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The relationship between history and narrative has always been a subject of controversy among philosophers, historians and literary theorists. Is narrative the indispensible component of history? What is the function of narrative in history? How does history represent human experience with the narrative function? Is historical narrative imitation or reproduction of the past? What is the role of the historian and his constructive imagination in history writing? This article discusses these questions in the context of a literary text, Gardner’s Grendel, which is a re-writing of the Old English epic Beowulf, and with reference to phenomenological and Kantian ideas of history, narrative, the self, and imagination. Relying mainly on Hayden White, Louis Mink, and Paul Ricoeur’s ideas of history and narrative, the present article concludes that history is a reproduction of past actuality instead of an imitation of it. Thus, in the article the term history-making is preferred instead of history writing and history-making is regarded as bearing close resemblance to story-making. The chapter studies Grendel against this philosophical background in terms of how narrative plays a symbolizing, form-giving tool for consciousness in historicizing human experience and how heroism and monstrosity are historical, ideational constructs on which human experience is founded.
The relationship between history and narrative has always been a subject of controversy
among philosophers, historians and literary theorists. Is narrative the indispensible component
of history? What is the function of narrative in history? How does history represent human
experience with the narrative function? Is historical narrative imitation or reproduction of the
past? What is the role of the historian and his constructive imagination in history writing?
This article discusses these questions in the context of a literary text, Gardner’s Grendel,
which is a re-writing of the Old English epic Beowulf, and with reference to
phenomenological and Kantian ideas of history, narrative, the self, and imagination. Relying
mainly on Hayden White, Louis Mink, and Paul Ricoeur’s ideas of history and narrative, the
present article concludes that history is a reproduction of past actuality instead of an imitation
of it. Thus, in the article the term history-making is preferred instead of history writing and
history-making is regarded as bearing close resemblance to story-making. The paper studies
Grendel against this philosophical background in terms of how narrative plays a symbolizing,
form-giving tool for consciousness in historicizing human experience and how heroism and
monstrosity are historical, ideational constructs on which human experience is founded.
Key words: history-making, narrative, constructive imagination, monstrosity
Historicity and its positioning of the individual subject and the society into spatio-temporal
context through narrative are much debated issues in phenomenological research. The
symbolic/pattern-making function of the human mind, its structuring fragments of experience
into meaningful wholes and thus locating the self within history and time by ‘telling’ it have
been some of the major concerns of phenomenology. From Husserl to Heidegger and
Ingarden, to Paul Ricoeur, Hayden White, Louis Mink, and David Herman, philosophers of
history, theorists of narrative, and phenomenologists have discussed the indispensible
relationship between narrative and history and their construction of the self as both itself and
not itself. They have elaborated on the made-up and ideational world of history brought about
by the narrative function and on the way the self is defamiliarized in narrative and history.
Husserl thought that “the ego constitutes itself for itself, so to speak, in the unity of
and saw historicity as the result of the intentional act of consciousness and its
effort of creating a historical self by locating phenomenal experience into time. This idea of
Husserl is a good point of departure for the argumentation of this paper and requires further
elaboration, which the present paper aims to do. It also poses questions about the relationship
between historicity and consciousness and how narrative functions as a cognitive tool for
historicizing human experience. This paper aims to study the relationship between narrative
and history, and the pattern-making, metaphorizing and defamiliarizing function of narrative
in history. With the supposition that authors of literature have always benefited from or been
influenced by philosophy when writing their works and that literature has always played an
important ground for philosophical investigations, this paper discusses the above-mentioned
philosophical issues in the context of a literary work, John Gardner’s Grendel. The paper
studies Grendel in terms of how narrative plays a symbolizing, form-giving tool for
consciousness in historicizing human experience and how heroism and monstrosity are
historical, ideational constructs on which human experience is founded. Gardner’s novel is
studied not only for exemplifying the tenets of the philosophy of phenomenology concerning
history-making, narrative, and the self but also to extend the discussion of these issues to the
study of historical narrative construction in literature.
In the first volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms the German neo-Kantian
philosopher Ernst Cassirer argues that [c]onsciousness is a symbolizing, ‘form-giving
which does not merely copy but rather embodies an original formative power. It
does not express passively the mere fact that something is present but contains an independent
energy of the human spirit through which the simple presence of the phenomenon assumes a
definite ‘meaning’, a particular ideational content.”
Thus, the existence of social phenomena
depends, as Kant argues, on the purpose of the human mind conceiving it, that is, on the
determining will of the subject; social phenomena is “the correlate of the ‘I think’ or of the
unity of consciousness; it is the expression of the cogito.
The father of phenomenology,
Husserl, also saw consciousness as central in the perception of phenomena, though,
differently from Kant’s categorizing and all-pervading mind, he studies the conscious
processes of phenomenal experience and thus bridges between subject and object. In Ideas: A
General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (1913) Husserl studies the structures of
experience as they are represented in consciousness and explores in depth how the conscious
world of the perceiver acts in the physical world of objects. With his idea of intentionality,’ a
crucial term in his philosophy and meaning the directedness of consciousness towards its
object in experience, Husserl explicates the way consciousness works in the process of the
structuration of experience.
Narrative is a cognitive tool through which consciousness symbolizes or structures the
human experience of time. It is a pattern-forming cognitive system” that functions “to
connect and integrate certain components of conscious content over time into a coherent
ideational structure.
It is a system for structuring any time-based pattern into a resource for
consciousness, making it possible for cultural as well as natural objects and phenomena to
assume the role of cognitive artifacts to begin with.
Stories tell about the actions of
intelligent agents that are situated within a world together with the objects they act upon. In
this respect, telling a story necessitates, in the words of David Herman, “modeling, and
enabling others to model, an emergent constellation of spatially related entities.
thus operates as an instrument of mind in the construction of reality, and entails a cognitive
process of assigning referents a spatio-temporal position in the storyworld. It provides
crucial representational tools facilitating humans’ efforts to organize multiple knowledge
domains, each with its attendant sets of beliefs and procedures.
Taken on this ground, studying narrativity is to investigate social phenomena as a
‘world-spanning’ network of relations taking place in the mind of the teller. The teller creates
this network of relations by the cognitive activity of emplotment, which for the French
philosopher Paul Ricoeur, is the essence of narrative. To delve further into this idea, we
should linger more on Ricoeur because his idea of mimesis and metaphor carries us to the
vantage point of this paper. Ricoeur brings a new dimension to the role played by the subject
in the construction of human experience relying on Aristotle’s idea of mimesis and Kant’s
idea of ‘schematizing a synthetic operation. Ricoeur’s idea is important in that it points to the
subjective, cognitive and metaphorical base of not only Aristotle’s idea of mimesis but also all
literary and linguistic creations. In The Rule of Metaphor
Ricoeur states that Aristotle defines
tragedy as the imitation of human action. However, it is an imitation that elevates, magnifies
and ennobles this action. In this regard, Ricoeur argues that for Aristotle mimesis is poiesis,
that is, construction or creation. With mythos (plot) it becomes a rearrangement of human
action into a more coherent form and with leixis (poetic language) a structuring that elevates
this action. Thus, mimesis is something that composes and constructs the very thing it
imitates. In this regard, mimesis is an imitation that has a double reference: a reference to
reality and a self-reference, a representation of human action and a construction of that action.
So, the reference of tragedy to reality is not a direct one but a ‘suspended’ one.
Relying on Aristotle’s mimesis and Kant’s ‘schematizing a synthetic operation, and
studying Augustine’s Confessions and Heidegger’s ‘within-timeness, Ricoeur concludes that
human experience is characterized by discordance. The constructive imagination brings
concord to this ‘aporia’ by way of what he calls ‘predicative assimilation’, that is, by seeing
the similar in the dissimilar.
Literature, in narrative form, brings concord to this “aporia” by means of the invention
of the plot. Narrative, to which Ricoeur devotes a great deal of his work, is a synthesis of
heterogenous elements, a gathering-up of events and incidents as widely divergent as
circumstances encountered while unsought,” a concord created out of the discord of
experience, out of the divergent bits and pieces of experience. Like metaphor, narrative is a
semantic innovation” in which something new is brought into the world by means of
language. Instead of describing the world, it redescribes it. Just as metaphor is the capacity of
“seeing as,narrative opens us to the realm of the ‘as if.’ It attaches to the events of the world
a form they do not otherwise have. Emplotment, the core feature of narrative, is thus a
‘grasping together,’ a patterning of experience, and it is one of the main functions of the
imagination. It is a cognitive tool of making sense of experience and of making life plausible.
In this regard, the way fragments of experience are organized in the process of emplotment
depends on the plotting imagination, that is, on the story-maker.
The narrative kernel and thus the truth-claim and fictionality of history are much
discussed issues by philosophers of history. There is a general agreement among philosophers
of history that narrative is the core component of history. However, since narrative presents,
as discussed above, a distorted picture of the events it relates, the truth-claim of history and
the levels of fictionality and distortion in it are frequent objects of discussion. So,
philosophers usually discuss historical narrative with an effort of distinguishing it from
fictional narrative. Louis Mink, for instance, argues that historiography can be differentiated
from fiction with its truth-claim and point of common sense; “historiography consists of
narratives which claim to be true, while fiction consists of imaginative narratives for which
belief and therefore truth-claims are suspended.”
Differently from fictional narratives, in
historical narrative the historian “does not invent but discover, or attempts to discover;” “the
story of the past needs only to be communicated, not constructed.
However, Mink stresses
that historical narrative is “a matter of fallible inference and interpretation”
“narrative form in history, as in fiction, is an artifice.
As historical, he argues, historical
narrative “claims to represent, through its form, part of the real complexity of the past, but as
narrative it is a product of imaginative construction, which cannot defend its claim to truth by
any accepted procedure of argument or authentication.”
In his analysis of historical narrative Ricoeur also begins his discussion by underlining
the truth-claim factor of historical narratives. However, seeing emplotment as the
characterizing feature of also historical narrative and attaching the synthesizing imagination
of the historian a crucial role in history-making, he sees the story of the past in historical
narrative not just as something communicated, but, to a large extent, as something
constructed. Drawing on Aristotle’s mimesis, Heidegger’s and Augustine’s concepts of time,
and Kant’s idea of synthesizing imagination, he arrives at the conclusion that history is a kind
of narration in which the past, the present and the future are synthesized and our temporal
experience shaped. In The Narrative Function” he states, “to be historical, I shall say, an
event must be more than a singular occurrence: it must be defined in terms of its contribution
to the development of a plot.
He defines history as a narration that describes a sequence of actions and experiences
in two dimensions: chronological and configurational. For Ricoeur, the first may be called
‘the episodic’ or sequential dimension. This dimension characterizes the story as made out of
events. The second dimension is “the ‘configurational one, according to which the plot
construes significant wholes out of scattered events;
it is to “grasp together successive
events…to extract a configuration from a succession.
To explain the configurational
dimension, Ricoeur employs Kant’s idea of ‘reflective judgment’ and states that the narrative
operation in historicizing human action has the character of a judgment because to locate an
event in historical time is not only to follow episodes but also “‘to reflect upon’ events with
the aim of encompassing them in successive totalities.
As in all other symbolic forms, in history, too, the ‘telling’ subject and its imagination
play a crucial role in history-making. Ricoeur concludes that “the historicity of human
experience can be brought to language only as narrativity…For historicity comes to language
only so far as we tell stories or tell history.
This process is not a naïve one; as Richard
Kearney puts it, it “involves ‘the representative function of the imagination.’”
In history
events are manipulated and given some form by the historian’s productive imagination.
Ricoeur states, “by telling stories and writing history we provide ‘shape’ to what remains
chaotic, obscure, and mute…historical narrative and fictional narrative jointly provide not
only ‘models of’ but ‘models for’ articulating in a symbolic way our ordinary experience of
The historian does this by selecting only those events that, in his estimation, should
not be forgotten and structures them in narrative order. Moreover, he highlights the events
that he thinks memorable and overshadows those that should be forgotten. In this regard, the
act of narrating history is a ‘schematizing’ and ‘synthetic’ operation in which ‘dissimilar
events are ‘configured.’
A philosopher of history who most openly stresses the ‘constructed’ and fictional
character of historical narratives is Hayden White. In “The Historical Text as Literary
Artifact” White criticizes Northrop Frye’s idea that the historical is the opposite of the
mythical and argues that mythos is not the opposite of historical narrative but inherent to it.
He states, “histories gain part of their explanatory effect by their success in making stories out
of mere chronicles.
Similar to Ricoeur, he uses the term ‘emplotment’ to explicate the way
historians make stories of a past event. White defines emplotment as “the codification of the
facts contained in the chronicle as components of specific kinds of plot structures.”
discusses that in their efforts to make sense of historical record, which is fragmentary and
always incomplete, historians have to make use of what R. G. Collingwood calls “the
constructive imagination, which is much like Kant’s priori imagination and Ricoeur’s
predicative imagination. The constructive imagination makes events into a story “by the
suppression or subordination of certain of them and the highlighting of others, by
characterization, motific repetition, variation of tone and point of view, alternative descriptive
strategies, and the likein short, all of the techniques that we would normally expect to find
in the emplotment of a novel or a play.”
He presents that no historical event is intrinsically
tragic or inherently comic or ironic. The mode of emplotmentthat is, whether it is comic,
tragic, romantic, ironical, and so ondepends upon “the historian’s decision to configure
them according to the imperatives of one plot structure or mythos rather than another.”
cultural heritage of the ‘audience’ of the historian plays a crucial role in the way the historian
emplots past events. White stresses that “the encodation of events in terms of various plot
structures is one of the ways that a culture has of making sense of both personal and public
Events which appear strange, enigmatic, incomplete, and implausible are encoded in
culturally provided categories by the historians. In short, the unfamiliar events take a familiar
kind of configuration and events are “rendered comprehensible by being subsumed under the
categories of the plot structure in which they are encoded as a story of a particular kind.”
Coming closer to Ricoeur’s idea of imagination and metaphor, White asserts that
historical narratives are metaphorical statements which suggest “a relation of similitude
between such events and processes and the story-types that we conventionally use to endow
the events of our lives with culturally sanctioned meanings.”
Dwelling further on this idea in
“Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,” he states,
Any figurative expression adds to the representation of the object to which it
refers. Figuration produces stylization, which directs attention to the author and
his or her creative talent. Next, figuration produces a “perspective” on the referent
of the utterance, but in featuring one particular perspective, it necessarily closes
off others.
All historical narratives, as such, “presuppose figurative characterizations of the events they
purport to represent and explain.
For this reason, histories are not only about events but
also about the possible sets of relationships that those events can be demonstrated to figure.
These sets of events are not immanent in the events themselves; “they exist only in the mind
of the historian reflecting on them;” they are present as “the modes of relationships
conceptualized in the myth, fable, and folklore, scientific knowledge, religion, and literary art,
of the historian’s own culture.”
This means that historical narratives can be characterized by
the mode of figurative discourse in which they encode their objects of representation.
The idea of history as a narrative construct has been an object of criticism by some
philosophers of history. For instance, David Carr criticizes Ricoeur, White, and Mink’s idea
that historical narrative “is not imitative but creative of reality”
and that narrative structure
is an artificial, imposed form of ordering ascribed to our actual experience. Carr argues that
narrative activity is a constitutive part of action and the events of life constitute “a complex
structure of temporal configurations that interlock and receive their definition and their
meaning from within action itself.”
Relying partly on Husserl’s idea of protension and
retention, he says we grasp a configuration extending from the past to the present even in the
relatively passive experience of hearing a melody.
In spite of the criticism to their almost total disregard of the truth-claim of history and
to their view of history as more fictional than factual form, this study has elaborated more on
Ricoeur, Mink, and White’s arguments because they present us with a theoretical framework
to study historicity, narrativity, and the construction of the self in John Gardner’s Grendel.
With their ideas of emplotment, imagination, metaphorization, and the ‘mythic’ core of
narrative, Ricoeur and White’s ideas are of particular importance for the purpose of this study.
John Gardner’s Grendel
represents how historicity and narrativity function to
configure human experience and how this configuration serves for the foundation of a
civilization. Grendel is a re-writing of the Old English epic Beowulf from the perspective of
Grendelthe first known monster of English literature. As already known, the old English
epic Beowulf begins during the climax of Grendel’s attacks on King Hrothgar’s meadhall. It is
said that before these attacks King Hrothgar enjoyed a prosperous and successful reign. He
built a great mead-hall, called Heorot, where his warriors can gather to drink, receive gifts
from their lord, and listen to stories sung by the scops, or bards. The kingdom enjoyed peace
and prosperity until Grendel began his attacks. However, the focal point of the epic is not
Grendel’s attacks or the reasons behind these attacks. Attention is centered on Beowulf’s
heroic deeds, his rescue of Hrothgar by killing Grendel and his mother, and towards the end
his slewing a dragon to save the Geats from its threats.
Relying on White and Ricoeur’s ideas, we handle here the epic form as a historical
narrative in which the mythic or epic side overshadows what Mink calls ‘past actuality.’ As
said before, Ricoeur regarded mimesis, and thus literary and historical narratives, as having
double-reference: self-reference and reference to external reality. This proposition is true for
historical narratives with a strong claim for truth. However, in such narratives as the epic or
myth, the self-reference is much more dominant that the other one. Signs of ‘past actuality’
are almost lost in the ‘projected past’ of such narratives. In the epic and myth the narrative
world is defamiliarized and distanced from ordinary human experience by the plotting
imagination to the extent that the ties connecting the two become almost totally invisible.
While historical writings with a claim for truth focus on the conflicts between enemies and
allies in the historical evolution of a civilization or a nation, in epical or legendary historical
narratives the conflict is usually between heroes and monsters, between Apollo and Python,
Perseus and the Gorgons, Siegfried and the dragon, and Beowulf and Grendel. The
construction of the subject also changes from one historical narrative to the other. While the
former constructs the nation and its allies by also constructing an enemy identifiable with
temporal experience, the latter constructs a supernatural hero by also creating a monstrous
In Beowulf, in the bard’s historical narrative (because the first history-makers were
usually harpers or bards) historical data are embroidered with mythic and supernatural
elements; for instance, the foundation of Hrothgar’s kingdom by his ancestors, the prosperity
of the kingdom during Hrothgar’s reign, and Beowulf’s reign in the Geatland after the death
of Hygelacthe ex-king of the land are given side by side with such mythic and
supernatural elements as Beowulf’s heroic deeds, supernatural monsters and dragons. The
historical data are even almost lost in the self-referential narrative concerning Beowulf’s
heroic deeds and fight with the monsters. Besides, though Beowulf is a late-comer in the
history of Hrothgar’s kingdom and of the war with Grendel, he is made by the harper’s
plotting imagination the central figure, the pros and cons of the history before him being
almost totally overshadowed. Grendel, together with the dragon, is silenced throughout the
narrative, and the reasons behind his fight with Hrothgar are not told. Thus, Grendel can be
said to be the first outcast of English Literature as well as of the first known historical
narrative of Britain.
Gardner’s Grendel is a counter-narrative to Beowulf, and it retells the Beowulf story
from Grendel’s point of view, making Beowulf not appear until the end of the novel, which is
the actual place he deserved in the history of Hrothgar’s civilization and in the war between
Hrothgar and Grendel. In Grendel, it is told that Grendel, a large bearlike monster and the
narrator of the novel, has spent the last twelve years locked in a war against a band of
humans. The main action of the novel, like the Old English epic Beowulf, takes place in the
last year of that war, but the novel skips back in time in order to illuminate the origins of the
conflict as well as Grendel’s personal history. The strategy of skipping back in time gives us,
as readers, the opportunity to see the reasons of his war with men against the background of
his personal history, as opposed to the lacking and one-sided historical account presented in
Beowulf. As Joseph Milosh says, unlike Grendel in Beowulf, Gardner’s Grendel “is anything
but a static character. He grows, passing through several initiations, evolving more than many
a modern hero.
In his personal experience we learn that, as a young monster, Grendel lives
with his mother in a cave on the outskirts of human civilization. A foul, wretched creature
who long ago abandoned language, Grendel’s mother is his only kin or companion. He is all
alone in the world; he is neither an animal nor a human and thus he is excluded from both
worlds. He says I exist, nothing else;
“I am a lack. Alack! No thread, no frailest hair
between myself and the universal clutter;”
“I saw long ago the whole universe as not-my-
mother, and I glimpsed my place in it, a hole.”
He describes himself as “an alien, the rock
broken free of the wall.”
One day, the young Grendel discovers a lake full of firesnakes and, swimming through
it, reaches the human world on the other side. He gets fascinated with the world of men as
they speak his language and are thinking beings like him. As soon as he comes face to face
with human beings, Grendel becomes aware that he is dealing with no dull mechanical
animals but with pattern-makers, the most dangerous things he has ever met.
He watches
from a safe distance as mankind evolves from a nomadic, tribal culture into a feudal system
with roads, governments, and militaries. He eavesdrops and observes Hrothgar’s hall,
philosophizes on the human world, listens to bards’ songs, sometimes attacks the thanes in the
meadhall to take the revenge of his exclusion, and toys with them until Beowulf comes and
kills him in the last two chapters.
The tales sung by a bard named the Shaper and Grendel’s relationship with them are
the main focus of this paper. The Shaper occupies the most respectful position in Heorot and
displaced all the other bards after his coming to the mead-hall. Listening to the tales sung by
the Shaper, Grendel gets astounded by the pattern-making and creative imagination of the
human beings and fears from this monstrous imagination. The Shaper plays the most crucial
role in Hrothgar’s civilization because, as his name signifies, he shapes the kingdom with his
tales; he metaphorically establishes for the kingdom a socio-cultural value system and a
historical identity based on heroism and on the creation of the monstrous other. In other
words, he functions as the history-maker of the novel and creator of a belief-system in the
kingdom. The Shaper sings of “battles and marriages, of funerals and hangings, the
whimperings of beaten enemies, of splendid hunts and harvests,” and “of Hrothgar, hoarfrost
white, magnificent of mind.”
Emplotting human experience into history, he most of the time
sings war songs. His harp mimicks the rush of swords, clanking boldly with the noble
speeches, singing behind the heroes dying words.
Grendel says: If the songs were true, as
I suppose at least one or two of them were, there had always been wars, and what I’d seen was
merely a period of mutual exhaustion.”
He constructs a historical narrative in his songs as if
there were nothing in human life other than wars and as if the experience without war, which
Grendel sees, were not lived.
Reminiscent of Ricoeur’s and White’s definitions of historicity as the subjective
location of being into time and as the configuration of human experience through narrativity,
Grendel says that the Shaper is the greatest of shapers, “harpstring scratchers;”
he is a
shaper of the past, an “old heart-string scratcher, memory scraper,
“always transforming
the world with words.”
With his songs he has changed the world, “torn up the past by its
thick, gnarled roots,” and “transmuted it.”
“He reshapes the world,” Grendel says, “he stares
strange-eyed at the mindless world and turns dry sticks to gold.”
His songs consist of words
“stitched together out of ancient songs, the scenes interwoven out of dreary tales, made a
vision without seams,” and—reminding us of the phenomenological ideas mentioned above
he thus constitutes “an image of himself yet not-himself, beyond the need of any shaggy old
gold-friend’s pay: the projected possible.
Grendel knows that Hrothgar’s hall is built on bloodshed and destruction of nature, but
the Shaper—“the blind selector” of historical events— tells tales as if no man in Hrothgar’s
hall has ever hurt a living creature or “twisted a knife in his neighbour’s chest.
questions the fictionality and the untruthfulness of the Shaper’s historical narrative throughout
the novel. He is bewildered by the brutality of men and by their killing other living beings
without any meaningful aim. He observes their monstrosity as they hack trees and build huts,
kill cows, horses and men, and leave them to rot; they plunder lands, and whipped up the oxen
to death while getting their piles of plunder to their land. He gets annoyed as he remembers
what all men do to each other and to nature: “the ragged men fighting each other till the snow
was red slush, whining in winter, the shriek of people and animals burning, the whip-slashed
oxen in the mire, the scattered battle leavings: wolf-torn corpses, falcons fat with blood.
The gap between humans’ actual savagery and their false representation in the
Shaper’s narratives can be best illustrated with Chapter 4, when Grendel steps unknowingly
on something fleshy as he approaches the meadhall as usual to eavesdrop the harper’s songs
of “elevated human action.” He realizes that it is the corpse of a killed man. The clothes of the
man are stolen. As if trying to show the untruthfulness of the Shaper’s songs, he slung the
dead body upon his shoulder and approaches the meadhall. As he approaches the meadhall, he
sees the Shaper singing as usual. Though Grendel comes to the full realization that humans
are monstrous beings with their way of life and their savage attitudes to each other and other
living beings, the Shaper is concerned with constructing in his historical narrative the glory
and the untaintedness of human beings and the brutality and monstrosity of Grendel. Telling a
tale also sung in Beowulf on Grendel’s origin, the Shaper relates that the earth was built long
ago, that “the greatest of gods made the world, every wonderbright plain and the turning seas,
and set out as signs of his victory the sun and moon, great lamps for land-dwellers, kingdom
torches, and adorned the fields with all colors and shapes.
Hrothgar’s civilization was the
centre of this phase of constant light until Grendel comes into being. Constructing Grendel in
his historical narrative as the destroyer of this edenic state and associating him with Cain in
biblical mythology, he tells that Grendel gave end to this state of paradise by beginning the
first feud with his brother and thus among human beings; he relates that Grendel’s fight with
his brother split all the world between darkness and light and identifies Grendel with the dark
side, Cain. Though Grendel defeats Hrothgar’s men throughout the history of Hrothgar’s
civilization, the Shaper establishes a heroic value system and tells how they fought Grendel,
Cain, and all the other forces of evil gloriously, which, Grendel says, is a lie.
This tale that locates Grendel in historical time on the same line with Cain also takes
place in Beowulf. In the Old English epic, it is said that the bards songs in the meadhall
angered Grendel, which is said just in passing and not elaborated on. When we observe the
content of the songs in Beowulf, we see that they are all concerned with Grendel, posit him in
historical time on the same level with Cain as the originator of all evil, and tell how he
disturbed the Golden Age of humanity with his evil doings. Hence, it can be assumed that in
both Beowulf and Gardner’s novel Grendel’s configuration in the bard’s historical narrative as
‘monstrous’ and as a descendant of Cain, even as Cain himself, seems to be the cause of his
anger and the reason of his attacks. In a way, his attacks to Heorot in Beowulf and Grendel
can be interpreted as a reaction to this religo-historical configuration.
Though Grendel is silenced in the old English epic, he voices his counter discourse to
this religo-historical configuration in Gardner’s novel. He states,
It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and set out the
sun and moon as lights to land-dwellers, that brothers had fought, that one of the
races was saved, the other cursed. Yet he, the old Shaper, might make it true, by
the sweetness of his harp, his cunning trickery.
The Shaper’s discourse is so effective that even Grendel himself is fascinated by it and begins
to believe in his own monstrosity. He intrinsically begins to like hearing his monstrosity being
told in the Shaper’s narrative. “Though, they, vicious animals, cunning, cracked with theories,
I wanted it, yes!” he says, “even if I must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of his hideous
Being all alone in the disordered universe and leading a meaningless life, he is
intrinsically delighted to be meaningfully constructed in the Shaper’s narrative as ‘monstrous.’
As Judy Smith Murr puts it in “John Gardner’s Order and Disorder,” “Grendel,
symbolically the offspring of Cain, emerges from the underbelly of the world to confront
mankind…The underground world of Grendel is dark, terrifying, and chaotic, but frightening
and disordered than the above-ground of man.
He emerges from his underground world to
find himself posited against myth, the myth that the world is ordered and that fact is
transformed by song. Torn apart by poetry, “Grendel must face the search for meaning and
After the magical effect of the Shaper’s narrative, he is determined to find the
connection between himself and the world even though “the world is a pointless accident,
and in all his efforts he is but “spinning a web of words” between himself and all he sees.
Torn with internal conflict regarding his existence in the universe, he visits the Dragon
another outcast in the novel “cursed by the bards’ hideous fables”—to find relief for his
fallible condition and clarify his mind about the human world and its entangling narratives.
The Dragon forms the philosophical core of the novel and plays a critical role in Grendel’s
thoughts and actions in the forthcoming chapters. He makes Grendel realize that he plays a
constituent role in the human world because he makes humans define themselves and shape
their world. The Dragon tells Grendel,
You improve them, my boy! 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.
Quite in accordance with the proposal in the theoretical framework of this paper that the
historian and story-teller bring order with their narratives to the chaotic human experience, the
Dragon tells Grendel that the Shaper brings order with his narratives, configuring Grendel as
the Absolute Enemy, the focal point on which he constructs the belief system and heroic
values of his society. The reason for historical constructs is to be found in the human beings
effort to create established order and universe’s refusal of “the deadening influence of
complete conformity.
This is what leads Grendel to think towards the end of the novel that “all order…is
theoretical, unreala harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between two great, dark
realities, the self and the worldtwo snakepits.
The Dragon criticizes human beings
stating that they have “no total vision, total system;” they have “merely schemes with a vague
family resemblance, no more identity bridges and, say, spiderwebs.
They have no sense of
connectedness; they take facts in isolation and when they come to connect them, “ands and
buts are the sine qua non of all their achievement.
Their lives consist of “crackpot theories”
and absurdities, and “they build the whole world out of teeth deprived of bodies to chew and
be chewed on.”
For the Dragon, this is the place where the Shaper saves them:
He provides an illusion of realityputs together all their facts with a gluey whine
of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me. Mere sleight-of-wits. He knows no
more than they do about total realityless, if anything: works with the same old
clutter of atoms, the givens of his time and place and tongue. But he spins it all
together with harp runs and hoots, and they think what they think is alive, think
Heaven loves them. It keeps them going.
Time, according to the Dragon, is an important tool for creating this illusion of reality based
on artificial order and connectedness, but it also shows the impossibility of overcoming the
absurdity of life. Though they emplot their experience by creating artificial beginnings and
ends in their narratives, humans are unable to encompass all the fragments of experience in
one pot, together with the beginning, the present and the end.
In this respect, causality, which is the main component of narrative, is only an
imposition of order on actual human experience. In contrast to the causal time the Shaper
creates in his narrative, real time is a flux because there is no time outside consciousness.
Thus, the death of consciousness is the end of being and human time. The Dragon suggests,
“pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things. No wind. No light.
Nothing stirring. A silent universe. Such is the end of the flicker of time, the brief, hot fuse of
events and ideas set off, accidentally, and snuffed out, accidentally, by man. Not a real ending
of course, nor even a beginning. Mere ripple in Time’s stream.
In this respect, as chronology
in history is a human construct, there is no “Dark Ages” in history and thus no monstrous
creature representing the darkness because “not that one age is darker than another.
Grendel comes to a full realization of his position in the Shaper’s narratives after
talking with the Dragon and becomes more aware of the absurdity of life. He learns from the
Dragon that human beings define themselves and make their lives meaningful by narrativizing
him. Their existence depends on him, but he realizes that his own existence also depends on
their narratives:
My enemies define themselves on me. As for myself I could finish them off in a
single night, pull down the great carved beams and crush them in the meadhall,
along with their mice, their tankards and potatoesyet I hold back. I am hardly
blind to absurdity. Form is function. What will we call the Hrothgar-Wrecker
when Hrothgar has been wrecked.
He says that he existed alone before he knew human beings and the Shaper began to tell tales
about him. Even his mother did not love him for himself, but for his “son-ness,” his
“possessedness.” He asks, “If I murdered the last of the Scyldings, what would I live for.”
Thus, it can be concluded that each side exists in spite of and because of the other.
With this knowledge in mind, he is no longer torn apart by humans pattern-making
minds and begins to rule over and make fun of their narratives. As Milosh states, “Grendel’s
response to their violence results in the quick retreat of his attackers and, for the monster, an
increasing awareness of his power, particularly his ability to toy with them.”
He says, “I had
become something, as if born again. I hung between possibilities before, between the cold
truths I knew and the heart-sucking conjuring tricks of the Shaper; now that was passed: I was
Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings.
His toying with Unferth, one of Hrothgar’s thanes, is a good example of Grendel’s
ruling over and mocking humans and their narratives. When he attacks Heorot with more self-
confidence and sense of absurdity about life after his talk with the Dragon, Grendel confronts
Unferth’s heroic—or it is better to say mock-heroic
acts, which Grendel describes as
“crowning absurdity.
In a shift from the original Beowulf poem, the thane Unferthnot
Beowulfrepresents the traditional Anglo-Saxon heroic code. Grendel says that among his
fellow thanes Unferth is “like a horse in a herd of cows.”
Unferth begins his first battle with
Grendel like an epic hero, making poetic speeches that exalt his moral code and highlight his
bravery in battle. He speaks, holding his sword and shaking it, “tell them in Hell that Unferth,
son of Ecglaf sent you, known far and wide in these Scanian lands as a hero among the
Making fun of epics as well as historical narratives whose focus are “ideal
heroes,” Grendel responds Unferth’s comical heroic speeches as: “I’ve never seen a live hero
before. I thought they were only in poetry. Ah, ah, it must be a terrible burden, though, being
a heroglory reaper, harvester of monsters! Everybody always watching you, seeing if
you’re still heroic…Always having to stand erect, always having to find noble language.”
Grendel undercuts Unferth’s attempt at traditional heroism by raining apples at him and
turning the serious battle into a mock heroic poem, a grotesque clown show. However, though
Grendel destroys the trappings of heroism, Unferth follows Grendel to his cave in the burning
lake to take revenge. He shouts: “You think me deluded, tricked by my walking fairytale.”
“Except in the life of the hero,” he continues, “the whole world is meaningless. The hero sees
values beyond what’s possible. That’s the nature of the hero. It kills him, of course,
ultimately. But makes the whole struggle of humanity worthwhile.
Unferth encounters the
same problem Grendel does: a vision of the world as essentially meaningless. But while
Grendel has decided to deny the possibility of imposing his own meaning on the world,
Unferth chooses to use the ideals of heroism to create meaning for himself and all of mankind,
which the historian also does with his historical narrative. For Unferth, the romantic ideal of
heroism is a vision, encouraged by the Shaper, that holds existentialism and nihilism at bay.
Realizing that Unferth wishes to be killed by him to be assigned the title of “a hero
killed in a heroic battle with the monster, Grendel makes Unferth’s heroism more and more
grotesque by refusing to kill him and taking him back to Heorot as if carrying a toy. Besides
he makes Unferth more and more ashamed of his situation by killing everybody except him in
each attack to Hrothgar’s meadhall. This part mocks heroism and represents that heroism is a
historical construct through which history-makers such as the Shaper impose an ideal
meaning, a totalizing view on the absurd and disordered human world.
Though Grendel mocks the ideals created by the Shaper in this part of the novel, the
existence of both the Shaper and Grendel depend on each other. Toward the end of the novel,
Beowulf, the central figure of the Old English epic Beowulf, appears to save Hrothgar from
the monster. Beowulf’s entrance into the novel signifies a new beginning in the history of the
Scyld and the end of Grendel’s ‘story, the story created by the Shaper. Thus, it signifies the
metaphorical death of both Grendel and the Shaper. As he speaks on the death of the Shaper
in Chapter 10, Grendel articulates this idea as:
End of an epoch, I could tell the king
We’re on our own again. Abandoned.
The Shaper’s death leads Grendel to philosophize on his existence in the world, on his
personal development, his dependence on the Shaper’s historical configurations and myth-
making, and on how he and his existence have ceased to exist with the Shaper’s death. The
below words of Grendel are of particular significance in this respect and somehow summarize
the theoretical proposal of the present article about history-making and narrative:
…because the Shaper is dead, strange thoughts come over me. I think of the
pastness of the past. How the moment I am alive in, prisoned in, moves like
slowly tumbling form through darkness, the underground river. Not only ancient
history—the mythical age of the brothers’ feud—but my own history one second
ago, has vanished utterly, dropped out of existence. King Scyld’s great deeds do
not exist back there” in Time. “Back there in Time” is an illusion of language.
They do not exist at all. My wickedness five years ago, or six, or twelve, has no
existence except as now, mumbling, mumbling, sacrificing the slain world to the
omnipotence of words, I strain my memory to regain it.
The chapter ends with his mother’s warning Grendel of the impending danger with the words
Beware of the fish
—which symbolizes Beowulf’s coming from the sea in the next
chapterand with Grendel’s philosophical expression Nihilo ex nihilo,
which Grendel
says pertaining to the Shaper’s funeral and mean nothing comes out of nothing. Thus, with
the end of the Shaper’s historical narrative Grendel’s existence concurrently becomes a void
and his forthcoming non-existence with Beowulf’s coming is signified.
Beowulf’s coming in the next chapter hints a new beginning and an end to Grendel’s
life. As soon as he sees Beowulf, Grendel understands that the person he is face to face this
time is an extraordinary one with a huge body and otherworldly look. Differently from
Beowulf in the Old English epic, he is not presented as representing the traditional Anglo-
Saxon heroic code. He appears as a fantastic and supernatural, almost like a science-fiction
android. “The eyes slanted downward, never blinking, unfeeling as a snake’s.
Beowulf is
not simply described as a machine; he is described as a dead man. His voice is that of a “dead
thing,” and his patience rivals that of a “grave-mound.” These images reinforce the idea that
Beowulf will be the agent of Grendel’s termination. However, as a man who has risen from
the dead, Beowulf also resembles the resurrected Christ. Grendel’s mother tries to warn her
son of his impending doom by bleating “Beware the fish”—fish being a commonly
recognized symbol for the Christ figure. Indeed, Beowulf is associated with fish images
several times throughout this chapter. He comes from over the sea, “has no more beard than a
and has shoulders as “sleek as the belly of a shark.
Furthermore, the story of the
swimming contest with Breca demonstrates Beowulf’s competence in the water.
Beowulf’s strange face, otherworldliness, unblinking eyes, and huge body begin to
grow unsettling to Grendel after a while. He understands that “the stranger [is] no player of
He grows “more and more afraid of him and at the same time…more and more
eager at the hour of [their] meeting.
Affirming the proposition above regarding Beowulf’s
Christ-like connotations and in accord with Grendel’s identification with Cain in the Shaper’s
narrative, looking at Beowulf’s features Grendel feels that Beowulf seems “from a dream” he
has almost forgotten.
When Beowulf grips his arm with “crushing fangs with
Grendel says he grotesquely shakes hand with his “long-lost brother.
Beowulf’s deadly grip, Grendel feels that his “long pale dream,” his “history, falls away.”
The words Beowulf whisper as he kills Grendel validate the association of Beowulf with the
fish and Christ above and presents a counter discourse of hope to the Dragon’s and Grendel’s
nihilism; Beowulf begins his lecture to Grendel by quoting the dragon, describing the present
moment as a “temporary gathering of bits, a few random specks, a cloud.” Actually, the writer
gives the impression that Grendel in fact confronts the philosophizing Dragon instead of the
Old English epic hero Beowulf. In an interview in The Paris Review, Gardner answers a
question regarding this issue as follows:
As a medievalist, one knows there are two dragons in medieval art. There’s Christ
the dragon, and there’s Satan the dragon. There’s always a war between those two
great dragons. In modern Christian symbolism a sweeter image of Jesus with the
sheep in his arms has evolved, but I like the old image of the warring dragon.
That’s not to say Beowulf really is Christ, but that he’s Christ-like.
Beowulf, the Christ-dragon, accepts the Satan-dragon’s explanation of the world as a place
where everything eventually dies. However, while the Satan-dragon emphasizes death and
decay, Beowulf looks beyond the moment of death and emphasizes the rebirth that always
follows. Calling Grendel “my brother” he says:
The world is my bone-cave, I shall not want…As you see it it is, while the
seeing lasts, dark nightmare-history, time-as-coffin; but where the water was
rigid there will be fish, and men will survive on their flesh till spring. It’s coming
my brother. Believe it or not. Though you murder the world, turn plains to stone,
transmogrify life into I and it, strong searching roots will crack your cave and
rain will cleanse it. The world will burn green, sperm build again. My promise.
He concludes his words with a phenomenological view of time and a belief in heroism and
meaning in life: Time is the mind, the hand that makes (fingers on harpstrings, hero-swords,
the acts, the eyes of queens). By that I kill you.
Beowulf’s counter discourse tells Grendel
that time is product of the mind; however, for a meaningful life, heroism, the Shaper’s
historical configurations, and everything related to human action are required. Against this
background it can be said that Beowulf’s killing of Grendel seems to metaphorically mean the
victory of hope over nihilism, the aboveground over the underground, and perhaps more
importantly, authoritative narrative discourse over the other discourse of the monster.
Returning to our philosophical framework and repeating Beowulf’s words, time is the
mind and history is time brought to language in the narrative form. There is a human action
out there in the external world; after all it is the hand that makes. However, what the hand
make, relying on the theoretical background of this paper, are effects of such imaginative
constructs as ideals, ideologies, utopian visions, heroism, freedom, and so on. Besides, human
experience is implausible, fragmentary, and to some extent, absurd without the forming mind
of the story- and history-maker. As the Dragon tells Grendel, the Shaper saves humanity from
meaninglessness by creating an illusion of reality; creating ideals for which humans can fight
to make them keep living for the future. Unlike what the Dragon thinks and Grendel later
comes to think, this imposition of form on reality should not be rejected or mocked as absurd;
human is a sense-making animal, and narrative and historical configurations are cognitive
tools through which s/he makes sense of the world, gathers fragments of experience to
configure a meaningful life vision. Thus, the Shaper, metaphorically speaking, is a basic
component of all societies because, with his constructs, he makes human life organized
around certain ideals and values. The configuration of a monstrous other to make these ideals
of established order definable against the background of the disordered represented by the
‘monstrous’ is ethically the main defect, but also perhaps the inevitable factor, of the Shaper’s
Mustafa Kemal University, Turkey
Cartesian Meditations, 132-133
Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Language Vol. I. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New Heaven:
Yale University Press, 1953. p.61
Ibid, 78
Gilles Deleuze, Kant’s Critical Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1984. p.15
Leonard Talmy, “A Cognitive Framework for Cognitive Structure,” in Toward a Cognitive Semantics, vol. 2
417-82, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000). p. 419
David Herman, “Stories as a Tool for Thinking,” in Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences, ed. David
Herman (Stanford: CSLI Publications, 2003). p. 170
David Herman, Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. Frontiers of Narrative Series (University
of Nebraska Press, 2002). p. 296.
“Stories for Thinking,” p. 165.
Paul Riceour, The Rule of Metaphor, trans R. Czerny, K. Mchaughlin and J. Costello (Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1977).
Louis Mink, “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument,” in The History and the Narrative Reader, ed.
Geoffrey Roberts (London and New York. Routledge, 2001). p.215.
Ibid, 215.
Ibid, 212.
Ibid, 218.
Ibid, 219.
Paul Ricoeur, “The Narrative Function,” in Paul Ricoeur: Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, ed J. B.
Thompson, (Paris: Cambridge University Press, 1981). p. 277.
Paul Ricoeur, “The Human Experience of Time and Narrative,” in A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and
Imagination, ed. M. J. Valdés. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991). p.108.
Ricoeur, “The Narrative Function,” p. 278.
Ibid, 279.
Ibid, 294.
Richard Kearney, “Narrative Imagination: Between Ethics and Poetics”, in Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of
Action, ed. R. Kearney. (London: Sage Publications, 1996). p.179.
Ricouer, “The Human Experience of Time and Narrative,” p. 115
Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in The History and Narrative Reader, ed. Geoffrey
Roberts (London and New York: Routledge, 2001). p. 223.
Ibid, 224.
Ibid, 225.
Ibid, 227.
Hayden White, “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,” in The History and Narrative Reader, ed.
Geoffrey Roberts (London and New York: Routledge, 2001). p.380.
Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact”, p.231.
David Carr, “Narrative and the Real World,” in The History and Narrative Reader, ed. Geoffrey Roberts
(London and New York: Routledge, 2001). p.146.
Ibid, 147.
John Gardner, Grendel (New York: Vintage Books, 1971).
Joseph Milosh, “John Gardner's Grendel: Sources and Analogues.” Contemporary Literature, pp.48-57 (19,
1978). pp. 49.
Grendel, 28.
Ibid, 29.
Ibid, 158.
Ibid, 23.
Ibid, 27.
Grendel, 43.
Ibid, 34.
Ibid, 42.
Ibid, 46.
Ibid, 49.
Ibid, 43.
Ibid, 49.
Ibid, 49.
Ibid, 48.
Ibid, 44.
Ibid, 51.
Ibid, 55.
Judy Smith Murr, “John Gardner's Order and Disorder: Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues, in Critique:
Studies in Modern Fiction (18.2, 1976). pp.97-108.
Ibid, 99.
Grendel, 28.
Ibid, 8.
Ibid, 73.
Ibid, 67.
Ibid, 157.
Ibid, 64.
Ibid, 65.
Ibid, 71.
Ibid, 67.
Ibid, 91.
Ibid, 158.
Joseph Milosh, “John Gardner's Grendel: Sources and Analogues,” p.50.
Grendel, 80.
Mock-heroic is a literary style that mocks classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature. Mock heroic
works mock traditional heroes by either putting a fool in the role of the hero or by exaggerating the heroic
qualities to such a point that they become absurd.
Ibid, 82.
Ibid, 84.
Ibid, 89.
Ibid, 149.
Ibid, 146.
Ibid, 149.
Ibid, 150.
Ibid, 154.
Ibid, 155.
Ibid, 163.
Ibid, 165.
Ibid, 154.
Ibid, 168.
Ibid, 169.
The Paris Review, Interviewed by Paul Ferguson, John R. Maier, Sara Matthiessen, Frank McConnell.
Issue 75, Spring 1979. p. 8.
Grendel, 170.
Address: Mustafa Kemal Universitesi, Tayfur Sokmen Kampusu
Egitim Fakultesi, Ingilizce Ogretmenligi Bolumu 31000,
Alahan-Antakya Hatay TURKEY
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
A la lecture de «Temps et Recit» (III, 2 et conclusion), l'A. examine la fonction de l'imagination historique et de l'identite narrative chez P. Ricoeur. L'A. montre que la poetique de l'imagination narrative est une condition necessaire, mais non suffisante, de l'ethique, fondee sur la responsabilite et la transcendance de soi
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