Grendel & Frankenstein
In the desert I saw a creature, naked, bestial, who,
squatting upon the ground, held his heart in his hands, and
ate of it. I said, "Is it good, friend?" "It is
bitter-bitter," he answered; "But I like it because it is
bitter and because it is my heart." -Stephen Crane This
reflects how both Grendel and Frankenstein must have felt
during their lonely lives. "Seeking friends, the fiends
found enemies; seeking hope, they found hate" Neilson back
page). The monsters simply want to live as the rest of us
live. But, in our prejudice of their kind, we banish them
from our elite society. Who gave society the right to judge
who is acceptable and who is not? A better question might
be, who is going to stop them? The answer, no one.
Therefore, society continues to alienate the undesirables
of our community.
Some of the greatest minds of all time have been socially
unacceptable. Albert Einstein lived alone and rarely wore
the same color socks. Van Gogh found comfort only in his
art, and the woman who consistently denied his passion.
Edgar Allen Poe was "different" to say the least. Just like
these great men, Grendel and Frankenstein do not conform to
the societal model. Also like these men, Grendel and
Frankenstein are uniquely superior to the rest of mankind.
Their superiority is seen through their guile to live in a
society that ostracizes their kind, their true heroism in
place of society's romantic view, and the ignorance on
which society's opinion of them is formed.
Grendel, though he needs to kill to do so, functions very
well in his own sphere. Grendel survives in a hostile
climate where he is hated and feared by all. He lives in a
cave protected by firesnakes so as to physically, as well
as spiritually, separate himself from the society that
detests, yet admires, him. Grendel is "the brute existent
by which [humankind] learns to define itself" (Gardner 73).
Hrothgar's thanes continually try to extinguish Grendel's
infernal rage, while he simply wishes to live in harmony
with them. Like Grendel, Frankenstein also learns to live
in a society that despises his kind. Frankenstein also must
kill, but this is only in response to the people's
abhorrence of him. Ironically, the very doctor who bore him
now searches the globe seeking Frankenstein's destruction.
Even the ever-loving paternal figure now turns away from
this outcast from society.
Frankenstein journeys to the far reaches of the world to
escape from the societal ills that cause society to hate
him. He ventures to the harshest, most desolate, most
uninhabitable place known to man, the north pole. He lives
in isolation, in the cold acceptance of the icy glaciers.
Still, Dr. Frankenstein follows, pushing his creation to
the edge of the world, hoping he would fall off, never to
be seen or heard from again. Frankenstein flees from his
father until the Doctor's death, where Frankenstein joins
his father in the perpetual, silent acceptance of death.
Frankenstein never makes an attempt to become one with
society, yet he is finally accepted by the captain to whom
he justifies his existence. Frankenstein tracks Dr.
Frankenstein as to better explain to himself the nature of
his own being by understanding the life of his creator.
"Unstoppable, [Frankenstein] travels to the ends of the
earth to destroy [his] creator, by destroying everyone
[Dr.] Frankenstein loved" (Shelley afterword). As the
captain listens to Frankenstein's story, he begins to
understand his plight. He accepts Frankenstein as a
reluctant, yet devoted, servant to his master. Granted that
Frankenstein does not "belong," he is accepted with
admiration by the captain. The respect that Frankenstein
has longed for is finally given to him as he announces his
suicide in the name of his father, the late Dr.
On the other hand, Grendel makes numerous attempts to
assimilate into society, but he is repeatedly turned back.
Early in his life, Grendel dreams of associating with
Hrothgar's great warriors. Nightly, Grendel goes down to
the meadhall to listen to Hrothgar's stories and the
thanes' heroism, but most of all, he comes to hear the
Shaper. The Shaper's stories are Grendel's only education
as they enlighten him to the history of the society that he
yearns to join. "[The Shaper] changed the world, had torn
up its past by its thick gnarled roots and had transmuted
it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way-
and so did [Grendel]"(Gardner 43). Upon Grendel's first
meeting with Hrothgar, the great hero tries to kill him by
chopping him out of a tree. "The king (Hrothgar) snatches
an ax from the man beside him and, without any warning, he
hurls it at [Grendel]"(Gardner 27). After being attacked by
those he so admires, he turns against them to wreak havoc
on their civilization.
The more that society alienates Grendel and Frankenstein,
the more they come to realize the invalidity of "social
heroism." As Grendel's oppressors see it, heroism consists
of the protection of one's name, the greater glory of their
line, and most of all, their armor collection. "Beowulf, so
movingly compounded with self-vindication, looks to care
for his own name and honour" (Morgan xxxi-xxxii). According
to Frankenstein's time, a hero is someone who protects
their lady's name, earns greater glory for themselves and
their country, and has a large collection of prestigious
degrees to hang on their walls. Social heroism is not a
single event, it is properly defined as a "revolution." It
is an on-going, ever-changing series of "heroic" events.
This "revolution is not the substitution of immoral for
moral, or of illegitimate violence for legitimate violence;
it is simply the pitting of power against power, [hero
against hero,] where the issue is freedom for the winners
and enslavement of the rest"( Gardner 119).
This revolution is built on intimidation by the powerful of
society to oppress the undesirables. "Murder and mayhem are
the life and soul of [the] revolution" (Gardner 118). It is
most evident in John Gardner's Grendel. In Hrothgar's
meadhall, his thanes are discussing the heroic revolution
with the Shaper. According to the Shaper, the kingdom,
those in power, pretends to be protecting the values of all
people. Supposedly, the revolution causes the kingdom to
save the values of the community-regulate compromise-
improve the quality of the commonwealth. In other words,
protect the power of the people in power and repress the
rest... [It] rewards people who fit the System best. The
King's immediate thanes, the thanes' top servants, and so
on till you come to the people that don't fit in at all. No
problem. Drive them to the darkest corners of the kingdom,
starve them, arrest and execute a few, or put them out to
war. That's how it works. (Gardner 118) In Grendel's time,
violence is the common denominator in all righteousness.
"The incitement to violence depends upon total
transvaluation of the ordinary values. By a single stroke,
the most criminal acts may be converted to heroic and
meritorious deeds" (Gardner 117). Certainly the only
difference between appalling acts of violence and heroic
deeds is the matter of who commits them. What might be
appropriate for a king would be unheard of by a peasant.
This is obviously a social commentary that fits today as
well, if not better, than it did then. The rich and
powerful still succeed in oppressing the poor and helpless
in every culture around the world. "If the Revolution
[ever] comes to grief, it will be because [the powerful]
have become alarmed at [their] own brutality" (Gardner
117). Then, as the rich descend, the poor will rise to
power in order to complete the revolution. "The total ruin
of institutions and [heroism] is [in itself] an act of
creation" (Gardner 118). To break the circle would cause
"evolution," forward progress, that would enhance the
natural progress of mankind. But, according to Gardner,
this will never happen because the powerful enjoy their
present state of grace; and when they helpless rise up,
they are immediately repressed in a "cry [of] common good"
Though not as overt as Grendel, the concept of "revolution"
is also displayed in Frankenstein. Frankenstein's society
ostracizes its undesirables by chasing them to the darkest
corners of the world in much the same way that Grendel's
society does. Frankenstein is driven from his birthplace by
his creator only to find that he must hide in shadowed
allies to avoid social persecution. In the theme of
revolution, the rich control what is acceptable, and to
them, Frankenstein definitely does not fit the mold. Next,
Frankenstein seeks asylum in the barn of a small farmer.
The place where he finds refuge is a cold, dark corner
symbolic of how society forces the non-elite from their
spheres to places where they cannot be seen, nor heard, and
therefore do not exist. After Frankenstein saves the
starving family by harvesting their crops, they repay him
by running him off their land. This incident repeats itself
throughout Frankenstein's journeys. Finally, Frankenstein
is forced into the cold wasteland of the Arctic circle. In
this uninhabitable place there is no one to persecute him.
Yet the doctor maliciously continues to follow
Frankenstein, hoping to completely destroy his creation.
When Dr. Frankenstein dies, his monster is the first to
come to lay his body to rest and follow him into the
Frankenstein fits the idea of a true hero, rather than the
romantic view of heroism shared by society. He is
chivalrous, loyal, and true to himself. Frankenstein shows
his chivalry by helping a family in need and still
accepting their hatred of him. He acts to help others
although he receives nothing in return. Frankenstein holds
absolute loyalty to his creator. Dr. Frankenstein shuns his
creation, Frankenstein, and devotes his life to killing the
monster, yet Frankenstein is the first to show respect to
his fallen master after his death. Frankenstein builds a
funeral pyre to honor his master and creator who despised
him during his life. Frankenstein's loyalty extends as far
as the ritual suicide he commits while cremating the body
of his creator. Most importantly, Frankenstein is true to
himself. Society wishes that he would cease to exist, so
their opinion is irrelevant to him. His creator shuns him,
but Frankenstein learns to cope with his own emotions in
order to support himself. Frankenstein relies solely on
what he believes in, not in what society believes to be
important. His actions are based upon his own assessment of
situations, rather than what is socially acceptable.
Grendel is also isolated from society, and his actions also
classify him as a true hero. Like Frankenstein, Grendel has
little outside influence and has to rely on his own
emotions to make decisions. Grendel possesses bravery, yet
he does not have the foolish pride of Beowulf. "The first
virtue [of heroism] is bravery, but even more, it is blind
courage" (Nicholson 47). Grendel is the epitome of "blind
courage." For example, when the bull attacks Grendel, he
simply calculates the bull's movements and fearlessly moves
out of the way. Even when the bull rips through his leg,
Grendel is not afraid. Grendel repeatedly charges into the
meadhall and destroys its best warriors without a second
thought. Grendel even has the courage to taunt Hrothgar's
bravest thanes by throwing apples at them. Grendel "breaks
up their wooden gods like kindling and topples their gods
of stone" (Gardner 122).
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