The Deconstruction of Monstrosity in "Grendel" by John Gardner

Human Monster Meets Monstrous Humans?

Term Paper, 2021

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The monster in literary theory

3. John Gardner's Grendel - An Analysis
3.1 "You are mankind!" - Humanizing the monster
3.2 Monstrous Humans?

4. Conclusion

5. Sources
5.1 Primary Source
5.2 Secondary Sources

1. Introduction

"Ifman's the irrelevance that interests you, stick with him! Scare him to glory!"

- TheDragontoGrendel

Monsters have been an object of human fascination ever since. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines monsters as "a mythical creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms, and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance. Later, more generally: any imaginary creature that is large, ugly, and frightening" (OED online) and hints at old mystical creatures such as the Sphinx or the Minotaur. One of the eldest and most notorious monsters of (Old) English literature is Grendel, a creature that first appears in the Old English poem Beowulf from the 8th century. Due to its prominence, the story of Beowulf and Grendel has been revisited in modern literature. John Gardner's novel Grendel from 1971 is one of the most famous modern retellings and focuses on the monster from the Beowulf poem.

As the quote from the OED shows, monsters are typically associated with great size, a savage character, fear or terror, power, violence and mostly with a hideous and frightening appearance. However, Gardner's monster appears to be different from the monsters that most readers know from literature. By putting Grendel in the center of his novel, Gardner allows the reader to see the world through the monster's eye. The aim of this term paper is therefore to analyze which effect this change of perspective has in the construction of monstrosity. The basic assumption of this work is that Gardner develops a humanized monster that is less frightening, less violent and in the end less monstrous to the reader. On top of that, Gardner effectively presents the monstrous side of humans to further blur the lines between monster and human and deconstructs the popular image ofthe monster Grendel.

For the investigation of the novel it will be necessary to show how monsters are typically characterized in literature and make the concept accessible for an analysis of the novel. Therefore, the next part will briefly introduce the scientific discussion around the concept of monster. Afterwards, the novel's plot will briefly be introduced and the novel will then be analyzed with regard to its representation of Grendel as a (human) monster, and its human characters.

2. The monster in literary theory

In one of his articles, the French philosopher Dominique Lestel argues that "Human attraction to monsters is such that we could almost characterize Homo sapiens as 'the species that loves monsters'" (Lestel 2012, p. 259). That may be the reason why monsters have been central characters in oral and written literature throughout human history. But how can we define a monster? What characterizes it? The following chapter seeks to answer these questions and to provide a concept of the monster that allows for an analysis of Grendel's character in the following section.

Regarding the relationship of humans and monsters, it can be argued that monsters represent a kind of otherness and are opposed to the order of human society (cp. Cavell 2014, p. 157). Cavell explains that the monster "is aligned with the natural world and placed in opposition to humanity and the constructed world of civilization." (Cavell 2014, p. 157). The monstrous character is thus connected to chaos and naturalism threatening an orderthat was established by humans. Following this line of arguments, Hutman claims that the world itself is a monstrous place full of chaos and untamed nature in which humans interact and try to establish order (cp. Hutman 1975, p. 20). Ingebretsen (1998, p.25) even argues that "the ongoing stability of any society depends upon the presence of monsters". Thus, without a contrasting chaos or instability, which is represented by the monster, it would not be possible to define order and humanity. Monsters are, following the argument of Ingebretsen, therefore an inherent part of humanity and serve as a structural category.

Humans try to understand the world by categorizing whatthey find in it. These categorizations often follow a binary model: "We distinguish good from evil, civilized from savage, human from animal, man from woman, adult from child" (Goss 2012, p.150). Following the arguments presented before, monsters thus serve as a category that help us to define us as humans. However, Goss argues that the category of the monster is not as clear as one might think. She characterizes monsters as hybrid creatures, which "cross categorical boundaries" (Goss 2012, p. 151). Other scholars tend to categorize monsters differently: "Monsters, for Gilmore, are those things which he recognises as monsters: gigantic, human-eating, hybridised creatures which are projections ofthe greatest of human fears" (Brodie 2003, p. 265).

By categorizing Grendel as monster in the original poem we can learn about the physical traits ofthe medieval character. Grendel is described as man-like creature living in mud. However, he is significantly taller and stronger than humans. Furthermore, Grendel is described as eating humans (cp. Symons 2018). Nevertheless, Grendel's character in Beowulf also works on the social or cultural level: "For Beowulf's medieval compositor, Grendel represented outer darkness, the chaos that exists outside the social order of Heorot" (Goss 2012, p. 153). From this description - and the knowledge of other monsters - it is possible to conclude that a defining feature of monsters is that they pose a threat to humans by virtue of their aggression, their physical strength and their size. Identifying somebody or something as a monster is therefore "both an insult that emphasizes the freak's outsider status and an acknowledgment of power" (Goss 2012, p. 149). It is this duality that might fascinate us about monsters. They are frightening and represent chaos, they are scary and wild, but still they have their appeal: "they represent both what frightens us and what would transform us if we gave in to their all" (Goss 2012, p. 153). In his seven theses about monsters Cohen mentioned this aspect within his very first thesis: "the monster's body is a cultural body [...][incorporating] fear, desire, anxiety and fantasy" (Cohen 1996, p.4).

Another important aspect is that especially medieval monsters are often introduced in contrast to their antagonists, which are typically the heroes of a story. As monsters threaten humanity and bring chaos and destruction, heroes are there to re-establish order and triumph over the monster. "In cultural myths, supposedly, heroes are required to defeat monsters, just as monsters are required so that a hero can defeat them" (Brodie 2003, p. 266). Without a monster there would probably not have been much to tell about Beowulf in the original poem. It is through the monsters, that heroism comes to exist in the poem.

To make the concept ofthe monster accessible for the following analysis of Gardner's Grendel, it is arguable that the monster can be characterized as the representation of otherness, chaos and fear. As such, the monster and its body are cultural phenomena and contextual.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Deconstruction of Monstrosity in "Grendel" by John Gardner
Human Monster Meets Monstrous Humans?
University of Hamburg
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
Monstrosity, Grendel, Beowulf, Old English, Monsters
Quote paper
Stephan Jaskolla (Author), 2021, The Deconstruction of Monstrosity in "Grendel" by John Gardner, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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