Review: “Grendel,” by John Gardner (1971)

“Tastes like milk,” said my mother-in-law of John Gardner’s Jason and Medeia, and I realized that she was, as I am, a synesthete, able to experience sensations in unexpected ways, like hearing colors or seeing smells. It is a relatively rare, and very pleasurable, talent.

Grendel, by John Gardner, doesn’t taste at all like milk. It is far more potent in its poetry, like a hunter’s kettle roiling atop broken tree limbs, filled with the remnants of several days in the woods: body parts, meat and bones, dried blood, wild berries, mushrooms, and pungent spicy leaves. 

It is also orchestral music, rising and falling in multiple movements, occasionally punctuated with puns and sudden childlike outbursts. Grendel tells his own story in fragments, an ongoing threnody insinuated beneath and between the details of the familiar Beowolf legend. He emerges from and retreats to the cave where his mother still lives in a stuporous haze, visits a pontificating dragon whose ultimate words of wisdom, after almost twenty pages, are “seek out gold and sit on it,” and observes and makes raids upon the local Danes until a stranger comes across the sea with a challenge for him alone. 

I first picked up a copy of Grendel in a bookstore a number of years ago, but did not buy it at that time. I put it on my list of “Books to Read Soon.” A couple of months ago, I finally got a copy; I read it straight through. I was so enthralled I sent an e-mail to six friends, recommending it as a delightful read. Two of them quickly replied saying that they, too, had recently read and very much enjoyed the book! Go thou and do likewise. You won’t be sorry!

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