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John Gardner’s Grendel as Hero?

John Gardner’s Grendel as Hero?

“‘I cry, and hug myself, and laugh, letting out salt tears, he he! till I fall down gasping and sobbing.”1 With these words the reader is introduced to the “hero” of Gardner’s Grendel, and the mood is set for the coming pages. How is one to interpret this ambiguous, melodramatic narrator, whose phrases mix seemingly heartfelt emotional outbursts with witty (if cynical) observations, and ideological musings with ironic commentaries? Perhaps this is what makes Grendel such an extremely engaging narrator. A confounding juxtaposition is established in the first pages, in which the reader must somehow reconcile a hideous, murdering monster, with an apparently philosophical, intelligent, wry and thoughtful being. It is clear from the outset, that if Grendel is to be the hero of this novel, then he will not be so in the conventional sense of the word.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines a hero as, “a man of distinguished courage or performance, admired for his noble qualities.”2 Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, possesses no readily apparent noble qualities, so how then is he to win over the reader? As the question suggests, Grendel has many elements of character that can nevertheless win over his audience, such as his humour, and his intelligence and self-consciousness. In addition to these personal qualities, there are several external factors which elicit sympathy in the reader, and tend to illuminate Grendel by a more favourable light. These include: his indoctrination by the dragon (who encouraged him to believe him that it was his natural role and duty to harass the Scyldings), and his imposed “immortality” (his view of which can be summarised in his comment, “So it goes with me day by day and …

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…tical Review of Long Fiction. Vol. III 4 vols. Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 1991, p 1273

_______. Critical Review of Short Fiction. Vol. III 4 vols.. Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 1991.

Rebsamen, Frederick. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

End Notes

1 Gardner, John, Grendel, New York: Vintage, 1989, p. 6.

2 Delbridge, A., Bernard, J. R. L., Blair, D., Peters, P., Butler, S., Eds., The Macquarie Dictionary, Second Ed., Macquarie: Macquarie, 1995, p. 826.

3 Gardner, p. 8.

4 Ibid., p. 6.

5 Ibid., p. 14.

6 Ibid., p. 85.

7 Ibid., p. 46.

8 Ibid., p. 51.

9 Ibid., p. 52.

10 Ibid., p. 100.

11 Ibid., p. 74.

12 Ibid., pp. 72-3.

13 Ibid., p. 75.

14 Ibid., p. 9.

15 Ibid., p. 146.

16 Ibid., pp. 21-2.

17 Ibid., p. 24.

18 Ibid., p. 173.

19 Ibid., p. 92.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – Yahoos and Houyhnhnms

What do the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms stand for? What moral was Swift drawing from them? The answer to the second question depends on the solution of the first. One solution could be that the Yahoos represent man as he actually is, self-seeking, sensual and depraved, while the Houyhnhnms symbolize what man ought to be, unselfish, rational, cultured.

In the fourth voyage, Swift presents a case study for opposing states of nature, with the Yahoos representing the argument that man is governed by his passions, seeking his own advantage, pursuing pleasures and avoiding pain, and the Houyhnhnms representing the argument that man is governed by reason. If this is the case, then Swift’s misanthropy was such that he saw men as the foul and disgusting Yahoos, and made it plain that reform of the species was out of the question. A major fault with this theory is that it leaves no place for Gulliver. When attention is drawn to the figure of Gulliver himself, as distinct from his creator, Swift, he is taken to be the moral of the story. If you can’t be a Houyhnhnm you don’t need to be a Yahoo; just try to be like Gulliver. The trouble with this idea is that when taking a closer look at Gulliver, he isn’t worth emulating. The final picture of him talking with the horses in the stable for four hours a day, unable to stand the company of his own family, makes him look foolish. Another theory is that Gulliver made a mistake in regarding the Houyhnhnms as models to be emulated: so far from being admirable creatures they are as repulsive as the Yahoos. The Yahoos might be ruled by their passions, but these have no human passions at all. On this view, Swift was not advocating, but attacking reason.

The voyage does seem to have a slight religious moral also. One of the oldest debates in Christianity concerns the nature of man since the fall of Adam. He was so corrupted by that event that left to his own devices he was beyond redemption. His passions naturally inclined him toward vice, and his reason, so far from bringing him out of his vicious ways, led him even further into error. Only Divine Revelation could bring men back to the straight and narrow path of virtue. Although man is naturally inclined toward evil, nevertheless his own unaided reason could bring him to knowledge of moral truth.

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