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Grendel by John Gardner and Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.
Grendel by John Gardner
The Development and Validity of Knowledge
In the beginning of the novel, Grendel is a large and frightening monster who enjoys killing and eating people. It is however revealed that he is also intelligent, and that he can theorize about the meaning of life and tell sophisticated jokes. He however hates almost everything.
He hates his mother, for her inability to speak or reason. He also hates animals for their stupidity, and he hates the sky for ignoring him. This hatred is born of painful knowledge.
When Grendel was young, his foot was caught between two trees. While he was trapped and crying for his mother, Hrothgar's men approached him and attacked him for no other reason than that he looked monstrous. This gave Grendel the knowledge that human beings were cruel to those they did not understand and thus they attacked. This knowledge then had the effect of his hatred, as a result of which he killed and ate any of Hrothgar's men who crossed his path.
As the novel progresses, beauty also becomes a part of Grendel's life. This comes in the shape of a singer, whom Grendel calls the Shaper. The Shaper awed everyone, including Grendel, with his music. While the singer brought Grendel closer to a knowledge of beauty that contrasted with the life of violence that he had known, Grendel believes that the battles he sings about in such glorious terms are in truth brutal and petty. In this way Grendel uses reality in order to shape his thoughts and knowledge regarding the content of the songs.
Another source of Grendel's knowledge is the Dragon.
Grendel, perceiving that the Dragon is evil, finally however gives in to his enticements to come to his lair. The dragon superimposes his own acquired knowledge upon Grendel's. While Grendel is cruel for a good reason and as a result of experience, he still believes that life holds some meaning. The Dragon on the other hand believes that life is pointless, and that the Shaper's songs are merely an attempt to inject meaning and a sense of community where none was to be found.
Initially Grendel is confused by this new presentation of knowledge. However, he finds the dragon's suggestion to do what he wants, since there is no reason not to, enticing. The new knowledge is attached to Grendel's feelings of rage and isolation. These are now supported and Grendel gradually succumbs and approves of his own animal need to kill.
Grendel applies his new knowledge when he meets Unferth, who desperately wants to die a hero's death. Using the knowledge acquired from the dragon, Grendel makes it clear to Unferth that his endeavor is useless and that heroism is a sham. Thus, despite years of trying to die, Unferth is protected by Grendel and deprived of his own wished-for death.
Grendel's knowledge of meaninglessness is however confused when he sees the beauty of the queen and the faith of an old priest. He sees meaning in the beauty of the queen and is tormented as a result of it. The knowledge that has sustained him is beginning to prove itself erroneous. Later, after deciding not to kill the queen, since it would be as pointless as killing her, Grendel meets a priest for whom his faith means everything and is the ultimate knowledge. The monster is very confused by this.
Finally Grendel dies at the hands of Beowulf, who tears off his arm, and Grendel falls into a pit to die. Thus all his acquired knowledge is proved wrong: he is not as invinsible as he believed, and it is possible for life to have meaning.
Understanding Humanity through Fiction
While Grendel is a fictional character, the reasoning of the characters in the novel is based upon general human concerns. Fiction is thus often used as a vehicle for human truth. Thus Gardner uses Grendel to bring home to his readers certain philosophical truths.
Gardner for example incorporates the medieval conception of Platonic philosophy. Through this conception he attempts to identify and demonstrate the human struggle to be moral. Grendel is outside of humanity and thus distances himself from the moral struggle. This however results in even further isolation and loneliness. Grendel also cannot help but be moved by common…[continue]
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