[Grendel's Lair] [Papers]

Author: Aaron Hanson
Institution: University of Maryland, College Park
Reception: reveived an "A"
Date: spring 1997
Author's Comments: Course: Medieval and Renaissance English Literature. Taught by Dr. Michael Olmert. His literature classes are a combination of literature, English history and archeology. He teaches Shakespeare and 18th century literature courses, as well. Also, Dr. Olmert is actively involved in the Williamsburg, VA historical preservation project. His published works that I know of are: The Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg, Smithsonian Book of Books and Milton's Teeth & Ovid's Umbrella: Curiouser and Curiouser Adventures in History.


Thus Spake Grendel:
The Nietzschean Antichrist of the Fens

A Comparative Essay Based on John Gardner's Grendel and Nietzsche's The Antichrist

by Aaron Hanson


"It is I, I say. The Destroyer." Thus spake Grendel. "Revaluation of all values!" demands Nietzsche in The Antichrist. Grendel is Gardner's Nietzschean Antichrist. He roams the fens striking terror, at will, into the minds of all. The monster is invincible (before Beowulf's arrival). Grendel repeatedly destroys the meadhall and devours its occupants. He proves the king helpless, the warriors humiliated, the priests worthless. The community's confidence and continuity is in tatters. Grendel is the annihilator, but not the nihilist. Rather, men are the nothingists: the pitiful. The fen-monster is the Nietzschean teacher of reality: the will to power! Grendel will brook no weaknesses. He will crush the Danish chandalas. He will expose God's death. He will break the back of human ressentiment. He is the Antichrist! He is Grendel!


Although Grendel laid about and lived to eat, he still believed that life had some ineffable purpose (beyond his stomach). But this was before Grendel's talk with the dragon. Quoth the wyrm:

It's all the same in the end, matter and
motion, simple or complex. No difference,
finally. Death, transfiguration. Ashes
to ashes and slime to slime, amen. (173)

The dragon (Gardner's Schopenhauer?) advises Grendel that if he wishes to waste his time on the humans, then do it with gusto. An individual's life is just a momentary flicker of light in the abyss of eternity. Grendel, live it up while you can. (74) 

And so the fen-monster does just that. Grendel has received intimations of the Nietzschean overman: "...Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings!" (80), Tasmanian devil. Speaking in a Nietzschean epigram, Grendel says: "Nothing was changed, everything was changed..." (75) The fen-monster now sees reality through the dragon's eyes:

Futility, doom, became a smell in the air,
pervasive and acrid as the dead smell
after a forest fire. (75)

Grendel will no longer "play" with the men. Now he has a deadlier, darker purpose. He will be their Angel of Death, their biblical whirlwind.


Grendel's sense of self, as annihilator of the pitiful (the true nihilists), is transformed into Nietzsche's "We are Hyperboreans...Beyond the north, ice and death--our life, our happiness." (Antichrist 569) Continuing in the same refrain:

...Reverence for oneself; love of oneself;
unconditional freedom before oneself...
one must be above mankind in strength, in
loftiness of soul--in contempt. (Antichrist 569)

Grendel is realizing his Nietzschean Ubermensch solipsism: the will to power. Now the fen-monster must act.


Grendel considers his options. He decides that "the ultimate act of nihilism" (93) is to devour the beautiful, innocent Wealtheow. He storms the meadhall. Grendel seizes the young queen by her feet. She screams for divine intervention. The fen-monster pauses. Supernatural aid is not forthcoming, Grendel notes with mocking laughter. The fen-Antichrist says in Nietzschean overtones:

I would kill her and teach them reality.
Grendel the truth-teacher, phantasm-tester!
(110)

Yet Gardner allows Wealtheow to live. Grendel changes his mind and flees the meadhall. He rationalizes that the queen is meaningless alive as dead. Here Nietzsche would say that this was the ultimate act of nihilism:

[of Schopenhauer]...pity negates life and renders it more deserving of negation....
Pity is the practice of nihilism. (Antichrist 573)

Pity is anti-life in Nietzsche's view. Grendel fails the overman's affirmation of life test by releasing Wealtheow. The fen-monster did not annihilate the true nihilists: "...the domestic animal, the herd animal, the sick human animal--the Christian" (although pagans, Grendel holds the Dane's religion in contempt as Nietzsche does for Christianity). (Antichrist 571) Behind the aegis of all religions, there lurks pity, weakness, the utter lack of will.


For Nietzsche's Antichrist, goodness is the rising power of will; happiness is the feeling of overcoming the bondage of the chandala (slave) morality. Grendel, by this standard, failed to go over the top. The fen-monster stormed the ramparts of the temple of human weakness, wreaking havoc, battling his way to the summit (Wealtheow), only to slip on the banana peel of Schopenhauerian nihilism: pity. Grendel let the queen go. But he has more to learn about the Nietzschean will to power. Ironically, this lesson comes, not from the dragon, but from the humans.


Several days after Grendel's retreat from the meadhall, he overhears the old peasant (Red Horse) advising Prince Hrothulf:

The incitement to violence depends upon the total transvaluation of the ordinary values.
(117)

Here Gardner is quoting Nietzsche's battle cry verbatim: "Revaluation of all values." And Red Horse continues in a similar Ubermensch vein:

The total ruin of institutions and morals
is an act of creation. A religious act.
Murder and mayhem are the life and soul
of revolution. (118)

Grendel listens in the trees to all of this. Red Horse amplified much of what the dragon had told Grendel about reality earlier. But the wyrm had advised him to find gold to sit upon rather than mess with the humans. But if Grendel must, then do it. Red Horse inadverently highlighted the Nietzschean Way to reality for Grendel. Red Horse's words gave him new impetus. About ten pages later, Gardner again quotes Nietzsche through Grendel's narration:

The strong--old Hrothgar, Unferth--ignore
the images. The will to power resides among
the stalactites of the heart. (128)

If Grendel had overheard the old peasant's admissions earlier, perhaps the fen-monster would have eaten Wealtheow after all.


As with Nietzsche, Grendel holds man's religion in mocking contempt:

The weak observe the rituals--take their hats off, put them on again, raise their arms,
lower their arms, moan, intone, press
their palms together... (128)

This is Gardner's rendering of Nietzsche's claim that religion is the defender of the weak, the outcasts and the sinners. It is the chandala morality of the priests. The chief priest was Paul/Saul of the New Testament. Nietzsche believes that he is the originator of this tyrannical herd formation of Christianity. Through Paul, priests enslave and weaken people through conceptual shams, such as, sin, grace, redemption and forgiveness. (Antichrist 630) The ultimate priestly big lie for Nietzsche (and Grendel) is:

...the faith in immortality--that is, the
doctrine of the 'judgement'...beyond--
in nothingness... (Antichrist 618)

According to Nietzsche, "the priest rules through the invention of sin." (Antichrist 631) But Grendel has a simple down-to-earth solution for these chandala protectors:

I have eaten several priests. They
sit on the stomach like duck eggs.
(129)

Grendel reduces the enslavers of mankind into gastronomic nothingness. However, they have their farewell revenge on the fen-Antichrist--heartburn.


After overhearing Red Horse's Nietzschean how-to advice, Grendel became a full-fledge Antichrist. But the fen-monster was not given time to carry-out his nihil ex nihilo. Grendel has a date with destiny. Soon Beowulf arrived from Denmark. With his superhuman strength, Beowulf will tear Grendel's arm off. The tables will be turned. It is the antichrist who will be crucified. It is the Nietzschean Ubermensch who is weak. It is his turn to suffer the same fate as his victims. It is Grendel who will face oblivion, to return to the physical nothingness whence he came. He was Grendel. His last words are: "Poor Grendel's had an accident,...So may you all." (174) In his last moments of life, Grendel slipped away from Nietzsche's proud superman and into Schopenhauerian self-pity. The fen-monster should have followed the dragon's advice: find some gold to sit upon and forget the humans.


John Gardner has provided us with a cautionary tale contrasting religious faith with modern-day nihilism. Each belief system has its merits and demerits. The former provides hope on the condition of moral restraints. The latter gives individual freedom without conditions regardless of the consequences. The first belief system says that there is a caring God and an afterlife. The second says: bull! Gardner's work ends ambiguously. It is up to the reader to choose for themselves what they believe.

Works cited

Grendel. Random House/Vintage Books. John Gardner
The Portable Nietzsche. (The Antichrist). ed. by Walter Kaufmann. Viking, 1954. pp 565-656


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