John Gardner

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Grendel Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Gardner's Grendel. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Gardner

John Gardner was an American writer, critic, and professor. After growing up in New York, he attended DePauw University and Washington University in St. Louis, studying English. He went on to get his M.A. and PhD. from the University of Iowa and then taught creative writing and medieval literature (including, no doubt, Beowulf) at various universities. Late in his career, Gardner wrote Grendel and the novel was his first work of fiction to garner much acclaim. Grendel established Gardner as a significant American writer and, while he went on to write several other well-received books, Grendel is still his best-known work.
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Historical Context of Grendel

While the novel does not refer to any actual historical events, the story of Grendel takes place within the context of medieval Anglo-Saxon culture and its emphases on heroism, kingship, and loyalty.

Other Books Related to Grendel

Gardner’s novel is a rewriting of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. This epic poem was written in Old English and, like other Old English epics, celebrates the daring feats of a hero, as Beowulf defeats Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. As a scholar of medieval literature, Gardner would have been familiar with the epic tradition surrounding Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon culture from which it emerged. Gardner borrows some of his plot and many character names from Beowulf, but creates a full life for Grendel prior to his encounter with Beowulf. At several moments in Grendel, Gardner inserts passages of poetry that imitate the form of Beowulf. In addition to rewriting the epic poem from the monster’s point of view, Gardner’s use of stream-of-consciousness narration and insertion of philosophical arguments into his novel allow us to gain modern insights into the mythic-medieval world of Grendel and Beowulf.
Key Facts about Grendel
  • Full Title: Grendel
  • When Written: Mid-twentieth Century
  • Where Written: USA
  • When Published: 1971
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: Scandinavia, in the mythic past
  • Climax: Grendel’s fight with Beowulf
  • Antagonist: Hrothgar, Beowulf
  • Point of View: First person, from Grendel’s perspective (with some passages narrated in third person)

Extra Credit for Grendel

The Zodiac. Gardner repeatedly uses astrological motifs throughout Grendel. Signs of the Zodiac appear both literally (with the ram, bull, and goat for Aries, Taurus, and Capricorn) and more symbolically, as the characteristics of different astrological signs can be linked with different characters.

Nameless. In the entire novel, Beowulf’s name is never mentioned. While his identity can be inferred, the absence of his name can be read as a slight to the hero. The entire point of accomplishing heroic deeds is to ensure one’s fame in future stories and myths (as in the poem Beowulf), and Gardner denies Beowulf that reward in his novel.