Monsters are making serious coin. Zombies add $5 billion to the economy, according to a
Wall Street financial analyst.  The Mummy has generated $1.5 billion at the box office in
recent years—enough to buy his own Pyramid and a lifetime supply of tana leaves.
Frankenstein and Dracula don’t file tax returns, but they must earn as much as  
investment bankers. I was hardly surprised when the leading job website called itself—there's gold in scaring people.

So I feel sorry for poor old Grendel. He was the first monster in the English language—
making his appearance in the Old English epic Beowulf, the first great literary work in
the language. Yet where is his movie franchise?  Where are his licensing deals? You can't
even find a lousy Grendel T-shirt, let alone a scary Halloween costume.

Thank heavens for John Gardner, our forsaken monster's
only advocate. In his 1971 novel Grendel, Gardner flip-
flopped the
Beowulf epic and made it about the villain.  
Gardner had published two previous novels, without
much success, when he tackled the unlikely project of
updating a story that was more than one thousand years
old, and almost never read except by students assigned
Beowulf as a class assignment. (Count me in that group:
I read
Beowulf only because Stanford wouldn't give me a
degree in English literature if I didn't do so.) Yet Gardner
had learned, when teaching a class on Anglo-Saxon
literature, that this old story made more sense to students
when described in terms of modern philosophical currents.

Gardner told his class that "Grendel is symbolic of the
rational soul gone perverse." He continues: "Somebody
asked me in class if that was just old-fashioned Christian
talk, or was it possible in the modern world for the rational
soul to go perverse. I said 'Sure,
Sartre’s Existentialism is
perverse rationality.' As soon as I said it I realized what I
was going to do, I and I began planning Grendel."

The time was ripe for Grendel.  As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the mass audience had
gone beyond the concept of the anti-hero and was embracing the more radical notion of
the noble evil-doer. This could be seen in cinema—in breakthrough films such as
and Clyde
, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Godfather. It was
evident in music; “Sympathy for the Devil” was getting airplay even as Gardner worked
on his manuscript and "“I Shot the Sheriff" was recorded shortly after Grendel’s release.
It was especially evident in fiction, demonstrated in books as diverse
Wide Sargasso Sea,
In Cold Blood, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Carrie.

In this new state of affairs, Grendel the monster became
the loveable rebel without a cause, and the traditional
heroes—Hrothgar, king of the Danes, Unferth and
Beowulf himself—emerge as tainted representatives of the
establishment, upholders of a system built on self-serving
lies and barely-disguised violence. This gives Gardner a
pretext for turning his novel about a sixth century hero into
a critique of twentieth century sociocultural practices. Indeed,
the most riveting interludes in this novel are not the fights
or 'action scenes' but rather those moments of insight in
which we see the familiar attributes of our own day in strange
new guises.

In the worldview of Gardner’s Grendel, culture is a deceitful
construct that hides the essential meaninglessness of
existence. The most intriguing character in the novel is
neither the hero Beowulf nor the monster Grendel, but the bard who sings mesmerizing
songs for the King and his court. This poet possesses the most magical power of all: he
can turn the brutality of the everyday world into something glorious and inspiring. Even
Grendel is fascinated by these songs, wanting to believe their lies, though he knows
better.  Grendel has heard the inside scoop from a cynical dragon, who can see all past,
present and future, and warns against believing these beguiling fairy tales. But even a
monster finds it impossible to resist the charm of the poetic imagination.

Reading these passages, I couldn't help but recall my favorite scene from Homer’s
Odyssey. Odysseus has returned to his native Ithaca, and is killing off the suitors one
at a time. He doesn’t stop until his vengeance is sated, and all the freeloaders in his
household are
slain. But he makes one exception: the bard who was singing for the
entertainment of the suitors is spared. I can’t help but believe that Homer saw himself
in that role, and demanded what we might nowadays call poetic license. All the revelers
get punished, in this roughshod Homeric jurisprudence, but the poet is above the law.
The same kind of license is exercised by the bards of Gardner’s novel, who actually have
more influence than kings in shaping the attitudes and aspiration of the royal entourage.

In the Beowulf epic, the appearance of Grendel is
never described, but we are told that he is
sceadugenga, which translates as a shadow-goer.
He strikes in darkness, much like the vampires of
superstition and pop culture. We are told, also, that
Grendel is a descendant of Cain, one of the few
direct evocations of Christianity in a narrative that
is drenched in Pagan attitudes.  Grendel is eventually
slain by the warrior Beowulf, who upholds the values of
courage and blood justice. Perhaps, in a technical way,
Beowulf might be called a savior—he has saved the lives of Hrothgar and his thanes. But
he couldn’t be less similar to the Christian concept of a savior, with its celebration of self-
sacrifice and meek surrender to the violence of others.

Grendel is the real sacrificial victim here. He approaches his death at the hands of the hero,
with a strange mix of repulsion and attraction. To the end he holds on to the cynicism
learned from the dragon, insisting that only mere chance g
ives Beowulf the victory. But
he also grasps that the persnickety and willful ignorance of humans will allow them to
turn this meaningless incident into something foundational and constitutive—in this
case, an epic poem at the heart of Anglo-American self-identity.

This is never explicitly stated in the novel, but it doesn't need to be. We already know
Grendel's fate: he is destined to serve as the archetypal monster of English literature.
He will be studied by future centuries, a monster allowed into the canon of great literary
sagas. Even I will be forced to imbibe his tale and its justifications of Girardian
reciprocal violence—to the extent that my bachelor’s degree will be withheld from
me if I refuse! And if, as some suggest, all cultures are defined by what they oppose
and exclude, what they attempt to extirpate, then Grendel becomes that supercharged
kind of victim—one who brings a new world into life through his bloody demise.

Is it a beautiful world? Is it a peaceful world? Hardly. In this instance, the circle of
reciprocal violence will continue. In the Beowulf epic, the slaughter of Grendel is
followed by the killing of his mother—an incident prefigured in Gardner’s novel, but
left out of the narrative. But more than that, we also know the long, bloody history of
the succeeding centuries of English history, and can’t help but see the dominance of
the values of vengeance and blood justice celebrated back at the dawn of Anglo-Saxon
storytelling. This history may look grand in the rearview mirror, perhaps even heroic,
but one of the lessons of John Gardner's
Grendel is that we do well to question the
nature of this glory, even when (or perhaps especially when) we fall under its spell.  

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.

Publication Date: August 6, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
by John Gardner
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
How the First Monster in Our Culture
Grew Up to Become an Existentialist Hero
To purchase, click on image
By Ted Gioia
He was the first monster in
the English language, but
where is his movie franchise?  
Where are his licensing deals?
You can't even find a lousy
Grendel T-shirt.
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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All rights reserved.
John Gardner
A Look Back at John Gardner's Grendel