Grendel by John Gardner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Usually, I hate books that tell the "bad guy's" side of the story. I find them cloying and stupid. But Grendel is different. All at once, it's poetic, thought-provoking, and even existential. It's more than just an other-side-of-the-story kind of thing, like Wicked. It's a work of art, and for that it stands out.
Grendel is not just a beast in this book. He's a thinking, feeling, boogie monster, one that's even more human than human at times. He's a monster that sees things, feels things, and thinks about things. Most importantly, though, is that he's a monster who questions things in a way that only the hunted and the hated could truly question them. He is the insecurity and the doubt within us all. What lies within these pages is the story of an outcast, a pariah. Most of all, though, it's a story about loneliness. That's what makes it a story that we can all relate to.
That said, as a big fan of Beowulf, I was a little disappointed that the hero of legend was saved until the very end, but that's a small complaint. A bigger complaint is that the philosophizing can be a bit too much at times. My favorite scenes were those where Grendel actually had to deal and talk to others. It provided a nice point, counter-point to Grendel's innermost thoughts on existence and religion. But there were far too few of these moments. My favorite chapter is when Grendel actually approaches the dragon that (spoiler alert!) will one day be the end of Beowulf. It's a deep and heady chapter, and just a glimpse of the ultimate potential that this good, but not excellent, book could have achieved if more of that was just added in. Check it out.
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