Cain´s Offspring

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					                                 Cain’s Offspring:

               Religious Problems in John Gardner’s Grendel

                               Anastasia Lipinskaya

       The subject of this paper is a complex set of religious problems
underlying the structure of Gardner’s short novel Grendel (1971). John
Gardner (1933 – 1983), a best-selling novelist and a distinguished
philologist as well, was greatly interested in Old English poetry and wrote a
number of scholarly works on it – the fact which cannot be ignored while
analysing the novel based on the famous Old English epic.
       The most unconventional thing about Grendel arresting the reader’s
attention is that the story is retold from Grendel’s point of view. This
perspective involves some ambiguity: the monster becomes closer to the
reader than any other character. The epic is not merely retold the other way
round; the original plot is enriched with the leading character’s reflections
and reports of some past events. Gardner’s Grendel has a philosophical bent
of mind – a trait that also cannot but provoke modern readers’ sympathy.
Unexpectedly enough, the monster behaves as an unusually intelligent
creature able to analyze, sometimes in very modern terms: he easily uses the
elements of scholarly discourse (such as “end quote” and a Latin saying –
Nihil ex nihilo) and skillfully plays with words (“mor(t)ality”).
       Initially the narrator appears (following the epic) as Cain’s offspring,
a cursed creature rejected by the world and its creator and cursing heaven for
his destiny. The religious aspect of Beowulf is clearly echoed here which is
not surprising at all: in the research The Construction of Christian Poetry in
Old English Gardner treats the epic as a Christian text allegorizing a heathen
subject. Lines 100 – 110 of the ancient poem explain Grendel’s origin and
represent him as an outcast and a rebel against God. In full accordance with
this representation Gardner’s hero, too, challenges the sky:
       The sky says nothing, predictably. I make a face, uplift a defiant middle finger
and give an obscene little kick. The sky ignores me, forever unimpressed. Him too I hate,
the same as I hate these brainless budding trees, these brattling birds.1

      Grendel is lonely and unhappy in the world; he even expresses self-
destructive wishes:

       “Dark chasms!” I scream from the cliff-edge, “seize me! Seize me to our foul
black bowels and crush my bones!”…2

      The hero’s desperate wailing calls to mind Cain’s and Agasphere’s
painful situation. But what is even worse – there are actually neither these
dark chasms nor God, and Grendel only too clearly sees “the cold mechanics
of the stars”. The whole of the universe exists as if guided by some mighty
power and worships it, and only Grendel knows it to be false. Thus his
punishment becomes not only cruel but also senseless. According to
Gardner’s interpretation of Beowulf,

     Failure to serve God is presented throughout the poem as foolishness or madness
<…> Grendel is <…> one who denies law and reason at their source.3

       In the novel everything appears to be vice versa – the world is seen
through the eyes of a post-industrial man (who has suffered too much from
its imaginary “advantages” to believe it) to be guided by heavenly power.
       But Gardner as a writer of modern times speaks about another creative
power – the power of words. Young Grendel finds it for the first time in
Shaper’s songs. This old man is a poet and a singer at king Hrothgar’s
service; his songs about God’s mercy and the world’s harmony (closely
resembling lines 90 – 100 of Beowulf where a song of an aged bard is also
rendered) make everybody, even Grendel, believe in their truth. And,
moreover, make them believe in “the pride of creation”:
       He built this hall by the power of his songs: created with casual word its grave
mor(t)ality <…> “He reshapes the world”, I whispered, belligerent. “So his name
implies. He stares strange-eyed at the mindless world and turns dry sticks to gold”.4

      The singer creates – or rather recreates – the world ascribing some
non-existing sense to it, as Grendel says, “always transforming the world –
changing nothing”5. The verbal creation has two aspects here – religious (as
in The Old Testament, also having mythic roots and parallels) and poetic.
Shaper’s songs are simultaneously poetry (Gardner inserts quotations from
and stylizations of Beowulf – the text plays with its readers) and sermons
based on a conception strikingly reminiscent of Christianity. At the same
time the author hints at the fictional, subjective character of this creation,
bringing it to irony.

     But what is even more ironical – another poet and creator is Grendel
himself. In the last scene Beowulf whispers to Grendel during the battle:

        Grendel, Grendel! You make the world by whispers, second by second. Are you
blind to that? Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses it is not the point. Feel
the wall: is it not hard? He smashes me against it, breaks open my forehead. Hard, yes!
Observe the hardness, write it down in careful runes. Now sing of walls! Sing!
        I howl.6

      The similarity between Shaper and Grendel is underlined by the fact
that Grendel is also named the creator of the walls of the meadhall Heoroth.
The world as such may be quite senseless, but its verbal transformations can
painfully hurt their creators or fill numerous hearts with false belief. Poetry
predominates over religion here. The question of a poet’s responsibility,
discussed at full length in Gardner’s book of criticism On Moral Fiction
(1978), is already posited in the novel, though treated rather equivocally: the
novelist leaves the reader in doubt whether Grendel really creates the world
or merely interprets it, spinning a web of illusion.

        Talking, talking. Spinning a web of words, pale walls of dreams, between myself
and all I see.7

       These are Grendel’s words. If we accept them and suppose the
protagonist to be right we shall find a reliable proof in the episode with stone
gods: Grendel mimics the Great Destroyer quite safely. But Shaper creates a
very agreeable world picture and believes in it not without certain reasons.
And indeed in the last episode Beowulf appears as a heavenly messenger
and punishes Grendel, as if to prove the old man’s songs.
       So Gardner presents at least two opposite points of view here and
reasons each of them carefully leaving it to the reader to decide what the
truth actually is. There are only two obvious facts. First, by whomsoever the
characters have been created, they suffer and die in fact. Second, nothing in
the novel can be accepted uncritically.
       But let us return to poor Grendel and the fact of his death. In the final
battle Beowulf appears as a winged creature punishing and killing the
“ungodly” monster – a version of the archangel Michael defeating Satan.
Actually Grendel is not a mere monster but a devil-like figure here. The
devil-motif starts developing from the moment Grendel meets the dragon.
       This episode has many sources, R.Wagner’s Ring and J.R.R.Tolkien’s
Hobbit among them. The first one contains the image of a dragon sleeping
amidst immeasurable treasures and wishing not to be disturbed (Wagner’s

Fafner using almost the same words in Siegfried), the second one – of a
dragon instructing the frightened hero and preaching a wisdom of his own
(this reference to a merry fairy-tale is obviously full of irony). At the same
time Gardner’s dragon is the Ancient Serpent of the Holy Scripture
(Genesis) seducing Adam and Eve with sacred knowledge: Grendel accepts
the ideas which he makes the basis of his own conception and brings into
practice. Besides, later on, trying to motivate his sudden protest against
Shaper’s songs, the young monster says:

       The smell of the dragon lay around me like sulphurous smoke.8

        One can easily recognize the famous attribute of hell, and it is evident
that the dragon-devil continues seducing his “pupil” and crucially changes
Grendel’s state of mind just at the moment the latter has been attracted by
something “good and kind”. An extremely important question arises whether
it is a temptation or a kind of enlightenment; its solution is closely connected
with the above-mentioned problem of true and false creators.
        The Serpent in Genesis tempts Adam and Eve by promising they
would become like gods on eating the forbidden fruit. As far as Grendel is
concerned he actually becomes a mock god. He refuses to accept the
dragon’s total skepticism as the seducer tells him “leering scornfully”:
       “Do something else, by all means! Alter the future! Make the world a better place
in which to live! Help the poor! Feed the hungry. Be kind to idiots! What a challenge!”9

        This passage reminds us of the famous episode in the Gospels – the
three temptations of Jesus Christ. But if Jesus is the Son of God who rejects
the temptations by His free will, Grendel is a child (though monstrous). He
is thrilled by Shaper’s song and so he is shocked when the old dragon calls it
illusion and futility. The seducer lets the stubborn youth go but at the same
time turns him into something different:

        Nothing was changed, everything was changed, by my having seen the dragon.
It’s one thing to listen, full of scorn and doubt, to poet’s versions of time past and visions
of time to come; it’s another to know, as coldly and simply as my mother knows her pile
of bones, what is. Whatever I may have understood or misunderstood in the dragon’s
talk, something much deeper stayed with me, became my aura. Futility, doom became a
smell in the air, pervasive and acrid as a dead smell after a forest fire – my scent and the
world’s, the scent of trees, rocks, waterways wherever I went.10

      The dragon has told Grendel that he is not able to change the future
(which is indeterminable, a succession of chances), but he has changed the

young monster’s mind crucially. Several times Grendel almost yields to
Shaper’s song, but can’t do it in fact. He knows that there is no god and on
one occasion performs the godly role himself.
       Hrothgar’s people believed in the god who is a creator of a beautiful
and harmonious world and destroyer of his worshippers’ enemies – and
perhaps not only enemies. So once Grendel, hiding behind one of the idols,
is taken by old Ork for this god, the Great Destroyer. He accepts the role and
verifies the priest’s theological ideas, still being what he had always been – a
rejected monster, an outlaw of the universe. So one can easily draw a wrong
conclusion that the old dragon has been right and that the world is godless.
But the dragon is right in another, perhaps more important respect:

       You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them!
You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that
makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent
by which they learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shrink from –
the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment – that’s what you make them
recognize, embrace! You are mankind, or man’s condition: inseparable as the mountain-
climber and the mountain. If you withdraw, you’ll instantly be replaced.11

      Such is, according to Gardner, the difficult and painstaking mission of
a writer. The theme of verbal creation in its poetic aspect paradoxically
returns to the text.
      All these numerous levels (poetic, moral, religious) are tied closely
together not only by the epic plot. Another important tie is The Mental
Traveller, a poem by W.Blake, where the author presents in allegorical form
the evolution of his religious conception and the wanderings of his spirit.
The poem is quoted in the epigraph:

                       And if the Babe is born a Boy
                       He’s given to a Woman Old,
                       Who nails him down upon a rock,
                       Catches his shrieks in cups of gold.12

       and through the word “Babe” associated with the figure of Grendel.
Grendel is actually a baby-monster (a motif noticeably stressed in the text)
and – what is more important – he is also in search for the true idea of the
      But there are some points in the text which need a most careful
deciphering and may be properly described only within the topic “Blakean
Sources of Grendel”, so I shall touch upon them only in brief.

        The poem contains a female image, a “Woman old” which torments
the boy and grows younger as the latter becomes older. Then the youth rapes
her, and the process is repeated again and again, causing pain to both heroes
who wander together in the cold senseless world. This female is transformed
in the novel into Grendel’s mother and the beautiful queen Wealtheow, and
both images are connected with different stages of the character’s self-
identification: on the one hand, with his search of love and beauty and on the
other, with his destructive wishes.
        Moreover, it is possible to discern Jesus’ and Prometheus’ stories
among numerous sources of Blake’s text: their influence lets us know about
itself in the images of a suffering baby and a golden cup (cf. The Holy Grail)
and of a hero nailed (crucified) upon a rock. Whereas in Blake’s mythology
the two heroes are closely tied and transformed into the image of Orc,
Gardner follows Blake creating his Grendel – a rebel, a creator and a mock
god at the same time.
        It is also worth noticing that Gardner’s ambiguous theory of creation
is connected with that one embodied in the famous Blakean poem Tyger.
        To sum up, the novel Grendel is a complex paraphrase of the Old
English epic and Blake’s poem and it concerns, perhaps, not purely religious
problems. It deals rather with a specific philosophy of writing which is
regarded as a mighty though ambivalent creative power and the basic means
of discovering raison d’être. The world is fragile, it seems that there is no
power but the poet himself to support it; besides, this universe is absurd and
alien to its own creator. Gardner’s novel is a parable based on complex
relations “world/word/me” and gives no ready solutions to the problem.
         Though the novel may look like an embodiment of non-historical
relativism it can be set in the context of time and its problems. In the late 50s
and throughout the 1960s philosophers and theologians published a vast
number of books and articles dealing with the problem of God. When
Christianity was a very young religion people used to ask: if God is good
and omnipotent, then where does evil come from? In the second half of the
20th century this question reappeared; moreover, no satisfactory solution
could be found. Modern thought prefers the language of logic for the
analysis and reconsideration of older theodicies. A good example is
J.L.Mackie's article in a collection of essays called, “God and Evil”. It is too
well known that the 1960s became a peculiar stage in the history of
American culture. The total reevaluation couldn’t but touch religion – both
common practices and serious theological thought. A lot of statements

stopped being obvious; it was the time of alternative religious practices
(often exotic or dealing with the so-called evil forces), of skepticism and
passionate search for satisfactory solutions.

         Moreover, the 1960s brought into existence a popular movement in
theology that proclaimed God’s death. Its pioneers were Hamilton, van
Buren and Altizer. The main thesis of such theology is that speaking about
God is devoid of any meaning since it is impossible either to verify or to
falsify such statements. That is why one should pay more attention to human
relations which are in themselves a manifestation of the visible, immanent
Jesus bereft of the transcendent God. These ideas were widely known and
even broadcast but by the early 70s they had lost their influence. Such was
the destiny of most ideas of that period.
         John Gardner witnessed both the waxing and waning of the above-
mentioned movements in American religious thought. As a scholar he wrote
a series of articles (later published in a single volume) concerning Christian
allegory in Old English poetry. In one of them he treated “Beowulf” as an
allegory of sacred struggle between godly and ungodly forces, Beowulf
being a Christ-like figure and his opponent Grendel, Cain’s offspring, a
devilish figure. Just about that time Gardner created “Grendel” where, as we
know, he also dealt with religious themes. Those themes were very close to
the above-mentioned subjects of popular theological discussions.
       Grendel, almost like the little elephant in Kipling’s fairy-tale, never
ceases asking one and the same question. He wants to know why God is so
cruel or… whether there is any god at all. Throughout the novel he meets
some other characters which have already created theological systems of
their own. Grendel’s spiritual development goes on in constant encounters
with such systems with these “self-made theologists” – the dragon, the old
Shaper, the priest Ork and the king Hrothgar. Now it is time to expand upon
their “theories”, to explore their sources, interrelations and functions in the
       Let us start with the Shaper – this name is just a Modern English
version of the term “scope” elucidating its etymology. He is a court singer
whose songs are quotations from “Beowulf” – those digressions where
“Genesis” is retold. There isn’t anything original or historically improbable
in them but their function is very peculiar. The author quite deliberately
makes the text free of proper names, f.e., Cain and Abel are called simply
“the two brothers”. Thus the passage acquires the features of a universal
parable no longer strictly related to Christianity.

       Grendel comes to listen to these songs and is wonderfully pleased,
even though the Shaper proclaims him to be an outcast due to universal
godly laws. Nevertheless, sometimes he manages to notice something very
unpleasant in these beautiful sermons. The songs appear to be a well-
organized lie. Grendel notices: “always transforming the world – changing
nothing”. The world is mindless, and songs about its structure, beauty and
sacred meaning just underline this lack of sense. But king Hrothgar’s people
believe and… make the Shaper’s songs mottoes for their unholy deeds.
Everything is well, the good and omnipotent God rules the world – then why
do people kill each other, drink and boast? Moreover, they boast so much
that the amount of their words overcomes their deeds. Words take the place
of things and deeds – both in the official religion and in everyday life.
       Here we come to the basic problem of the novel. The book was
created in the beginning of the so-called postmodern epoch in the
development of fiction when not world but word, often irrelevant to reality,
became the centre of the artistic universe. Gardner’s work doesn’t belong to
this trend though it makes use of many postmodern concepts, ideas and
devices. It is a story of gnoseological and religious search in the proper
sense of the word, and it is also a story of irrelevant theories and words that
lose their connections with reality. Unlike postmodern writers Gardner
doesn’t deny the possibility of positive solution and is passionately looking
for it, though he doesn’t offer any ready outlet but honesty shows a wide
range of approaches with their advantages and disadvantages. We should
take these facts into consideration when discussing theological theories
presented in the novel.
       So we see that the Shaper’s theory represents not just Christian ideas
of divinity but a wide range of, let us say, utopian theories. It is based on the
strict differentiation of good and evil and some kind of self-praise – “we are
the true believers, we are good and act properly”. One more essential feature
is the discrepancy between things or actions and their verbal denotates. That
is, if we proclaim worthy aims it is possible to act now as we like for our
status protects us. Hrothgar’s people accept this kind of theory with all its
possible verbal expressions and shock the reader with their self-praise,
aggression and unwillingness to understand strangers – in any sense of the
word. If we return to the narrower, purely religious aspect of the problem
we’ll see that the Shaper’s religion isn’t even Christianity as itself but
presents rather its false hypocritical interpretations. The interesting thing is
that the Shaper doesn’t make fools of poor people: they readily accept his
stories and draw their own conclusions – beautiful theories and vicious
actions are common in the world of the novel. Grendel notices it and feels all

the evil consequences but he can’t change the situation and at last gets
accustomed to it. He becomes cynical, learns to kill and amuses himself
acting a great god before the old priest.
       This priest, Ork by name (perhaps a Blakean allusion), belongs to the
official heathen cult presenting old northern European cults or, more
generally, naive popular beliefs. Nevertheless the old man has developed a
kind of heresy proclaiming one of the gods the greatest under the name of
Great Destroyer. Remarkably, Ork doesn’t know which of the idols
represents his favourite deity. As for the combination of mercy and
destructive forces in one god, it was a very common feature of primitive
religions, and in the novel it shows the same idea though rather in its
psychological and ethical aspect. It has something to do with the problem of
God’s goodness in general – in Gardner’s novel this problem may illustrate
any kind of doubt, of passionate search but not always a search that produces
results. Ork expresses the point of view that is rather confused but sincere,
one that is, for Gardner, far nobler than the official one. But Grendel who
has by this moment lost his gift for understanding and compassion just turns
it into a joke. Some time before he would have praised Ork at least for his
       And what about Hrothgar? He has got some “lofty theories of his
own” which are not described. One can nevertheless suppose that the old
king losing his might is getting disappointed in all his ideals. There are some
touches of hope still left for him – like the beautiful queen and her children,
like Beowulf – the mighty saviour from across the sea, but they are not
enough. Theories (a strongly negative word in the novel) appear to be rather
doubts, some uncertain feeling but Grendel is at this stage unable to see
deeply, he just goes on rejecting “theories” especially the lofty ones.
Skepticism turns into nihilism – something different from Gardner’s very
humane, undogmatic position.
       But what has happened to poor Grendel? He changed after his visit to
Dragon who provided him with obviously ungodly knowledge. In his long
“lecture” the old serpent even doesn’t touch upon purely religious topics but
rather gives an ironical survey of the European philosophical tradition. The
question of belief (in any sense of the word) is impossible here. Knowledge
is also presented as something totally relative. The dragon’s advice is as
follows: lie still and guard your golden treasure. It’s not difficult to notice
that this statement denies any kind of external value and the joy of
communication – the things young Grendel was passionately looking for.
       The poor little creature gets only one precious gift – invulnerability
That reminds us not only of medieval legends but, presumably, of the

famous Cain’s sign. Adam’s elder son was sentenced for fratricide and
became an exile; he also got a special sign so that he wouldn’t be killed.
These two motifs, isolation and protection, are used by Gardner in his
version of Grendel’s story (Grendel, as you know, was Cain’s offspring).
But here their philosophical and psychological sense is obvious as nowhere
else; some scholars even speak of the existential context of the novel.
       And finally let us return to real historical religious movements. I have
already mentioned the so-called Death-of-God theology. Taking into
consideration the above-mentioned trend one can note that its ideas are
somewhat akin to those of John Gardner. The senseless God-talk reminds us
of the communicative and gnoseological problems of the novel; the very
accent on human relations has evidently something to do with it. It is hardly
possible to state that the writer took some ideas from the ideology of this
movement without more or less reliable proofs. Now let us speak more
cautiously: Gardner as an erudite scholar interested in religious problems
very probably knew the famous theory of his time. It appeared to be close to
his own sphere of interests at least in some points and we now could suspect
some influence or analogy speaking of “Grendel”.
        To illustrate his ideas Gardner created different theological and anti-
theological “theories” for his characters. They are partially based on real
religious and mythic antecedents, but the historical material is treated freely
and ironically. Each particular “theology” contains a conception of “good”
and “evil”, of “friends” and “enemies” which leads not to universal justice
but, rather, to intolerance and feud. The externally pluralistic novel should
be treated as a non-dogmatic parable on communication and tolerance in all
their aspects.
        I see “Grendel” as “a book without a moral”: the very intent to
present all possible points of view without any personal preferences implies
the demand for a highly responsible reader able to catch the author’s
message without turning it into a dogma.

  Gardner J. Grendel. Harmondsworth: Penguin books, 1980, p.6.
  Ibid., p. 11.
  Gardner J. The Construction of Christian Poetry in Old English. Carbondale; Edwardsville: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1975, p.19.
  Grendel, p. 46 – 47, 49.
  Ibid., p.49.
  Ibid., p.171.
  Ibid., p.8.
  Ibid., p.102.
  Ibid., p.73.
   Ibid., p.75.
   Ibid., p.73.

     Ibid., p.3.


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