The following post, my notes on book, Grendel by John Gardner, is my first two-parter, so bear with me. There was just too much in this book for one post to contain!
I’ll tell you what…going through this book and pulling out the quotes that still resonate with me one month after reading was a downer. I started this day with so much hope and joy and then in crashes Grendel…that beast!
At first, I didn’t understand the point of this book, other than a view from another character’s perspective. Then a few weeks later I was listening to the Isaac Morehouse podcast and heard someone (and I’m really sorry but I can’t remember what interview it was) say that the story of Beowulf was showing how humans had fought their way out of chaos and how they had to keep defending civilization from collapsing back into it. That chaos was in the form of Grendel coming each night to kill warriors.
That was when the meaning of the book I read come flooding in on me. Grendel in John Gardner’s book was not chaos, he was simply another part of nature, and he was angry watching mankind kill and destroy its way through the world, just as he did, yet not take responsibility for its actions. Humans sat there in their great halls, pretending that they were better than nature, that they had risen above violence, and yet used it against each other in the most horrific and manipulative ways.
Grendel (nature) is unapologetically violent. He doesn’t hide it or pretend there are good reasons for killing and destroying things. He just is what he is. It is not his job to change his nature, but for others to be aware of him and avoid him if they can.
This is a feeling I’ve had myself. I want to know right out front how the people around me feel about certain things. I don’t want them to blend in. I want them to stand loud and proud. That way I can take full responsibility to avoid or move towards those people, to choose whether I can band together with them or pass them by and leave them to their lives the way they see fit.
I enjoyed reading Grendel’s perspective. He’s open and honestly murderous. He doesn’t hold it against others when they avoid or best him. He is who he is and I can respect that, although I’d rather not live next door to him.
The following are some of my favorite quotes from the book and a few of my thoughts on each. Ever since this morning, when I opened the book and flipped through to copy down my notes here, I’ve had some of these rolling around in my head.
“That is their happiness: they see all life without observing it. They’re buried in it like crabs in mud. Except men, of course.”
Animals, nature…they don’t attempt to change the course of things other than to stay alive and procreate as best they can. They’re just in the world. Us humans, we can use our creative brains to manipulate the world, for better or worse.
“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.”
The human mind is geared to see and recognize patterns, even where there are none. We create a mythology about whatever we don’t understand and make meaning when we can’t discover one.
“I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears.”
It still is and always will be. It sounds so damn depressing. Sometimes I want to believe in a fairy tale, but something about harsh reality is so…I don’t know. Maybe it’s like a train wreck. We want to look away and not know but our eyes refuse to obey.
“Hrothgar, who’d begun hardly stronger than the others, began to outstrip the rest. He’d worked out a theory about what fighting was for, and now he no longer fought with his six closest neighbors. He’d shown them the strength of his organization, and now, instead of making war on them, he sent men to them every three months or so, with heavy wagons and back-slings, to gather their tribute to his greatness.”
This is one of the things the Grendel hates most and something we continue to allow “government” to do in our collective names all over the world.
“They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense.
That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality – puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness.”
Mythology in a nutshell. Hey! Let me out! How did I get in here?!
“Except in the life of a hero, the whole world’s meaningless. The hero sees values beyond what is possible. That’s the nature of a hero. It kills him, of course, ultimately. But it makes the whole struggle of humanity worthwhile.” I nodded in the darkness. “And breaks up the boredom,” I said.
Each of us is hero in our own little corner of the universe, right? But we’re just doing what makes us happy and content, easing our own or other’s suffering. We wouldn’t do it if it didn’t serve us somehow in the world that we live in. It sounds so ugly, I know, but it’s honest. It’s also why we create and watch superhero movies!
“Shall I call the tree tyrannical, since where it stands nothing survives but itself and its high-borne guests? Condemn it because it sends down stifling darkness, sucks the life from grass, and whitens the sapling leaf for trifling, fluttering friends?”
Those damn trees! Everything in nature strives to stay alive and procreate, including humans. And there are ALL kinds of humans. Some are more aggressive than others, some live well in groups, some…don’t. Know each kind, respect their right to be here and create your own boundaries to thrive.
There’s more coming tomorrow! Aren’t you excited?! I know, it’s a harsh one, but we only know the highs if we accept and trudge through the lows, right? I wrote about this book when I started reading it back in March. Click back to Grendel by John Gardner to read it!