*** There will be spoilers! ***
When I first read Grendel by John Gardner back in high school I was mostly bored by it. Maybe even a little disturbed at times. I never expected to read it again, but as fate would have it, this peculiar novel made its way back into my life fifteen years later. This time however, it was my partner who read it and pointed out that each of the twelve chapters seemed to correspond to the signs of the zodiac. So I read it again and sure enough, the symbols were there plain as day.
It got weirder though. Another curious theme I noticed while rereading this book is that Grendel – of Denmark’s Beowulf legend – seemed to be strikingly similar to how Bigfoot has been described by thousands of people in North America. The following two quotes especially stood out:
“Except for his thanes’ occasional stories of seeing my footprints, he’d probably forgotten by then that I’d existed.”page 30
“…screaming like a thousand hurricanes, eyes as bright as dragonfire… big trees shattered and fell from her path; the earth trembled”page 27
While the theme of each of the twelve chapters corresponds to the twelve signs of the zodiac, the most obvious references to zodiacal imagery can often be seen right in the beginning of each chapter. The images of the zodiac are invoked, especially with the bestial signs:
Chapter 1 ♈ Aries: “The first grim stirrings of springtime come (as I knew they must, having seen the ram).” page 8
Chapter 2 ♉ Taurus: “Then, some thirty feet away, there was a bull. He stood looking at me with his head lowered, and the world snapped into position around him, as if in league with him.” page 19
Chapter 8 ♏ Scorpio: “And so I watch in glee – they take in Hrothulf; quiet as the moon, sweet scorpion, he sits between their two and sharpens his knives.” page 113
One quote in particular sums up the combination of these two seemingly totally disconnected themes of Bigfoot and astrology. In the fifth chapter corresponding to Leo, Grendel converses with the dragon. During this exchange the dragon speaks of Grendel/Bigfoot’s purpose:
“You improve them, my boy! …you make them think and scheme… you are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves”Chapter 5 ♌ page 46
Monsters on earth and stars in the sky have have both played instrumental roles in humanity’s search for meaning and context within the bizarre and beautiful existence that is life. Grendel struggled dramatically throughout the book to find meaning for himself, even looking up to the stars like humans do, but without any culture, history, or ancestral knowledge he ultimately found himself flailing blindly through the darkness.
“Stars, spattered out through… torments my wits toward meaningful patterns that do not exist”page 11
Monsters like Grendel give humans the creative drive to keep “scheming”, but we also have many millennia worth of oral and written history relating to the natural rhythms of the heavens and their relationship to our earthly existence. We all have our own bestial nature, but unlike Grendel, humans also have a remarkable gift for storytelling that helps us to work with our natures instead of against them.
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