And After that it’s Elephants All the Way Done
Wagner’s Grendel is one of the most finely crafted pieces of postmodern fiction because it performs both of the functions with which postmodern literature is tasked. First, it is a work of literature that shines on its own, that offers a significant reward to the reader regardless of whether or not the reader is familiar with literary traditions. Second, the work addresses, incorporates, and analyses traditions of a particular literary form. Grendel is a delight to read while also allowing the reader to explore some of the most important and enduring narrative traditions in Western literature.
Grendel, which was published in 1971, is a parallel novel in that essential to its structure and meaning is another novel. Because it is beautifully written Grendel can stand on its own as a work of art. But because it is based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, if one does not have a familiarity of that work than one cannot understand Grendel in the way in which the author intended it to be read.
Reading Grendel without having read Beowulf is like watching The Wizard of Oz in black and white. The movie would make sense and possess no small amount of beauty, but to understand the movie the way in which the director intended it is necessary to have a color television so that one can see what happens to Dorothy when she realizes that there is more to the world than she was ever permitted to know before.
Grendel is a parallel novel rather than a reprise of Beowulf because while it is a story about the same characters and the narrative arc is the same, the meaning of the story is quite different. Wagner’s story is told from the viewpoint of Grendel, which means that unlike the original version of the story in which the narrator is omniscient and so has access to what every character thinks and desires and fears, the only things that we know are the things that Grendel knows. Among other consequences of this shift in perspective is the fact that when Grendel dies the novel stops. It does not continue to the end as defined in Beowulf.
Grendel tells the same story in a very different way, but the themes remain the same. The 20th century is a search for the differences between good and evil and the way in which we each seek to find meaning in life. (And sometimes even find it.) Wagner’s novel is also about the power of literature to help us make meaning, the ways in which literature creates meaning, and the ways in which different stories talk to each other. It is this last quality of Grendel that marks it most clearly as a postmodern novel, for postmodernism is based on the premise that none of us has direct knowledge of the world around us.
We have only indirect knowledge, and one of the ways in which we come as close to the world as possible is we acquire the best and most authentic is through reading the most important stories. This is the way in which postmodernism refuted the modernist claim that there is a simplicity of a world that can be known (and in large measure controlled) by each one of us.
Wagner could have written an entirely new novel: He was a highly productive writer and certainly did not lack the ability to come up with an idea for another novel that was original to himself. However, he chose to recreate Beowulf because he wanted to connect himself as well as his readers to an older tradition. Beowulf is one of the stories that exist in our collective mind. We all understand that the way in which Beowulf sets forth itself its vision of good and evil has been incorporated over and over again.
Every time we (at least those who grew up touched by Western culture) read a story written for the past 100 years, we are participating in the collective experience of living in a culture that has been influenced by the hero and his (and so very rarely her) quest to meet up with his fate and thus prove to himself his virtuous nature.
Gardner taught Beowulf for a number of years to college students, and it is impossible not to wonder if it was the fact that he himself told the story of the heroic Beowulf over and over again that prompted him to write his own version of the story. When one tells any story so many times, it begins to lose its sense of inevitability. A story told a single time has a particular type of magic; a story told repeatedly loses that variety of power, but allows a great power to rise within the story teller.
Wagner learned over time that any writer can lay claim to the archetypal stories. Beowulf — and Grendel — became his to possess. And once a storyteller comes into possession of a story, s/he do with it as they will. And what Wagner chose to do was to transform the story of a hero into the much more interesting story of a villain.
Other Parallel Novels
Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone is a novel very much along the lines of Grendel in that it not only tells a familiar story (the Civil War saga Gone with the Wind) but also tells it from the perspective of a character who cannot be considered a heroine within the world of the novel. Randall has chosen to tell the story from the perspective of a mulatta slave rather than from the view of Scarlett O’Hara, a privileged white woman. Cynara (the slave) is not a villain in the most obvious sense in the way that Grendel, but she is very much the outsider and outsiders are always suspect.
Cynara is a women between races in a world in which purity of race is essential. Cynara tells a story that the other characters have no access to, and tells it to these other characters who do not want to acknowledge the legitimacy of any perspective but their own. In the fact of compelling us to look at the world from a perspective other than that of the hero, we are forced to consider the very nature of heroism as well as considering our own personal desire (which we surely have each done) to be a hero (The Empire Writes Back: Jane Eyre,
Just as Wagner makes us keenly aware of the fact that there is a world in which Grendel would be the true hero, there is also a world in which Cynara would be if not the heroine at least the stand-in for Cassandra. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is another parallel novel that hinges on a character caught between races and thus at home in neither world.
Rhys’s novel serves as a sort of prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the story of Bertha Mason, the monstrous madwomen in the attic. Mason (who in this novel is named Antoinette Cosway) is pinned between the white European aristocracy of Jamaica and the black peoples of that island. Mason, already made fragile by her being denied by both white and black is crushed by the patriarchal worlds both Jamaica and England.
The introductory section of this paper refers to a mytheme (that is, a theme that appears in a number of mythical traditions in unrelated cultures to signify the idea that every idea is balanced on top of another idea. This concept of an infinite regression has often been used by the physicist Stephen Hawking who has said that the earth and the universe that supports it can be conceptualized as a turtle balanced on another turtle and so on into infinity. Any attempt to under the true nature of the universe will only end up in the discovery of another turtle that is precisely the same as the first one (Miller, 1974; Harcourt 1938).
Further study or thought or inquiry will thus produce no greater knowledge of the way in which the world operates. The search for the meaning of this World Turtle (which is central to important religious traditions of Hindi and North American models will produce no new knowledge. This does not, however, release us from attempting to know it better. Postmodernism in its various forms has as its primary goal the creation of links among separate forms of human creative. Put another way, postmodernism creates a conversation among books, pieces of art, music, architecture, a conversation to which we are allowed the chance to eavesdrop. A piece of metafiction like Grendel never lets us as the reader forget that they we are reading a book.
Metafiction describes the capacity of fiction to reflect on its own status as fiction and thus refers to all self-reflexive utterances which thematize the fictionality (in the sense of imaginary reference and/or constructedness) of narrative. Metafiction is, literally, fiction about fiction, i.e. fiction that includes within itself reflections on its own fictional identity. (Hutcheon, 1980; Neumann & Nunning, 2012)
The statement that authors in general try to draw us into their work on such a level might seem nonsensical given that we are generally aware of the fact that you are turning the pages of a book, or skimming through the latest Stephen King on your Kindle. But most authors want to draw you in to their story, to convince you that their characters are as real as your own family. Wagner is reminds you over and again that you can never be one of his family of characters but can never leave the story either until he is done with you as a complement to his story.
Wagner’s Grendel is having a conversation with us as the readers of his story, but as translated through either our previous reading of Beowulf itself or through the fact that even if we have not read the saga ourselves we have been immersed in its conventions. The equivalent of this is what is referred as “breaking the fourth wall” in theatre, as when as actor turns and speaks directly to the audience as if the audience members had become a part of the play even as the actors become a part of the audience.
This permeability of this dividing line between actor and audience has been growing for decades as the conventions that had governed the creation and consumption of art and different artists increase its permeability in different ways (‘Gone With the Wind’, 2001). So while Grendel and The Wind Done Gone are at their heart books about a writer writing a book, about the ways in which writers put words together to tell a story that will engage other people. Works like The Princess Bride by William Goldman, on the other hand, are books about reading books.
Other books that follow this strategy are Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, and The Princess Bride. In both cases — whether the writer reveals the process of how s/he writers or whether the writer continually reminds the reader that s/he is not in control of the story — the power control is shifted. Modernism — as exemplified by writers like Henry James — are in very firm control of the story. There is never any sense on the part of the reader of The Portrait of a Lady that the reader can head off the misery of Isabel’s life.
Waugh (1988) makes the argument that all fiction is metafiction, that every time we listen (either literally or through the reading), we are engaged in the process of acknowledging both that one person is creating a story and that another person has become a consumer of that story (Fludernik,1996, p. 58).
It would be seem to be a substantial leap from the above statement to Carrie’s (1995) contention that metafiction is not a bridge between artist and audience in which each luxuriate in a specific piece of art but rather a bridge between art and judgement. This is a regressive statement because it suggests that there is in fact something close to a real world out there that writers can connect with. Carrie denies the central tenet of postmodernism, which is that texts have nothing to do with the world outside of themselves.
Neumann & Nunning (2012) also argue, although from a very different direction, that the postmodern legerdemain of an author like Wagner is not in fact anything all that radical:
While metafiction has often been perceived as a primary quality of postmodern literature, Wolf & #8230;. stresses that (Western) narrative fiction has contained metafictional elements ever since its beginnings … From Homer to Salman Rushdie, from Don Quixote and Jacques le fataliste to The Remains of the Day, narratives have bared the conventions of storytelling and highlighted their constructed nature. However, its frequency and function vary depending on genres and epochs. The functions of metafiction range from undermining aesthetic illusion to poetological self-reflection, commenting on aesthetic procedures, the celebration of the act of narrating, and playful exploration of the possibilities and limits of fiction. (Neumann & Nunning, 2012)
Wagner, and his readers might strongly disagree. Metafiction is nothing more than storytelling, which, from the very beginnings of humanity has always existed on two levels, one of which is how we tell stories.
Currie, M. (Ed.) (1995). Metafiction. New York: Longman Group.
Fludernik, M. (1996). Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology. London: Routledge.
“The Empire Writes Back: Jane Eyre.” Faculty.pittstate.edu. http://faculty.pittstate.edu/~knichols/colonial3c.html.
‘Gone With the Wind’ parody draws challenges, supporters.” http://www.cnn.com/2001/fyi/news/04/13/wind.done.gone/.
Kate, K. “Wide Sargasso Sea and its literary and socio-historic contexts.” Eng.fju.edu.tw.http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/worldlit/caribbean/rhys_eyre.html#Jane.
Hutcheon, L. (1980). Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. New York: Methuen.
Neumann, B. & Nunning, A. (2012). Metanarration and Metafiction. In Huhn, Peter et al. (Eds.) The living handbook of narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press.
Randall, A. (June 2001). The Wind Done Gone. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Rhys, J. (2000). Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin.
Waugh, P. (1988). Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction. New York: Routledge.