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Grendel by John Gardner

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Jean Conte

on 1 October 2014

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Transcript of Grendel by John Gardner

Biographical Information
John Gardner was born on July 21, 1933 in Batavia, New York. His father, John Champlin, was a dairy farmer and lay Presbyterian preacher, and his mother, Priscilla Gardner, was an English teacher. A few months before Gardner’s twelfth birthday, he accidentally killed his younger brother, Gilbert, by running him over with heavy farm machinery. This event caused a lifetime of psychological trauma for Gardner. However, this accident inspired Gardner’s literature. Gardner graduated from Washington University in 1955. After, he attended the University of Iowa for his graduate program where he studied medieval literature and creative writing. Gardner became a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio. Gardner married twice, and he was engaged when he died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 49.
Major Characters, Their Relationships, Their Conflicts
Grendel: The protagonist of the novel who, unlike his character in the original Beowulf, has human like qualities. Throughout the novel, he struggles with intellectual problems and searches for answers to age old philosophical dilemmas of existential identity. Grendel desires to be a part of human society. He watches those around him in hopes of finding personal guidance. Through his interactions with both the Shaper and the Dragon, Grendel is exposed to differing point of views of the universe. This leaves Grendel mentally torn about what path to follow.
The Shaper: A harpist in Hrothgar’s kingdom who tells stories through songs to the people, creating a perception of a universe where everyone has a purpose in life. Grendel is initially drawn to this concept because of the manipulative powers of the Shaper's song.
The Dragon: A large and fearsome beast who sits on top of a pile of treasure and reveals an alternate view of the world to Grendel. In his perception of the world, everything is meaningless and without reason. His impact leads Grendel to barbarically terrorize Hrothgar's people.
Grendel’s mother: A large, dumb beast who sits in her cave all day long making grunting noises and rummaging through piles of bones. She attempts to keep Grendel in the cave with her and away from the outside world. Although the pair experience a language barrier, it is apparent that Grendel's mother cares for him deeply. Grendel's mother is the closest being with whom Grendel can identify.
Hrothgar: The king of the Danes. Because Hrothgar is next to God, Grendel is unable to kill or harm him. Hrothgar struggles with the attacks from Grendel. It is apparent Hrothgar cares for the people in the kingdom because of the way he reacts to great loss. Hrothgar is the one responsible for introducing the Shaper to the kingdom.
Motifs (Recurring Images, Ideas, Figures of Speech, Symbols, Colors) & Their Thematic Significance
The Seasons – The novel begins in the spring of Grendel’s final year of life and ends in the winter of the same year. The season of spring symbolizes growth and new beginnings, whereas winter symbolizes aging and death. Since Grendel ends in winter, it is appropriate that the glory of Hrothgar’s kingdom is diminishing and Grendel dies, therefore symbolizing the end.

The Zodiac – The Zodiac system is another yearlong cycle that represents Grendel. Grendel is separated into twelve chapters and each chapter is linked to a different zodiac sign. For example, in the first chapter of Grendel, Grendel is arguing with a ram, which is also the symbolic sign of Aries. This is significant because Aries represents the start of spring.
Major Themes
Isolation causes pain: The pain that Grendel experiences throughout the the novel, although self inflicted, is a result of his longing for relationships. Because the world ignores Grendel and the only person that loves him (his mother) cannot speak, he is left searching for companionship among the citizens of Hrothgar's court. His pain is heightened after being attacked by the very people that he tries to befriend. After visiting the Dragon, Grendel reaches the ultimate sense of isolation upon hearing the Dragon's existential concepts that claim life to be meaningless.
The world has no meaning: At the beginning of the novel, Grendel searches for his purpose in life. He tries to become a part of the humans but ultimately fails. After talking to the dragon, Grendel is opened up to the idea that there is no purpose in life and the humans are ridiculous for thinking there is. With guidance from the dragon, Grendel starts to brutally terrorize the kingdom with no regret because without purpose, he can do whatever he wants.
Grendel Vocabulary
Chapter 1
1. docile-Ready to accept control or instruction; submissive.
2. sycophant- Someone who tries to get what they want, or earn someone's respect, by using flattery on those people who would be able to influence their goals.
3. dogmatism-The tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.
4.chasms-A deep, steep-sided opening in the earth's surface; an abyss or gorge.
5. fuliginous-Pertaining to or resembling soot; sooty, dusky.
6. fens-A low and marshy or frequently flooded area of land.
7. putrid-Of or characteristic of rotting matter.
existentialism :A philosphical approach that emphasizes the importance of individual existence over any presumed natural essence for human beings. Although they differ on many details, existentialists generally suppose that the fact of my existence as a human being entails both my unqualified freedom to make of myself whatever I will and the awesome responsibility of employing that freedom appropriately, without being driven by anxiety toward escaping into the inauthenticity or self-deception of any conventional set of rules for behavior.

Summary: human consciousness is the entirety of human meaning; man makes meaning; absolute meaninglessness of all actions (in the big picture); complete/total freedom; total responsibility (no hand of god); importance of choice.
What is nihilism?

Nihilism takes numerous forms. Ethical or moral nihilism rejects the existence of ethical or moral values. That which designates such values as “good” and “evil” is seen as indistinct, and values are simply a result of social and emotional pressures. Existential nihilism declares that life has no inherent meaning or purpose. Political nihilism promotes the obliteration of all existing political, social, and religious institutions as a precondition for any and all future advancements in society.

Epistemological nihilism denies any possibility that truth and knowledge even exist. This view is often associated with those who suffer from extreme skepticism. For example, the classic question “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it . . . did the tree fall?” is carried one step further by the nihilist who asks: “Did the tree even exist?” The nihilist will contend that truth not only cannot be perceived, but in fact it does not exist and is not real.
Existentialism & Nihilism
Claim: Spongebob Squarepants is just as real (or not real) as you and I are.
Support or refute this claim in one paragraph.
Existential Warm Up:
Existence before essence: I exist but what am I?
Reason is powerless to deal with the depths of human life: Stuff just happens for no reason.
Alienation or estrangement: I am all alone.
Anxiety: Inner conflict between right and wrong.
The encounter with nothingness: Sometimes it seems you are nothing.
Freedom: I can do whatever I want.
The Six Elements of Existentialism
Grendel is going through an existential crisis.
What does this mean?
He is questioning the very foundation and meaning of his existence.
Existential Crisis
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