Thursday, February 5, 2015

[Review] John Gardner's "Grendel"

Right, this was a rather quick read, not just because it was a fairly short work (between 144 and 174 pages, depending on edition - I read the .mobi-file, only $9.99 on Amazon) but also because it was such an interesting read.
I was not blown away, at least not instantly, but I could not put it down easily either.
Before reading an interview with Steven Erikson, author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen-cycle, I had not heard of this novel. It was actually published in 1971, four years before I came screaming into the world (at least I like to think I screamed, for some reason), written by John Gardner, of whom I likewise knew nothing. 
Anyway, as I've become such an adorer of Steven Erikson, I was reading that interview and he was asked about his favorite book, and it was Grendel. I recognized the name of the titular character, of course, which is the monster from the ancient Anglo-Saxon Beowulf epic (I'm afraid most of what I know about this poem is the decidedly strange yet somehow interesting movie Beowulf - no, not the fairly recent (2007) movie with Anthony Hopkins and a host of other big names, but the 1999 version with the...less stellar names of Christopher Lambert (the Highlander) and Rhona Mitra (who I was briefly infatuated with during the viewing of said film). The film's score of 3.9 at speaks volumes. But seriously - I'd rate it a 6, at least, though I admit it's been a while since I watched it (probably upon straight-to-DVD-release). All this to say that I might not "get" this novel the way someone much more familiar with the poem would.
Curious about Erikson's thought processes and inspirations and influences, I decided to read Grendel and lo! and behold, there is a quite evident (I speculate) strain of language in Grendel that seems to have infected Erikson's works, perhaps particularly his novellas (Crack'd Pot Trail being the best example) - Grendel is quite different from the kind of novels I usually read and it was quite refreshing to be exposed to some experimental use of the language, wrapped in a fairly easy-to-follow story from the POV of the epic poem's monster, Grendel. It is a fantasy story, for sure, but it also a story presenting some profound thinking about the world, and about humanity. In that sense, some of Erikson's later Malazan novels echo Gardner's work here. There's something between every pair of lines to chew on, be it thoughts on religion, emotion, politics, or evolution (I happen to agree with many if not all of Gardner's musings, especially on religion). It's a dark little story, and could just as easily have been published in today's gritty fantasy climate. It really was a special experience reading this book, and I am glad I followed mr. Erikson's recommendation. A stimulating read, and I didn't mind reading something brief for once (said he, about to embark on A Feast with Dragons).

Steven Erikson (upon being asked what his favorite book is):

Probably Grendel which is written by John Gardner, primarily for what it did for me when I first read it. Because I was in the University of Victoria. I was struggling with all the demands it placed on writing and how you actually find your voice, and how you find your way through it, and how you manage language. I was having a hard time with that.

Well, my instructor, Jack Hodgins, directed me towards John Gardner’s writing, and his non-fiction, what he called “moral fiction”, which moved in opposition to William Gass’s position. Where Gass would say that you have no responsibility towards your characters, and that they can do whatever they want; there’s no moral or ethical framework with which to create a story.

It was John Gardner who said it was actually the other way around, and that you have an immense responsibility toward your characters, and towards your story, and by extension to that, the audience. I really took to that.

One of his books deconstructed the opening of Grendel, in terms of use of language, and sentence patterns, sentence rhythms, cadence, and reading that was an utter revelation to me. Because, it showed me what was possible with the language. That you could actually frame a sentence… if you have a sentence describing an awkward thought, you can frame it awkwardly, which I really like. Once I realized that you’re free to do these things and that you can mess with language to that extent, it just set me on my way basically.

The novel then just holds that place for me in my heart. This is where my eyes opened, it’s my book of revelations.

So what makes Grendel special, is the way Gardner toys with the language, and you'll notice it quite early on - this is a unique voice, at once light-hearted and disturbing, poetic and coarse. I can see where Erikson comes from when he explains that you can use language to "build" toward a particular voice or style, as Gardner does so eloquently, though I have to say - once Erikson hit his stride and truly found his own voice - say, around Toll the Hounds (the eighth Malazan novel, loathed by many, loved by yours truly) - that Erikson has upped the ante; not only has his own experimentation with language created some truly stunning scenes, he took profoundness to a new level - and every time (daily) there is bad news to read in the newspapers, I am thinking of the underlying, deep-rooted theme that emerged during the read of his Malazan saga: Compassion - and what would a world be like without it (frighteningly similar to the one we live in now, some would say)?

I found the book ending a bit abruptly, though, but at the same time I enjoyed the events that lead to the story's finale.

Read a lot more about Grendel right here (spoilers). And, if you want to know more about fantasy literature's most amiable author, go here.


  1. Dude, I totally love that book! Haven't read it in a while though. My old Literature teacher made us read the book when that CG/Live Action movie came out, told us she didn't want us to see the movie and think the Epic of Beowulf was anything like it. She had the impression that everyone would see it cause Angelina Jolie would be in it and show her boobs. Of course, she was right, almost all the male students watched it...but only after she told us about naked Anglina :)
    The book was pretty good, I think I will read it this weekend, most people would probably finish it in one afternoon. Thanks for reminding me of it :D

  2. :D
    But have you read Erikson? :)

    1. 'fraid not. I'm reading some Stephen King novels right now. I'm halfway done with "The Stand". After that I will read "Salem's Lot" and afterwards I'm not sure, I'll see if I find the time to give it a try.

    2. Well, if you enjoy "Grendel" and "A Song of Ice and Fire"... :-) Though that first book in the Malazan series is a REAL hurdle. I went from being very skeptical, and in the end, exhausted after those three million words in that very dense, complex story (at least *I* thought it was complex), it ended up being second only to "Ice and Fire" (though sometimes I'm not sure). I re-read the first book a year or so ago and it ended up being even more worthwhile than re-reading Martin :-)

    3. I will try, but it has been hard for me to get into another series. I tried "Dune" and the "Way of kings" but got caught up in too much stuff. Is always hard at the beginning.

  3. I've got a film version of "Beowulf" with Gerard Butler that isn't too bad - both as a movie, and as far I can remember, adaption ("Beowulf & Grendel")

    for the actual book, I've got it as part of "Legends From the Ancient North" (translated by Michael Alexander, and Tolkien's version, which will be out this May in paperback from Harper.

    * other books in Legends From the Ancient North: "The Elder Edda", "The Saga of the Volsungs", "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", and "The Wanderer".

  4. Remy, you probably won't find the time to do it, but a reread of Gardens of the Moon on your blog would probably help a lot of people get into Erikson's series. I quit halfway because it was so hard to read, and also because of the overabundance of magic, which, coming from Martin, was kinda hard to swallow. What makes the strength of the series? Characters, setting, plot, world building, the writing? You 'should' (don't like to use that word) advertise that series a little more, especially since you obviously appreciate its author quite a lot!

    1. I have thought about it, actually, but's reread project is so incredibly thorough (even featuring the author appearing to answer questions after each read novel). Recommended! However I'm planning an article for Tower of the Hand about going from Ice & Fire into the Malazan books.