Wagner's Grendel is one of the most finely crafted pieces of postmodern fiction because it performs both of the functions with which postmodern literature is tasked. First, it is a work of literature that shines on its own, that offers a significant reward to the reader regardless of whether or not the reader is familiar with literary traditions. Second, the work addresses, incorporates, and analyses traditions of a particular literary form. Grendel is a delight to read while also allowing the reader to explore some of the most important and enduring narrative traditions in Western literature.
Grendel, which was published in 1971, is a parallel novel in that essential to its structure and meaning is another novel. Because it is beautifully written Grendel can stand on its own as a work of art. But because it is based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, if one does not have a familiarity of that work than one cannot understand Grendel in the way in which the author intended it to be read.
Reading Grendel without having read Beowulf is like watching The Wizard of Oz in black and white. The movie would make sense and possess no small amount of beauty, but to understand the movie the way in which the director intended it is necessary to have a color television so that one can see what happens to Dorothy when she realizes that there is more to the world than she was ever permitted to know before.
Grendel is a parallel novel rather than a reprise of Beowulf because while it is a story about the same characters and the narrative arc is the same, the meaning of the story is quite different. Wagner's story is told from the viewpoint of Grendel, which means that unlike the original version of the story in which the narrator is omniscient and so has access to what every character thinks and desires and fears, the only things that we know are the things that Grendel knows. Among other consequences of this shift in perspective is the fact that when Grendel dies the novel stops. It does not continue to the end as defined in Beowulf.
Grendel tells the same story in a very different way, but the themes remain the same. The 20th century is a search for the differences between good and evil and the way in which we each seek to find meaning in life. (And sometimes even find it.) Wagner's novel is also about the power of literature to help us make meaning, the ways in which literature creates meaning, and the ways in which different stories talk to each other. It is this last quality of Grendel that marks it most clearly as a postmodern novel, for postmodernism is based on the premise that none of us has direct knowledge of the world around us.
We have only indirect knowledge, and one of the ways in which we come as close to the world as possible is we acquire the best and most authentic is through reading the most important stories. This is the way in which postmodernism refuted the modernist claim that there is a simplicity of a world that can be known (and in large measure controlled) by each one of us.
Wagner could have written an entirely new novel: He was a highly productive writer and certainly did not lack the ability to come up with an idea for another novel that was original to himself. However, he chose to recreate Beowulf because he wanted to connect himself as well as his readers to an older tradition. Beowulf is one of the stories that exist in our collective mind. We all understand that the way in which Beowulf sets forth itself its vision of good and evil has been incorporated over and over again.
Every time we (at least those who grew up touched by Western culture) read a story written for the past 100 years, we are participating in the collective experience of living in a culture that has been influenced by the hero and his (and so very rarely her) quest to meet up with his fate and thus prove to himself his virtuous nature.
Gardner taught Beowulf for a number of years to college students, and it is impossible not to wonder if it was the fact that he himself told the story of the heroic Beowulf over and over again that prompted him to write his own version of the story. When one tells any story so many times, it begins to lose its sense of inevitability. A story told a single time has a particular type of magic; a story told repeatedly loses that variety of power, but allows a great power to rise within the story teller.
Wagner learned over time that any writer can lay claim to the archetypal stories. Beowulf -- and Grendel -- became his to possess. And once a storyteller comes into possession of a story, s/he do with it as they will. And what Wagner chose to do was to transform the story of a hero into the much more interesting story of a villain.
Other Parallel Novels
Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone is a novel very much along the lines of Grendel in that it not only tells a familiar story (the Civil War saga Gone with the Wind) but also tells it from the perspective of a character who cannot be considered a heroine within the world of the novel. Randall has chosen to tell the story from the perspective of a mulatta slave rather than from the view of Scarlett O'Hara, a privileged white woman. Cynara (the slave) is not a villain in the most obvious sense in the way that Grendel, but she is very much the outsider and outsiders are always suspect.
Cynara is a women between races in a world in which purity of race is essential. Cynara tells a story that the other characters have no access to, and tells it to these other characters who do not want to acknowledge the legitimacy of any perspective but their own. In the fact of compelling us to look at the world from a perspective other than that of the hero, we are forced to consider the very nature of heroism as well as considering our own personal desire (which we surely have each done) to be a hero (The Empire Writes Back: Jane Eyre,
Just as Wagner makes us keenly aware of the fact that there is a world in which Grendel would be the true hero, there is also a world in which Cynara would be if not the heroine at least the stand-in for Cassandra. Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is another parallel novel that hinges on a character caught between races and thus at home in neither world.
Rhys's novel serves as a sort of prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the story of Bertha Mason, the monstrous madwomen in the attic. Mason (who in this novel is named Antoinette Cosway) is pinned between the white European aristocracy of Jamaica and the black peoples of that island. Mason, already made fragile by her being denied by both white and black is crushed by the patriarchal worlds both Jamaica and England.
The introductory section of this paper refers to a mytheme (that is, a theme that appears in a number of mythical traditions in unrelated cultures to signify the idea that every idea is balanced on top of another idea. This concept of an infinite regression has often been used by the physicist Stephen Hawking who has said that the earth and the universe that supports it can be conceptualized as a turtle balanced on another turtle and so on into infinity. Any attempt to under the true nature of the universe will only end up in the discovery of another turtle that is precisely the same as the first one (Miller, 1974; Harcourt 1938).
Further study or thought or inquiry will thus produce no greater knowledge of the way in which the world operates. The search for the meaning of this World Turtle (which is central to important religious traditions of Hindi and North American models will produce no new knowledge. This does not, however, release us from attempting to know it better. Postmodernism in its various forms has as its primary goal the creation of links among separate forms of human creative. Put another way, postmodernism creates a conversation among books, pieces of art, music, architecture, a conversation to which we are allowed the chance to eavesdrop. A piece of metafiction like Grendel never lets us as the reader forget that they we are reading a book.
Metafiction describes the capacity of fiction to reflect on its own status as fiction and thus refers to all self-reflexive utterances which thematize the fictionality (in the sense of imaginary reference and/or constructedness) of narrative. Metafiction is,…