John Gardner’s Letter

It’s not common that well-known writers respond to readers’ letters, especially in extreme depth as John Gardner did for a letter penned by teacher Susie West and three students. Although unexpected, Gardner’s letter was surprisingly informative as well and caused me to realize aspects about both the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf and John Gardner’s novel Grendel that I hadn’t previously given thought to.
From the very beginning of his letter, I was surprised by Gardner’s sassy tone. He suggests that one of the students might have read too fast or read a “bad translation” which I found amusing as well as a little insulting. Along with his humor, I was also surprised to find references to baptism as John Gardner mentions that the ending of Beowulf where Wiglaf tries sprinkling water on the dying hero can be considered ironic baptism. This mention made me instantly think of Foster. (When I first read Foster’s book, I didn’t realize how frequently the aspects he mentions appear in literature.) Perhaps the biggest thought-provoking aspect in Gardner’s introduction is the theme in Beowulf. This epic poem was written in such an early time period–one that even dates back to before the idea of writing stories on paper. As discussed in class, Beowulf was originally told through scops, poets who memorized and verbally retold stories. I thought that this poem was simply recounting the greatness of the Danes and of the heroic figure, Beowulf. Therefore, when I first read Beowulf, I didn’t deeply consider themes or attempt to search for deeper meanings. However, John Gardner says that the main idea in Beowulf is the fact that “in this world, you simply cannot win, no matter how noble you are.” Gardner then elaborates on the fact the only thing one can hope for in life is fame and even that eventually dies. As I consider this statement more and compare it to the epic poem, the more believable and true it becomes for me. Although the thought of everything we love and believe in eventually dying–a thought brought up by John Gardner in his letter–is scary, the fact that it serves as a basis for Gardner’s reason to write Grendel become more clear. This belief of the death and pointlessness of everything becomes more apparent as Grendel progresses.
Upon first reading of Grendel, I was not impressed, and the book was definitely not one of my favorites. However, as we’ve discussed it in class, I’ve begun to realize how brilliant and intriguing this book actually is. The deliberateness of everything in the book from the astrological signs to the structure of the book and its characters is amazing. In his letter, John Gardner talks about the big question outlining his novel. He says that “the real question is, if there isn’t a reachable god, and if life has no inherent meaning how should one live? There are basically two choices: either you behave as if there were a god and try to determine what’s right, in other words you make up values, you dream up a future better than the present and try to create it; or else you accept the world as it seems to be and scoff at all values (dreams for the future) because according to what is true at this moment they’re lies.” This part of the letter was the most intriguing to me as I realize that Gardner explores both of these options in his novel. In the beginning of the novel, Grendel is fascinated by the Shaper who can mold history into something pleasant and glorified. Even though Grendel has watched the rise of the Danes and knows the real truth, he still believes the Shaper’s twisted history because the Shaper’s stories are glorified and better than the present. However, as the novel progresses, Grendel becomes more manic and cynical. He begins to “scoff at all values” as he begins to realize none of the humans’ values are perfect or ideal for him. His isolation and the hatred toward him become more and more apparent as well. At one point he even considers killing himself because he feels so isolated and thinks there is no point to life. Even though I know I still lack a complete understanding of his book, Gardner’s aforementioned statement from his letter helped pull many parts of Grendel together in my mind and made the philosophy in his novel make more sense.


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