shippey, “Grundtvig read the poem more acutely and open-mindedly than any scholar for decades.” Even those of us who will never be honored with hymns could do worse than aspire to earn such an epitaph. Thanks to scholars like Grundtvig, not only do we better understand how and why the Anglo-Saxons wondered, as others have, “Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?,” but we can also start to answer the question for ourselves.

“…irgendwo in der Tiefe gibt es ein Licht.”

Yes, we have heard the glory of the pilgrims, how those dour chorophobes subdued their neighbors and performed bold agricultural deeds—but when you’re unaccustomed to hot Novembers and the flapping of turkeys toward Valhalla fails to drown out football, you roam the strands of bleak retention ponds with a seven-year-old looking for grass snakes and fish.

In the mud, behind ferns and broken boughs, rests a sleeping stone baby.

One of you raises the obvious point: “If we get too close, will its eyes snap open?” (Unanimity. Two steps back.)

“How’d he get here?”

“I don’t know, man. I imagine it’s a mystery.”

“Did people put him here?”

“Maybe he just washed up on the shore, like a king in a famous old legend.”

“Wait, what legend?”

“You’ve heard of the Vikings, right? One of their very first kings.”

“Who? What was his name?”

“Well, nobody knows where he came from, or where he went when his ship sailed away, but I heard that his tribe called him Scyld…

Then you find that some stories don’t really need snow, and you’re thankful for more than just turkey and pie as you rest in the bayou, wide-eyed at sunset, surrounded by monsters and kings.

“Is this the age of the thunder and rage…”

Few medievalists grace the saints’ calendars of American churches, but it’s fitting that back-to-school week coincides with the feast day of Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, observed annually on September 2 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and on September 8 by the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Danish bishop and polymath is little known outside his home country, but he was a monumental figure there—and if you’ve read any edition or translation of Beowulf, then N.F.S. Grundtvig was partly responsible for getting it into your hands.

After Icelander Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín published the first printed edition of Beowulf (with the support of the Danish government) in 1815, Gruntvig was the most vocal scholar to point out the many errors in Thorkelin’s transcription and Latin translation, from misreadings of Old English words to Thorkelin’s failure to recognize proper names. Thorkelin, a twitchy careerist, responded by accusing Grundtvig of “sweet dreams, absurd fantasies, and willful distortions of the original and of my work within the Chaos that surrounds him,” but Grundtvig, the superior scholar, was right. Grundtvig was also the first to notice that the Hygelac of Beowulf was the historical figure Chochilaichus named by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks, and Grundtvig’s 1820 version of Beowulf in Danish was the first translation of the poem into any modern language.

Although Grundtvig was peeved to see the Danes exeunt two-thirds into Beowulf, he never stopped grappling with the poem, seeking not only its universal lessons within the context of his own faith but also clues to the Scandinavian past. “[T]he language,” he wrote, “is ingenuous, without having the German long-windedness, and without remaining obscure in its brevity as so often in the Eddic poems.” Inspired by Beowulf, Gruntvig became an Anglo-Saxonist while rising through the Lutheran church, studying theology and languages, agitating for Norwegian independence, becoming the father of Danish folk schools, dealing with censorship and fines and exile, marrying three times, briefly serving in the Danish Parliament, and somehow finding time to translate hundreds of hymns and write countless poems and books. (For all I know, he even invented Lego and provided the theological foundation for his nation’s wonderful open-faced sandwiches.)

Something of an Anglophile, Grundtvig practically begged the English to appreciate this work by their native poet, and the tone of his 1831 proposal for an Anglo-Saxon book subscription program will amuse any medievalist who’s been accused of cultivating obscure interests:

I know there are tastes, called classical, which will turn away in disgust when they are told that this poem consists of two fabulous adventures, not very artificially connected, except by the person of the hero,—and that these episodes, which relate to historical traditions of the North, are rather unskillfully inserted. But I think such classical scholars as have a squeamish repugnance to all Gothic productions, should remember that, when they settle themselves down in the little circle of the ancient world, they have banished themselves from the modern, and consequently have made their opinions on such a subject of very little importance.

“For all his faults of expression,” writes Tom Shippey, “Grundtvig read the poem more acutely and open-mindedly than any scholar for decades.” Even those of us who will never be honored with hymns could do worse than aspire to earn such an epitaph. Thanks to scholars like Grundtvig, not only do we better understand how and why the Anglo-Saxons wondered, as others have, “Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?,” but we can also start to answer the question ourselves.

“…far away from dry land, and its bitter memories.”

Seamus Heaney is a fine poet, but his Beowulf and I have sailed past each other for ten hopeless years. When I skim his translation, I drift, and the audio version only lulls me to sleep, despite its potent brogue. Having failed to enjoy Heaney’s Beowulf as a poem all its own, I had hoped that the book might at least appeal to reluctant readers who’d otherwise flee from medieval lit. Instead, Heaney’s Beowulf is, I’d bet, one of the least-finished bestsellers of the last 25 years, while its omnipresence has overshadowed more recent attempts to draw readers into a lost heroic age.

One such Beowulf, the 2004 Longman Cultural Edition, comes packed with a timeline, a glossary, genealogies, and snippets of primary sources. At its core is a translation by Alan Sullivan and his partner, Timothy Murphy, whose respect for formal poetry dictated the guidelines Sullivan enumerates in his introduction:

(1) It would be written in four-beat lines, like the original, though differing somewhat in metrical detail. (2) It would follow a loosened variant of the Scop’s Rule, alliterating three times in most lines, but using other patterns of alliteration as well. (3) It would employ modern syntax, with some inversion for rhetorical effect. (4) Words of Germanic origin would be chosen preferentially.

Their boundaries set, Sullivan and Murphy spin a translation that evokes the craftsmanship of the original poem without the stringency of an antiquarian exercise. Here’s Beowulf and his men bidding farvel to Denmark:

They boarded their vessel,      breasted the deep,
left Denmark behind.     A halyard hoisted
the sea-wind’s shroud;     the sail was sheeted,
bound to the mast,     and the beams moaned
as a fair wind wafted     the wave-rider forward.
Foamy-throated,     the longboat bounded,
swept on the swells     of the swift sea-stream
until welcoming capes     were sighted ahead,
the cliffs of Geat-land.     The keel grounded
as wind-lift thrust it     straight onto sand.
The harbor-guard hastened     hence from his post.
He had looked long     on an empty ocean
and waited to meet     the much-missed men.

Heaney’s version of this same passage is a lovely bundle of lines—but Heaney, by his own admission, is “less than thorough” regarding meter and confesses that his alliteration “varies from the shadowy to the substantial, from the properly to improperly distributed.” By contrast, Sullivan and Murphy find power in form. Read their translation aloud, as I have since finding it in the library last month, and you hear—and feel—diction constrained by rules and traditions, restlessness evident in every line, the entire translation all the more vibrant and immediate for it.

Over the years, I’ve sometimes dropped by Fresh Bilge, Alan Sullivan’s blog about poetry, religion, politics, weather, and sailing. Since I share only the first of those five interests, I’ve never been one of Sulivan’s regular “rare readers,” but a few weeks ago I went to drop him a note telling him him how much I was enjoying his Beowulf—but I was too late. Alan Sullivan died on July 9, 2010, after a long battle with leukemia.

Blogger Brendan Loy has written a heartfelt appreciation of Alan Sullivan. Here’s Sullivan’s death announcement and obituary, plus a selection of his poetry. Here’s Timothy Murphy conducting a far-ranging interview of Alan Sullivan in Able Muse magazine, in which Sullivan discusses being critiqued by Richard Wilbur and implores would-be poets to pry themselves away from the campus:

I would add a more general comment that introversion and bookishness have harmed the estate of poetry. Teachers who encourage these traits do their students no favors. Better to foster the natural curiosity of the young, press them to acquire general knowledge, demand accuracy and precision in language, and promote monomanias as escape hatches from the self.

That advice, and the above translation of Beowulf’s leave-taking, aren’t a half-bad way for a poet to be remembered: as a man who knew the difference between worda ond worca, and made the best of both.

“She began to wail, jealousies scream…”

Everyone is done talking about the recent Beowulf movie. I thought I was done with it, too, until I saw this comment from Dave Itzkoff at the New York Times blog “Paper Cuts”:

One of my favorite tropes in “Cloverfield,” the new J.J. Abrams-produced monster-destroys-Manhattan movie that made one zillion dollars (give or take) at the box-office last weekend, is that the camera rarely lingers on the giant beastie long enough for audiences to get a clear look at it. What makes the monster so frightening is whatever we viewers project onto it – it’s whatever we think it might be.

If I were teaching this semester, I might ask my students: How come the guy behind television shows like “Alias” and “Lost” knows that this timeworn approach to the monster is guaranteed to work, but nearly every ambitious artiste who tries to adapt Beowulf feels the need to flesh out Grendel, make him visible and sympathetic, and turn him into a fathomable, manageable creature rather than an inexplicable evil half-spawned from the viewer’s own psyche?

The modern-day maker of mass entertainment understands implicitly what some too-clever adapters, with “fresh readings” and pretentious meta-narratives about storytelling, do not: that our scop had it right all along.

“In you I confide, red dragon tattoo…”

[Because I was unable to sit through Beowulf without experiencing a series of minor pedantic flare-ups—”A reference to Vinland at the beginning of the sixth century!?”—I requested a review from a considerably less biased guest blogger: me when I was eleven years old.]

Since the dawn of time, mankind has told the story of Beowulf. In the movie, which is different from the book, Beowulf kills Grendel but doesn’t slay his mother, who had full chestal nudity, even though he could of taken all her gold and gotten alot of experience points. In this way, the movie is different from the book.

Later, Beowulf is the king and he has to kill the dragon. I couldn’t figure out what kind of dragon it was. Red dragons shoot fire, but it wasn’t red, it was closer to brown. It also polymorphed into a person, which was stupid. But the dragon when it was a dragon was pretty cool. They should of had Unferth heal Beowulf because he becomes a cleric and he could cast a Heal Light Wounds spell. Maybe he healed somebody else that day but the movie doesn’t show you if he did.

The monster’s mother had a charisma of 25. But Grendel was desgusting (sp?) so his is probably a 3.

No, I don’t like Angelina Jolie. I don’t. Shut up! Stop it!

“Smelled the spring on the smoky wind…”

Amid the reactions to wild plot changes in the Zemeckis-Avary-Gaiman movie, it’s amusing to imagine that perhaps the version of Beowulf that survives in manuscript form might not have been acceptable to certain traditionalists back in the day: “There goes Brother Ceolfrith again, stirring in more of that Christianity business like a cook tossing leeks into the stew-pot. What was wrong with the story the way it was? Why couldn’t he leave well enough alone?”

With that possibility in mind, don’t miss Mary Kate Hurley’s “Ruins and Poetry: Beowulf and Bethlehem Steel,” a lovely essay from the perspective of an Anglo-Saxonist about the meaning of ruins both literal and literary. Hurley didn’t particularly enjoy the new movie, but she wonders if it isn’t a noble failure, an attempt to salvage something worth preserving, “another performance of a poem whose ending has not been written yet.”

“I am a monster, I’ll make you run faster…”

The Zemeckis-Avary-Gaiman Beowulf is some kind of monster—but its actual monster, like so many Grendels before him, has been quasi-humanized, reduced to a pitiful antagonist rather than a creature of perfect evil. As Scott Nokes pointed out last year in his review of the film Beowulf and Grendel, this characterization of the monster is typical of modern adaptations:

This Grendel, though, is what I refer to as the Postmodern Grendel — deeply misunderstood. Way back when John Gardener was re-imagining Grendel as simply misunderstood and flawed, this reading was audacious. Now, it is simply boring and pedestrian. I find that my students are incapable of understanding Grendel as evil, or as an enemy of God.

He’s right: postmodern whimsy sometimes makes it harder to teach a modern work. When so many readers have seen Hamlet as the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and far more have considered The Wizard of Oz through the eyes of the Wicked Witch of the West, those of us who teach John Gardner’s Grendel may have a hard time explaining to students why the novel was such a big deal when it was published in 1971.

But maybe novelty no longer matters. As I gear up to talk about Grendel in class in a couple of weeks, I’m finding that not having to fawn over the rather obvious shift in the narrator’s point of view will give me much more time to discuss with students what this novel is really about. Conventional wisdom has always dubbed Grendel a postmodern novel, the tale of “the outsider, the person who walks on the edge”—but the book keeps howling at me that it’s something else entirely.

For example, here’s Grendel soaking in ennui:

So childhood too feels good at first, before one happens to notice the terrible sameness, age after age.

Here’s Grendel on the heroism of Unferth:

“Monster, prepare to die!” he said. Very righteous. The wings of his nostrils flared and quivered like an outraged priest’s.
I laughed. “Aargh!” I said. I spit bits of bone.
He glanced behind him, making sure he knew exactly where the window was. “Are you right with your god?” he said.
I laughed somewhat more fiercely. He was one of those.

Here’s Grendel on the pointlessness of it all:

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.

Here’s Grendel on the unreliability of narrative:

As if all by itself, then, the harp made a curious run of sounds, almost words, and then a moment later, arresting as a voice from a hollow tree, the harper began to chant…

What was he? The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way—and so did I.

Here’s the young Grendel after getting his foot stuck in a tree-root and facing an attacking bull. Wallowing in solipsism, he throws in a dash of blasphemy for good measure:

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, blindly—as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink.—An ugly god pitifully dying in a tree!

Here’s Grendel meeting his first humans, who assume he’s a giant fungus or a tree spirit. Of course, Grendel is unable to communicate with them.

“You’re all crazy,” I tried to yell, but it came out a moan. I bellowed for my mother.

So here we have a monstrous parody of the 20th-century protagonist: a narcissistic, solipsistic, nihilistic atheist who bemoans his alienation and wallows in existential angst. He disdains traditional heroism, he blames society for making him what he is—and he has mother issues!

I can see my students feeling pity for this character, maybe a little sympathy, and they’re sure to find him a clever and intriguing narrator. But really, what careful, thoughtful reader has ever admired this nasty, self-obsessed monster?

In 1971, a Time magazine reviewer compared Gardner’s Grendel to Caliban, Milton’s Lucifer, and King Kong, suggesting that the monster “throbs with primal rage, despair, collegiate idealism and existential inquiry.” But like many ersatz idealists, Grendel finds that his world-view literally can’t survive a collision with reality. Here’s Beowulf disabusing Grendel of his solipsism:

Grendel, Grendel! You make the world by whispers, second by second. Are you blind to that? Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point. Feel the wall: is it not hard? He smashes me against it, breaks open my forehead. Hard, yes! Observe the hardness, write it down in careful runes. Now sing of walls! Sing!
I howl.
Sing!

“I’m singing!”
Sing words! Sing raving hymns!

“You’re crazy. Ow!”
Sing!
“I sing of walls,” I howl. “Hooray for the hardness of walls!”
Terrible,
he whispers. Terrible. He laughs and lets out fire.
“You’re crazy,” I say. “If you think I created that wall that cracked my head, you’re a fucking lunatic.”

Dying, Grendel at last sees the world as existing beyond himself:

Every rock, every tree, every crystal of snow cries out cold-blooded objectness. Cold, sharp outlines, everything around me: distinct, detached as dead men. I understand.

In the novel’s final line, Grendel at last has a breakthrough:

“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”

Too late, Grendel acknowledges the reality of others. That closing line is easily read as a curse—but perhaps it’s a benediction, with the monster hoping that others might benefit from the same enlightening “accident.”

Like many a postmodern protagonist, Grendel embodies the intellectual trends of the day, but he’s not some whining prep-school antihero or an English professor coping with a midlife crisis; rather, he’s a creature of consequence. Julie Taymor has suggested of Grendel that “the monster is the most human of humans,” but I don’t think she’s right. Instead, he’s a truly wretched creature: an abomination cobbled together from the spare parts of modernity—a monster made insane by modernity itself.

There’s much more to say about Grendel, and I suspect my students, an increasingly candid bunch, will surprise and enlighten me with perspectives that aren’t stuck in 1971. Accustomed to other novels that sincerely praise nonconformity, they’ll probably notice, without my prompting, that Grendel isn’t just the story of a sensitive rebel, a Morrissey with bloody claws.

Grendel is a work of stark medievalism. It expresses little sympathy for the prejudices of the modern wit and outright disdain for the fatal affectations of the anti-hero. This Grendel is misunderstood—every time a reader assumes he ought to be seen as something other than the embodiment of doctrines that presumably rot the modern mind. Forget the conventional wisdom: Far from being a postmodern paean to the moody outcast, John Gardner’s Grendel may, in fact, be one of the most reactionary novels an English major will ever read.

[UPDATE, 12/1/07: Welcome, new readers!  Whether you’re here from 2Blowhards, Urban Prowlers, StumbledUpon, StevenHartSite, or Unlocked Wordhoard, I hope you’ll stop back occasionally if you’re interested in books, history, teaching, and medievalism.]