John Gardner’s Grendel was assigned to my high school English class. I don’t remember much of what we discussed in class, which might be evidence that what we managed to cover wasn’t very substantial. One moment from the discussion stands out in the back of my mind, and it’s lingered there ever since. We had all just finished Grendel, and it was the last day of in-class discussion. The teacher probed us with a final question about the last line of the novel, Grendel’s last words after Beowulf wrenches his arm off, “Poor Grendel has had an accident, so may you all.” What do they mean?
To my teacher’s disappointment, we said nothing. So we moved on to the next novel we were to be assigned. Maybe some of us understood what Grendel’s last words meant and simply didn’t feel like talking about them that day. Maybe none of us understood and were afraid of looking like idiots if we spoke up. Whatever the reason, that segment of the class discussion has lingered in my mind for years, and I vowed to one day revisit Grendel so as to have a better understanding of the novel than I did back in high school.
Consider this my penance for my silence that day.
Grendel is a re-telling of the epic “Beowulf” from the monster’s perspective. The novel begins with the start of Grendel’s reign of terror on Hrothgar and his people, the Scyldings, and ends with Grendel’s death at the hands of Beowulf. Throughout the novel, Grendel laments his own existence and his consciousness of the mechanical workings of the world around him. In many ways, Grendel is a half-step between animal and man. He sees himself as mechanical in nature, prone to a particular behavior and disposition much like the wild animals around him. But unlike the animals, he is conscious of his own nature, and for this awareness he curses his own existence. Those who believe like True Detective‘s Rust Cohle and horror writer Thomas Ligotti that human consciousness is a “tragic misstep in evolution” will find validation in Grendel’s existential plight.
A bard who resides in King Hrothgar’s mead hall, referred to as The Shaper, also fuels the fires of Grendel’s existential angst by singing songs of praise about Hrothgar’s prestigious kingdom. Despite Grendel’s assurance that the universe is a product of blind mechanics with no objective meaning to be found, he still can’t help but feel emotionally moved by the Shaper’s songs, leading him to think that there might be a grain of truth in them. At one point the Shaper characterizes Grendel as one of the descendants of Cain cursed by God. When Grendel first hears this he appears to them carrying a man whose throat had been slit by another Scylding as if to say that humans are no different than he is, and they have no grounds to reject him. Naturally, this backfires as Hrothgar’s men misunderstand Grendel’s intention and attack him.
Grendel remains mystified at how the humans manage to shape the world around them in defiance of the seemingly meaningless universe around them. He consults with The Dragon (the same dragon who is later killed by Beowulf) who has knowledge of the past, present, and future, in the hopes that The Dragon will alleviate his distress. The Dragon remains primarily indifferent to Grendel’s plight, but he provides Grendel with a way of finding a purpose in his life. When Grendel suspects that it’s best not to torment and terrify Hrothgar and his men, The Dragon responds by insisting that Grendel has every reason to do so. The Dragon declares that Grendel “improves” and “stimulates” humans. By being the antithesis to mankind, Grendel gives their lives meaning. And in turn, by fighting and terrifying the Scyldings, Grendel obtains meaning in his own life. Even if the tales the humans tell of gods, good and evil, and heroism aren’t true (The Dragon insists that they aren’t), there is still a certain joy to be derived from attempting to nullify them.
Rereading this section of Grendel reminded me of a section of Moldbug’s “Why Carlyle Matters” in which he defines what a reactionary is:
A reactionary is not a Republican, a Democrat, or even a libertarian. It is not even a communist, a fascist, or a monarchist. It is something much older, stranger, and more powerful. But if you can describe it as anything, you can describe it as the pure opposite of progressivism.
Notice how Moldbug doesn’t define the term “reactionary” based so much on what it is, but rather what it is not. In order to fully understand what Moldbug means by “reactionary” one must know what it means to be a progressive. We as reactionaries understand ourselves by understanding what it is we oppose. Likewise with Grendel. Grendel understands himself as being the opposite of humans.
Whether you agree with Grendel’s view of the world or not, it is important to understand that Grendel serves as the negation of what humans stand for and in turn validates their existence. Whether what humans blame Grendel for is true or not doesn’t matter so long as it gives human lives a sense of direction. Having a monster to battle is just one way humans give their lives meaning. It’s important to understand this because reactionaries are the Grendels of the modern world.
Grendel doesn’t choose to be the outsider. He doesn’t choose to be the descendant of Cain. And yet, the Shaper insists that he is, so Grendel becomes what the Shaper says he is. We reactionaries didn’t choose to be descended from
civilized European colonists old white bigots who made American civilization possible created a culture of oppression against ethnic minorities. But the Cathedral insists that we are, so we become what the Cathedral says we are.
I’m sure many of us in the past have tried to offer olive branches to the progressives the way Grendel does only to be met with anger and righteous indignation. What many conservatives can’t seem to understand when they attempt to argue with leftists in good faith is that the left honestly believes that the right is filled with monsters. And there’s no point in having a civil discourse with monsters.
So where does this leave us? Should we embrace the idea that we’re monsters and torment the Left the way Grendel torments the Scyldings?
One may object to the idea of “embracing” the idea that we’re monsters as adopting a Leftist frame. However, the fact that the Left considers us monsters despite our insistence to the contrary is unavoidable. Whether we decide to storm their mead halls or try to appease them with peace offerings is irrelevant to how they see us. If they have already decided that we aren’t worth engaging in good faith, then there’s nothing to gain from attempting to reconcile our differences. I think most of my readership has already come to this conclusion.
At any rate, I’d like to challenge the notion that “becoming Grendel” necessarily entails letting our adversaries frame the narrative as it were with another example from Grendel. Around the middle point of the novel, Grendel becomes rather bored with storming Hrothgar’s mead hall and terrorizing the Scyldings. But right as his existential angst reappears, he encounters a warrior named Unferth. Unferth stands out from the other Scyldings by making grandiose speeches about heroism, and the honor that comes through death in war. Unlike the other Scyldings who seem fearful of Grendel, Unferth sees it as a high honor to die by Grendel’s hand. Grendel realizes that killing Unferth will only bring him more prestige in death, so he decides to humiliate him instead. When Unferth confronts Grendel in the mead hall, Grendel answers his call to battle by throwing apples at him. The embarrassed Unferth pursues Grendel back to his lair in the hopes to actually do battle with him. Unfortunately for Unferth, Grendel sees through his attempt at heroism and instead of killing him brings him safely back to Hrothgar’s hall unharmed.
From then on, Unferth continues to confront Grendel whenever he attacks the mead hall. Grendel responds by ignoring Unferth and killing all of the lesser Scyldings. The lesson here is that even if Grendel operates within the Scyldings’ narrative, it’s still possible for him to subvert that narrative without simply devouring every human he sees. If a monster is clever enough to undo his opposition without resorting to brute violence, then surely we are capable of doing so as well.
There is much to be learned from Grendel, not just what reactionaries have in common with Grendel, but also what makes us different. Later in the novel, Grendel realizes that he can’t completely destroy Hrothgar. If he does, then his life loses its purpose. Reactionaries, on the other hand want to completely subvert the left wing so as to make it completely powerless. Unlike our conservative counterparts, we understand that complete rightist victory entails nullifying political voice and thereby nullifying all potential channels for leftists to gain a foothold on any degree of political power. If the reactionaries win though, they cease to be reactionaries, because there is nothing left to react to. Similarly, Grendel would cease to be Grendel if Hrothgar were to die and his house fall. Luckily for reactionaries, we have separate identities to fall back on that aren’t characterized by our opposition to leftism giving us a sense of purpose when the reaction is over and done with. At least, I hope that’s the case for at least most of us.
At last, I’d like to touch on Grendel’s last words, “Poor Grendel has had an accident. So may you all.” What do they mean?
For those who have at least read “Beowulf” recall how Beowulf kills Grendel. Grendel breaks into the mead hall while the Scyldings and the Geats (Beowulf’s people) are asleep. When Grendel picks up a supposedly sleeping Beowulf, Beowulf grips Grendel’s arm tightly and wrenches it off. In Grendel, we get to hear Grendel’s impression of his own death. Grendel insists that it was an act of chance that allowed Beowulf to get the upper hand in their fight. He makes excuses, saying that if he hadn’t slipped on a puddle of blood he left dripping from another man he had eaten, Beowulf wouldn’t have won the battle. Beowulf tricked him, he declares, yet the reader may be inclined to believe that the reason Grendel lost the fight was due to his own oversight, not blind chance.
As Beowulf wrestles with Grendel, he whispers things into Grendel’s ear that suggest that Grendel’s will makes things as they are. When Beowulf slams Grendel against a wall, he declares that the reason the wall is hard is because Grendel believed it to be so. The world, Beowulf declares, is what you will it to be, “Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point” he says [emphasis in the original].
As such, Grendel’s fight with Beowulf reflects a struggle between two contradictory philosophical ideas. Grendel, representing the view that our sense perceptions give us access to an objective world around us, loses the fight to Beowulf who seems to have a semi-Kantian idealistic view of the world, postulating that our minds make the world as it is. While the fact that Grendel loses the fight doesn’t prove that his view of the world is unsound, it at the very least suggests that such a worldview can’t save him from death. Whether what Beowulf’s theory of mind and perception is true or not is irrelevant, the fact remains that he won and Grendel lost. Some philosophical ideas are more adaptive than others, even if they are far-fetched.
Thus, Grendel’s last words not only reveal his regret at the oversight he made, but also reflects how he steadfastly clings to the fact that his fate is the product of what he calls, “mere logic of chance.” He regrets what happened to him, but isn’t willing to acknowledge that he made some kind of mistake in challenging Beowulf. Despite the challenge to his worldview that Beowulf presents, Grendel clings to what he holds to be true until his death.
Grendel serves as both an amusing exploration of what it’s like to be an outsider as well as a somber cautionary tale. I don’t encourage readers to adopt Grendel’s existentialist philosophy (after all, look what it does for him), however, I found Grendel a fitting resource for putting the war between reactionaries and progressives in context. Progressives already see reactionaries as monsters, so what’s wrong with little acts of horrorism here and there? Why not add a little twist of Cain to your traditionalism? I encourage all reactionaries to draw from this book. See what you may learn.