One of the books I teach in my 12th grade AP English class is John Gardner’s Grendel. It makes a marvelous companion — and counterpoint — to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and gives us new ways to explore the difference between humanity and monstrosity and each person’s individual capacity for both.
Some days it feels like I spend more time thinking about this than is strictly good for my cortisol levels.
Still and all, there is a hauntingly lovely and sad poem in the middle of this slim novel, told from the perspective of Hrothgar’s queen, Wealtheow, a young woman given away by her warlike loser brother to an aging loser anus of a king as both bounty and peace-gift. (You know, that same old story that just keeps getting told in a narrow rotation of demeaning ways.) And the woman finds a way to make something of it that’s meaningful, even more meaningful than the monsters, literal and figurative, populating her space.
SCENE: The Queen Beside Hrothulf’s Bed.
So sad so young? And even in sleep?
Worse times are yet to come, my love.
The babes you comfort when they weep
Will soon by birthright have
All these gold rings! Ah, then, then
Your almost-brother love will cool;
The cousin smile must grind out lean
Where younger cousins rule.
When I was a child I truly loved:
Unthinking love as calm and deep
As the North Sea. But I have lived,
And now I do not sleep.
If you would like to learn about Gardner, his work, and the controversies he stirred by deigning to publish opinions about the craft of fiction — and see his picture — click here.