"Man," he said, then left a long pause, letting scorn build up in the cave like the venom in his breath. "I can see you understand them. Counters, measurers, theory-makers.The above quote, where a dragon is conversing with the young monster Grendel about the delusions of Men, serves to represent a good portion of what John Gardner's short 1971 novel, Grendel, purports to cover. Told in a first-person point of view, this novel plays off of the events of the epic poem Beowulf in such a way as to create a story that has a deep resonance beyond that related to the poem itself.
All pigs eat cheese.
Old Snaggle is a pig.
If Snaggle is sick and refuses to eat, try cheese.
Games, games, games!" He snorted fire. "They only think they think. No total vision, total system, merely shemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spiderwebs. But they rush across chasms on spiderwebs, and sometimes they make it, and that, they think, settles that! I could tell you a thousand tiresome stories of their absurdity. They'd map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories, their here-to-the-moon-and-back lists of paltry facts. Insanity - the simplest insanity ever devised! Simple facts in isolation, and facts to connect them - ands and buts - are the sine qua non of all their glorious achievement. But there are no such facts. Connectedness is the essence of everything. It doesn't stop them, of course. They build the whole world out of teeth deprived of bodies to chew or be chewed on.
"They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense. They have dim apprehensions that such propositions as 'God does not exist' are somewhat dubious at least in comparison with statements like 'All carnivorous cows eat meat.' That's where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality - puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me. Mere sleight-of-wits. He knows no more than they do about total reality - less, if anything: works with the same old clutter of atoms, the givens of his time and place and tongue. But he spins it all together with harp runs and hoots, and they think what they think is alive, think Heaven loves them. It keeps them going - for what that's worth. As for myself, I can hardly bear to look." (pp. 65-66)
Grendel has begun a twelve year-long war with the Danes; this is noted in a matter-of-fact way that serves more as a backdrop to the larger story that Gardner aimed to tell. Grendel's narration of events include not just his struggles against men (and ultimately, the unnamed Beowulf who slays him), but how the young monster relates to the world around him. In reading this story, I found myself in turns bemused and reflective, as Grendel and those around him, like the dragon above, muse on all sorts of things in life. There are many angles and schools of thought presented in the twelve chapters of this book, each representing a particular approach. This, combined with the sly references to the epic poem, made for an intriguing, enchanting tale that I certainly will be re-reading several times in the near future.
Is this book worthy of being called a "Masterwork?" Yes, as Gardner's prose is excellent, the story contains several layers of depth and meaning, and the character of Grendel is memorable. Even though it is almost 40 years old, the writing should be very accessible to most younger readers, as it does not feel "dated" at all and the ideas contained within the text are universal ones that humans have pondered for millennia.