Authors often have to choose between concentrating on either plot or social commentary when writing their novels; in John Gardener’s Grendel, any notion of a plot is forgone in order for him to share his thoughts about late sixties-early seventies America and the world’s institutions as a whole. While Grendel’s exploits are nearly indecipherable and yawn inducing, they do provide the reader with the strong opinions the author carries. This existentialistic novel can be seen clearly as a narrative supporting nihilism in its many forms. Most easily, the reader will be able to see the blatant religious subtext in the guise of corrupt priests and the foolish faithful. There is also some negativity placed on the notion of the old being the wise. Gardener deems hero idolization unacceptable as well; knowledge that the Vietnam War was prevalent at the time gives additional insight into his complaints. Religion plays a large role in Grendel. Priests do not want to perform their services without the proper payment which, in turn, causes the rich to be able to become the most ‘religious.’ The citizens of the village are also confusingly poly- and monotheistic. When praying to their king god does not decrease the frequency of Grendel’s visits, they retreat to begging any god of which they have known for help. This reveals their faith to be not faith at all but rather faith that will remain faith as long as it can be proven. A proven religious faith is contradictory term, for it can only be placed in a religion that cannot be proven lest it is true faith no longer. Grendel’s interludes with the dragon portray, at their onsets, the dragon as a worldly, wise creature with much to share. The dragon haughtily informs Grendel about his vast store of knowledge as he teases him with how much he knows. As Grendel’s interests are piqued, the dragon expends the cumulative result of his travails: “Know how much you’ve got, and beware of strangers…My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.” Although the dragon serves as a vessel to point out the necessity of Grendel and makes some pointed observations about mankind, all his respectability is lost with those two short sentences.
The author is making an observation about materialism and the falsehood of wisdom always accompanying age. After all his years of intense scrutiny, the dragon can only grasp from human- and animalkind alike that possessions are the key to life’s existence. Nature against society is also discussed in Grendel. The fact that citizens surrounded with religion and social status could be so easily overtaken by nature (Grendel) gives a sense of irony to the reader. Nature is the only virtuous and pure institution left available to the world and yet capable of such cold-blooded viciousness (again, Grendel). People can build up whatever walls they may to block the righteousness that is nature but will always be unsuccessful. Nature has no religion, no political power struggles, and no inherent corruption and will always be superior to man in all respects. The author is successful at dissembling the institutions that have been repeatedly dissembled for centuries: society and religion. The corrupt natures of religion and power have been the theses for countless books before and will remain for countless books after. While he doesn’t add much to the literary forum with these ideas, he expresses them in a creative way, through the eyes of one ‘innocent’ to human wiles. His thoughts are neither original nor innovative, but his success in including them all in a single story is a formidable achievement.