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Essay: John Gardner’s Grendel: society’s preconceptions of heroism

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  • Published: 21 January 2022*
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  • Words: 879 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 4 (approx)
  • Tags: Beowulf essays

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John Gardner’s Grendel is the story of Grendel, a monster, a descendant of the Biblical Cain, and his journey to find purpose in life. Along the way, he encounters various characters that offer meaning: the Shaper, the Dragon, Unferth, Wealtheow, and Beowulf. Though all these characters leave lasting effects on Grendel, Unferth has the most drastic impact on him. Unferth challenges society’s preconceptions of heroism, highlighted by the interactions between him and Grendel, and drastically affects the reader’s view of the monster to provide sympathy for him.
Following a surreal conversation with the Dragon, an embodiment of evil and nihilism, Grendel encounters Unferth, a mighty thane, or knight, of the king Hrothgar. Grendel has been terrorizing Hrothgar and his mead-hall, Heorot. Unferth is ridiculed by his fellow thanes for having “known to kill [his] brothers”, or fellow humans (103). He resolves to slay Grendel to reclaim his honor, to repent for his sins of kin-killing and be seen as a hero in the eyes of the other thanes and his king and queen. In their first conflict in Heorot Hall, Unferth exclaims that “This one red hour makes [Grendel’s] reputation or [his]!” (83). Unferth has decided that becoming a hero—by killing Grendel—is his best chance to clear his name. He knows he has to be the hero in order to do this—not just convince everyone around him, but convince himself as well. Grendel sees to it that this never happens. Rather than simply attacking Unferth, Grendel throws apples at him, humiliating the warrior. By refusing to fight Unferth and instead deriding him using fruit, he humiliates the hero and turns what should be a noble fight into an almost pathetic comedy. Following their fight, Grendel returns to his home, a cave that no one had ventured to before. Unferth follows, and arrives at the cave half-drowned and covered in cuts. He proclaims that “A hero is not afraid to face cruel truth…No man above us will ever know whether Unferth died here or fled to the hills like a coward. Only [Grendel] and [Unferth] and God will know the truth” (88). Unferth proposes his version of heroism, yet contradicts himself, saying merely on the page before thatsongs would be sung yearly about how he descended a lake and battled the monster. Unferth’s view of heroism is clouded: he sees it, in his case, as a means to regain honor, rather than a source of meaning, as he states how “Except in the life of a hero, the whole world’s meaningless. The hero sees values beyond what’s possible. That’s the nature of a hero. It kills him, of course, ultimately. But it makes the whole struggle of humanity worthwhile” (89). Grendel entertains Unferth’s notions until the warrior falls asleep, then carries him back to Heorot Hall. Grendel’s toying with Unferth reveals that a hero needs a cooperating monster in order to be heroic. By refusing to kill Unferth and play the part of the monster for him, Grendel denies him a heroic death and demoralizes him, showing him the emptiness of his ideas of heroism.
Gardner’s purpose in introducing Unferth is to elicit sympathy for Grendel. Grendel and Unferth are both outcasts, for almost the same reason. While Grendel has not killed any siblings and is not directly guilty of murder like Unferth, he suffers the same consequences. By dictating conflict between these characters, Gardner makes the reader more aware of how much one reflects the other—as well as how much they differ. Unferth, for instance, is much less candid about his monstrosity than Grendel is about his own. The result is that the reader appreciates Grendel’s honesty and identifies with his confusion and misery in a way he or she never could with Unferth. Gardner uses this connection to build sympathy for Grendel, but has no desire to change the reader’s opinion of Unferth, who has willfully broken a major cultural taboo. While Grendel may call himself “evil” in his thoughts and even behave wickedly toward humans, he is not unappealing as a character. On the other hand, Gardner takes every opportunity to show us Unferth’s repellent nature: he is “darkness made visible” and “ugly as a spider” (97, 103). He writes of his “eyes like stones”, and “a nose like a black, deformed potato” (149, 160). In doing so, through their conflict, Unferth is made out to be more of a monster, a descendant of Cain, than the true demon.
In the end, Unferth served his purpose: he questioned Grendel’s ideas of heroism to truly show how the Dragon poisoned his mind, and made the reader feel more empathetic toward the beast. As the novel opened, Grendel was a lost mind who the reader could connect to. But after the Dragon, with all his nihilistic views, spoke to Grendel, the reader needs a reminder of the still lost creature, or they would lose reason to have sympathy for him. Unferth was somewhat of a personal reflection for Gardner. The author accidentally killed his older brother with the family tractor when he was young, so Unferth was most reflective of Gardner. In this way, Unferth was the most integral minor character in the novel.
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