I really didn’t want to write anything else about the Robert Zemeckis-directed Beowulf: as I already explained, I didn’t much like it. It seems to be making a bit of money, so I guess it’ll be just a matter of time before we see Gilgamesh starring a CGI-encrusted The Rock, with Denise Richards as Ninsun and a cameo appearance by Billy Crystal as Urshanabi. Whatever.
But now I see that Roger Avary, who co-wrote the screenplay with Neil Gaiman, appears to think he pulled off something wild and outrageous. So let me introduce this piker to Jeff Sypeck and Doc Nokes, who point out that the idea of making Grendel into a misunderstood misanthrope instead of a ravening enemy of decency is not terribly original or daring. This leads to an interesting discussion of John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel, which was the first attempt to ring a few changes on the nature of Heorot’s unwelcome guest:
Like many a postmodern protagonist, Grendel embodies the intellectual trends of the day, but he’s not some whining prep-school antihero or an English professor coping with a midlife crisis; rather, he’s a creature of consequence. Julie Taymor has suggested of Grendel that “the monster is the most human of humans,” but I don’t think she’s right. Instead, he’s a truly wretched creature: an abomination cobbled together from the spare parts of modernity—a monster made insane by modernity itself.
There’s much more to say about Grendel, and I suspect my students, an increasingly candid bunch, will surprise and enlighten me with perspectives that aren’t stuck in 1971. Accustomed to other novels that sincerely praise nonconformity, they’ll probably notice, without my prompting, that Grendel isn’t just the story of a sensitive rebel, a Morrissey with bloody claws.
Grendel is a work of stark medievalism. It expresses little sympathy for the prejudices of the modern wit and outright disdain for the fatal affectations of the anti-hero. This Grendel is misunderstood—every time a reader assumes he ought to be seen as something other than the embodiment of doctrines that presumably rot the modern mind. Forget the conventional wisdom: Far from being a postmodern paean to the moody outcast, John Gardner’s Grendel may, in fact, be one of the most reactionary novels an English major will ever read.
I’ve always been puzzled by the appearance of Grendel on high school reading lists — Gardner’s novel assumes deep knowledge of the original poem, which would seem to be plenty enough work in itself. (There’s an animated version of the novel out there that I’d like to track down sometime.) Perhaps Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman should be required to take a few night classes on the topic, as penance.