Gardner chose to display the philosophical idea of existentialism in his novel, Grendel. Grendel, the main character, shows proof of supporting these ideas. Existentialism related to the basic idea of individualism, in which each individual is an isolated being too which is cast into an alien universe. In this literary theory, it is believed that the world possesses no inherent human truth, value or meaning. Existentialists believe that there is no god and no heaven, and Gardner uses this belief in his novel “They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense.
They have dim apprehensions that such propositions as ‘God does not exist’ are somewhat dubious at least in comparison with statements like ‘All carnivorous cows eat meat. ’” (pg 64-65) Observing from a different viewpoint, this realm of thought gives individuals freedom to do as they please, without possessing any external pressures. In a world without sense, all choices are possible. One has the freedom to make each decision based on one’s own personal code of ethics and commitment to one’s self, as opposed to being swayed by societal pressures or religious beliefs.
This principle gives people sovereignty; it makes people happy knowing they have no responsibilities in life. Grendel views the world as an open space of “nothingness” to which he entered, to which the nothingness where it must end. He comes to the realization that his own, along with every other individuals existence is merely just a flash in time, “in a billion billion billion years, everything will have come and gone several times, in various forms” (page70).
He possesses the belief that all men are mechanical. He is given the opportunity to observe and study them, introducing him to the idea of conformity, with the desire that he too can find meaning in this world. At the beginning of the novel Grendel demonstrates pure innocence. With the story of his first encounter with men, after getting his foot stuck in a crack where two old tree trunks joined he yells “Mama! Waa! Waa! ”, with an urgent need to define things and find a meaning for himself.
But as the novel progresses, Grendel turns into a monster and taking up the ideas that “the world [is] nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears” (21-22). It is because of events like this that Grendel started to take existentialist views on the world, then when he met the dragon these beliefs started to enhance. When the dragon enters the plot, he convinces Grendel to attack King Hrothgar’s Mead Hall, in hopes of possessing a purpose and fitting into the world, allowing him to temporarily exist with mankind.
Following the incident, he continues to possess the ability to think for himself, he detaches his thoughts from his previous decisions to view the situation objectively. In doing so he comes to the realization that he will never mesh with this world completely and feels trapped and empty, like a monster with visions of himself killing the men. Struggling to keep his own sanity, Grendel comes to the realization he cannot continue to live his life this way, realizing he is in complete isolation.
It is not until his depression, that he comes to the realization he does not want to live the life of a monster, making the decision to refuse to kill Unferth as well as Wealtheow, realizing it had no purpose, going against his previous role, with great desire to give his life meaning. However, it is not until he, the unstoppable monster, surrenders to Beowulf, allowing him to rip his arm from his socket, giving in to his “design,” when he is able to attain true happiness. Grendel’s desire for meaning goes against all beliefs of existentialism.
From the beginning of the novel, to the middle, and all the way to the end, we see Grendel go through many different changes. The reason he is an existentialist in the middle of the novel is because he kills with no meaning. There is no purpose for his kills; he is just confused with life and does what others tell him, which is to kill. Finally when Grendel starts thinking for himself he realizes that there is no purpose to killing, this is when he finally decides he does not want to be a monster. A true monster finds joy out of his kills and thinks of it as a victory, which is what truly proves Grendel is not a monster.