Paul Sartre’s atheistic existentialism divides the world into 2 groups, authentic and inauthentic. Authentic people are distinguished by their deliberate choices to use their freedom to find purpose and meaning in their existence, while inauthentic people are characterized by passivity. John Gardner disagrees with moral relativism evidenced in Sartre’s existentialism and chooses to believe in moral absolutes. He portrays Grendel in his book Grendel as a condemnation of the moral relativism expressed by Jean Paul Sartre’s ideas of atheistic existentialism.
Through Grendel’s experiences with contrasting religions and his philosophical mentors, Grendel chooses to embody Sartre’s idea of authenticity by terrorizing the people around him. Through Grendel’s initial attraction with the Shaper, a scop and a symbol of the Old Testament, Gardner shows how Grendel is able acknowledge moral absolutes like music. The Shaper’s stories and music fascinate Grendel. He deeply moves Grendel and through his songs, even manages to convince Grendel that he is a monster shunned by god and a descendant from Cain. “l believed him. Such was the power of the Shaper’s harp!
Stood wriggling my face, letting tears down my nose, grinding my fists into my streaming eyes, even though to do it I had to squeeze with my elbow the corpse of the proof that both of us were cursed” (Grendel 51). Grendel knows that the Shaper tells lies, but the Shaper’s beautiful music and persuasive voice convinces Grendel that he is a terrible race cursed by God. Grendel believes the Shaper’s portrayal of his purpose is wrong and becomes overwhelmed. He runs to the humans in hope of communicating with them. “l sank to my knees, crying, “Friend! Friend! ” They hacked at me, yipping like dogs” (52).
All Grendel wants is to be accepted and find purpose to guide his life. So when the humans reject him, he chooses to ignore what the Shaper says about him. Gardner uses the Shaper to show how even after Grendel is introduced to moral absolutes, he rejects them. In denial of what the Shaper has said about him, Grendel decides to visit the dragon, which Gardner uses to represent sartrean and nihilistic values. The dragon tells Grendel: My knowledge of the future does not cause the future. It merely sees it, exactly as creatures at your low level recall things past … I do not change the future, I merely do what I say from the beginning.
That’s obvious, surely. Let’s say it’s settled then. So much for free will and intercession! (63) The dragon educates Grendel by saying that there is no free will in this universe, no choice, that things are already pre-determined, and there is nothing anyone can do to change it. The dragon also says, “That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality … spins it all together with harp runs and hoots, and they think what they think is alive, thinks Heaven loves them. It keeps them going” (65) He is trying to prove to Grendel how umans use and make up God and Heaven as a source of comfort and faith.
The dragon also blatantly says to Grendel that there is no god, no heaven, and no hell, that the universe has no purpose. He solidifies this idea by saying: A swirl in the speak pure metaphor, you understand then by chance a vast floating cloud of dust specks, an expanding universe … Complexities: green dust as well as the regular kind. Purple dust. Gold. Additional refinements sensitive dust, copulating dust, worshipful dust! Complexity beyond complexity, accident on accident until … 71) The dragon believes that the universe is all Just a pile of dust, that there might be different types, but in the end everything is Just dust.
He is also trying to say that the universe and everything in it is all really an accident. The dragon represents Sartre’s atheistic existentialism and nihilism when he chooses to sit on his pile of gold and not care about what Grendel does with his life because in the end, his existence on this planet doesn’t matter. In the end, Grendel listens to the dragon and begins to embody the same values. He says to himself, “l was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings! ” (80) in an attempt to be authentic. Gardner shows how the dragon’s sartrean beliefs and moral relativism ultimately lead to the corruption of Grendel.
After becoming the destroyer of mead halls, Grendel notices Wealtheow, who becomes the greatest challenge to his sartrean values. “She was beautiful, as innocent as dawn on winter hills. She tore me apart as once the Shaper’s song had done” (102). Grendel is enchanted by her beauty and enraged when she is forced to serve even the lowest of the men. He realizes that she symbolizes the idea of moral bsolutes and Christian values. She sacrifices herself in order to save her people and family from war by becoming a peace weaver. She also acts selflessly and is a constant source of comfort to people. The queen smiled. Impossibly, like roses blooming in the heart of December, she said, “That’s past” (104). When the soldiers make fun of Unferth for killing his brothers, she goes up to him offering forgiveness. She symbolizes Christ, who is also born in December and is the epitome of what it means to be Christian. Grendel says, “l had seen the dragon. Ashes to ashes. And yet I was teased tortured by the red of her hair and set of her chin and the white of her shoulders— teased toward disbelief in the dragon’s truths” (108).
He is tempted to stray from the dragon’s views, because of how Wealtheow contradicts the dragon’s sartrean beliefs. Gardner portrays Wealtheow this way to show how Grendel remains inexorable in his sartrean and nihilistic beliefs even after she disproves them. Near the end of the novel, Grendel is presented yet another chance to change his sartrean and nihilistic ways through the arrival of Beowulf, who Gardner portrays as he epitome of Martin Buber’s beliefs. Buber believed that although one does not know if God is true, life is sacred and one must make a leap of faith to confirm or negate the idea of God.
Beowulf constantly gives Grendel a chance to change his mind. He says, “It’s coming, my brother. Believe it or not. Though you murder the world, turn plains to stone transmogrify life into I and it, strong searching roots will cracker your cave and rain will cleanse it” (170). He calls Grendel his brother even though they are enemies. He also demonstrates Buber’s ideas of I and thou, where verything is precious and meaningful. But when Grendel refuses to change his perspective, Beowulf has no choice but to kill Grendel. “My promise. Time is the mind, queens).
By that I kill you” (170). References to the Shaper, Hrothgar’s men, Beowulf himself, and Wealtheow are made because they all try to show Grendel how moral absolutes triumph over the moral relativism expressed by sartrean beliefs. They try to convince Grendel that there is a purpose to the universe and how God does exist. Grendel is Just too blind and ignorant to see it, which ultimately leads to his downfall. Gardner uses Beowulf and Grendel’s death to signify how Grendel is a condemnation of the moral relativism evidenced by Jean Paul Sartre’s ideas of atheistic existentialism.
The Universe does have a purpose and I concur with John Gardner that there are moral absolutes. There is a right and a wrong, and a difference between good and bad. There is a difference between cheating on a test to get an A and studying for 5 hours to get the same grade. Sartre’s existentialism grouped both good and bad together. Sartre would classify Adam Lanza, the shooter in Connecticut who caused he deaths of 26 innocent people with people like Mother Teresa, who spent their lives trying to make a difference.
I think that humans have free will and it is their choice to live their life how they want based on the decisions they make. I had a chance to either play tennis or baseball well so when I chose tennis, my life changed dramatically. I have no regrets. There is a purpose to life and it is one’s own choice to figure what it is and what to do with it. Although finding one’s purpose might take years or even decades, taking a leap of faith is necessary because in the end, nothing is certain.