Not a Book Club Pick: Grendel

I remember a long time ago, probably even before graduating from college, that someone told me about this book. As an English major, I was--of course--required to read Beowulf, which is this super-long poem that is supposed to have been handed down orally for generations and which might be based on a true story.

So here's the deal: There's this guy, Beowulf, who's like this big hero, or whatever, and he conquers a bunch of kingdoms and kills a monster named Grendel; I believe he also kills Grendel's mother, but I don't remember, and then he fights a dragon and dies. It's really a much better story than I made it sound.

Anyway, I was interested in reading Grendel's viewpoint on this, and actually, this book is not it. I mean, not really. It is more about the events of Grendel's life that make him into this sort of legendary monster that people fear and that heroes want to defeat. Beowulf himself doesn't even come into the picture until that last chapter or two.

Basically, if you are the kind of person who roots for the underdog, or who is always looking for the good in people, or who is interested in what happens in people's lives that make them who they are, you will like this book. There is a lot of backstory and there were even a couple of times when I felt sorry for Grendel, but then, too, he sort of makes it known that he does not want sympathy either. It's a real paradox, I guess.

I sort of get the idea that Grendel is not really a monster-monster; like, in my head I had this picture of what I thought he would look like, and truth to tell, he was mostly a combination of Bigfoot and the Swamp Thing.

[Actually, I didn't just have this picture in my head, because when I was a senior in high school, we had this assignment to draw a scene from the poem, and mine was the part where Beowulf tears off Grendel's arm. So I drew--to the best of my limited ability--a hairy monster with scaly feet and one shoulder that was spurting blood. That was an awesome picture; I wish I still had it. P.S. Don't judge me.]

I modified my vision somewhat during the reading of Grendel, and now I wonder if he wasn't a sort of less-evolved version of a man. I mean, you see those pictures of the ancient men who are hunched over and kind of hairy, and that's what I envisioned as I was reading. (I'm not making any pronouncements about evolution; I'm just telling what I was seeing).

Grendel can speak, though humans have to really concentrate to understand him. He has complex though processes, he has emotions, he registers pain, and he doesn't always kill just to survive: sometimes he does it because it's fun. Sometimes he DOESN'T kill, also for fun, like the time this kid thinks he going to be a hero by defeating the monster, and Grendel toys with him and then refuses to kill him because he knows that's a harsher punishment.

The book ends with the Tearing Off of the Arm, so unless you know your ancient British literature, you're kind of left hanging. Ooh, that was not a pun, though.

When I was talking to some other English teachers recently, I remember Cat told me that she either liked Beowulf and hated Grendel, or the other way around. For me, I don't HATE Grendel, but I would recommend Beowulf over Grendel; I just think it's a better story.

Put it like this: I have carried memories of Beowulf and the reading of it with me for lo, these ... wait ... thirteen years. (yeesh!) I already can't remember some of the stuff from Grendel.

That may be a sign.

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