A question about the absence of God seems to stand at the philosophical center of John Gardner's novel. It is one of the holes - perhaps the largest - through which the monster tries to understand himself and the world. If the Dragon is right and everything is just nothing ("a brief pulsation in the black hole of eternity" 74), then what is a person - or a monster - to do with this suddenly absurd existence? How should one live?

The death of God, proclaimed by Friedrich Nietzsche in 1887, has left humans to live in a world without absolute values. Nietzsche saw this as a great opportunity for humans to rise to their utmost potential - no longer held back by fear and superstition, able to exercise their will to power in whichever direction they desire. There is no limit; everything is possible; nothing is right or wrong in itself.

Existentialist writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus tackled the problems of human freedom in the absence of God. Elements of their thought form a backdrop for much 20th century literature, including John Gardner's work in Grendel.

Yet some people persist in their religious practice and/or beliefs. Grendel's encounter with the old priest Ork, and Ork's subsequent dialogue with the other priests (127-136), gives readers a chance to consider the various faith-options available in a culture which no longer believes in its gods.

What does Grendel believe he knows about human religious practices and beliefs?

Why is he surprised by Ork's tears?

Identify the various attitudes and underlying motives of the four priests as they speak to Ork about his "vision".

What does Grendel's failure to kill Ork, the Shaper, and Wealtheow suggest about his own fundamental values - if he can be said to have any at all?

A consecrated scholar might also seek out:

Mason, Kenneth C. "Of Monsters and Men: Sartrean Existentialism and John Gardner's Grendel" in Jeff Henderson, Leonard C. Butts and Kathryn VanSpanckeren, eds. Thor's Hammer: Essays on John Gardner. Conway: U of Central Arkansas P, 1985. 101-11.

Western Philosophical Concepts of God (IEP)

view complete index A - L

view complete index M - Z