Required Reading – The Rants: Grendel by John Gardner

I didn’t exactly love every book I read for ‘school’ purposes, no, but it was rare I was left with the ‘I want to set this book on fire’ reaction.

Required Reading, book rants, Grendel, John Gardner, Serena Saint-Marceaux, classic books

The book for my Required Reading Rave came to me immediately when we Ferrets were discussing this series. As it happened, a few minutes later when I was trying to think of required reading books I utterly loathed . . . this one came to mind almost as quickly.


A Classic I Loathe:
Grendel, by John Gardner

Grendel, classics, required reading, John Gardner, book rant

Grendel, by John Gardner

. . .oh, the irony. I actually wasn’t going to choose this book for this post, much as I hate the dratted thing, but . . . well, among other things, Michelle encouraged me to do so. After the third time since our Ferret Meeting in January that she has heard parts of my rant about this bloody godsforsaken book

Okay, deep breaths. It’s okay – I’m calm.

As you may recall, I adored Beowulf from the first time I read it as a little girl. My mother (I was homeschooled for a good chunk of my school years) assigned me this book as required reading (fairly rare, but then, I rarely needed to be told to read, even ‘classics’) when I was about fifteen.

Possibly the worst part about this book was the utter betrayal it represented. I was actually really excited about this! And then. Oh and then. Then I . . . started actually reading.

I was so enchanted by the pitch – Beowulf told from the point of view of the ‘monster’? Grendel’s story? A familiar tale told from a new angle? That’s one of my favourite things! And one of my favourite stories!

This book is actually very short. 174 pages, in the edition I read, which was a small volume. I wish I could say that was a blessing, but it took me roughly six weeks to read. (In that time I read about three dozen fantasy novels and if I recall correctly four other classics, including rereading some Wilde.) I dragged myself through every page, feeling like I was slogging on my knees through sand dunes. I even begged my mother to let me off reading this and replace it with literally any other classic she could name. I had never done that before – and never did after – so let it stand as a marker of how much I felt tortured by this book.

(I read classic Russian literature recreationally as a teenager. Depressing, dragging, dark literature was clearly not a deal-breaker for me even then. That was and is not my problem with this book.)

Grendel is depressing, and dark, and . . . well, it is ludicrously self-indulgent over those things.

The kind of ‘I am miserable’ where it feels as though the person complaining to one – which the book, in first person, reads as a kind of stream of consciousness internal monologue of revelling in despair and gore – is delighting in how miserable and awful they are. I’m a monster, you couldn’t possibly understand, everyone hates me and there’s nothing I can do but respond by becoming ever more monstrous feel my pathos while I howl dramatically and go kill and devour more people because what is the point.

I didn’t feel like I was reading the despair of a creature the humans refuse to – or can’t – understand, one who is forced into a corner and fights, kills, because it is all he can do against these creatures to whom he cannot make himself understood, nor understand in turn – which is how it was pitched. Instead I felt like I was hearing the joyously delighted, self-centred manifesto of a psychopath whose psyche’s only ‘torture’ is in the rare occasions he faces a consequence for his actions.

I was told that this book is about confronting the monsters within ourselves, and I see it listed that way in many lesson modules. I want to personally track down the person who thought this book could teach this lesson well and shake them. Hard.

Grendel has no interest in confronting the monster within himself – he is that monster, and there is nothing else but the delight in blood and death, and the self-righteous anger and disbelief when he is forced to face a consequence – like a human that fights back rather than be shredded and eaten in large chunks. How dare they.

(Oh, and it’s also more grotesque and grisly than the original Beowulf, which is . . . delightful.)

I’ve read that Gardner wrote the book intending to ‘examine the main ideas of Western Civilisation in the voice of a monster’ from an already-written story rather than creating a new one, and ‘use the various philosophical attitudes, though Sartre in particular’. (Don’t ask me what ‘use the various philosophical attitudes’ means, I have no idea what he intended with that.) He also has said Grendel represented Sartre’s philosophical position, and that he borrowed much of the book from ‘Being and Nothingness’.

I won’t lie to you, when I read those claims from Gardner my first reaction was ‘oh, so the book was terrible because you were trying to be pretentious?’ and it really, really is – pretentious, that is, not reminiscent of Sartre.

After reading that it was supposed to be, I can see (sort of) the way that Gardner wound the theories of Being and Nothingness into Grendel. But it’s hardly recognisable and in Grendel’s mind comes off as yet another self-centred backdrop of ‘here is why I am such a miserable being, and why it is not my fault’.

I’m glad I was familiar with Sartre before finding out this work was supposed to represent his philosophies, and that it was not presented to me thus in high school, or I might very well have been soured on an entire school of philosophical thought by this ridiculously drab, entitled, self-aggrandising drivel.

For another perspective on Beowulf, I recommend staying to the fascinating essays many very interesting people have written, and away from John Gardner.


A Classic I Will Never Read:
Anything (else) by Hemingway

Hemingway, classic literature, The Sun Also Rises, required reading, book rant, The Old Man and The Sea

The Sun Also Rises & The Old Man and The Sea, by Hemingway

Like Michelle, I have read one book by Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises, in my case. A quick check on it just now assures me it is his greatest work, with a unique and memorable setting, and exciting happenings, investigating the themes of love, death, renewal in nature, and the nature of masculinity.

If you guessed that I came away from the novel with none of that you would be absolutely correct. It was alternately dull and infuriating, with the very occasional relief in the form of bullfighting scenes. I dislike Hemingway’s style, but more so I dislike . . . him, perhaps. The impressions I get from his writing are distasteful and off-putting, which only leaves me glad that together with the style of his prose, I feel disconnected from his characters and scenes.

I was delighted when none of his other books showed up in any of my literature classes, and I am irritated by how often his writing advice is quoted to me.

No thank you, not for me.


2 thoughts on “Required Reading – The Rants: Grendel by John Gardner

  1. I am amused at you and Michelle because I like Hemingway. I don’t LOVE him, but I do like him. He’s grown on me over the years. Grendel though…. you know we share the same thoughts. In fact, I think that is the only book my mom ever called the teacher and threw a fit about. We were bookish people. We didn’t do the whole ‘oh no banned book’ or whatever thing. Even if you didn’t like a book, you could likely still learn from it. But Grendel? Kindling. At best.

    • Well, I haven’t read any Hemingway in years, but considering what I took away from The Sun Also Rises I have not really been inclined to try again. XD Oh man Grendel. Mom didn’t give in on it, obviously, but she mostly went ‘Serena it’s TINY you can finish reading it’, and she never read it herself. Seriously though. I swear, absolutely no redeeming value in that self-indulgent drivel. And same here – most books even if I didn’t like them or didn’t feel I got much out of them I could see why they were required/how they could be good to learn from them. Just not this one, ugh.

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