Grendel, Narrative and Identity

Myth or History
I recently visited Rome for a couple of weeks for work but had a look around at the weekend. The relics of ancient Rome are truly amazing and one can quite understand why the Romans are given a special place in history. Whilst there I read a novel named Grendel by John Gardner. This is the story of Beowolf but from the monster’s perspective. Grendel watches the tribal human and sees that the tribes attack and kill each other. He sees the theft and the murder and thinks it appalling.

Then a new musicians and singer arrives amongst the biggest tribe and Grendel listens along with the people to the beautiful songs of courage and heroism. Grendel is confused. Grendel has seen the killing and the theft yet the way the singer tells the story it sounds beautiful and noble. The singer’s version seems to be true yet Grendel knows that it cannot be.

This chimed in with a thought I had. I was sitting in my hotel room after work one day watching an Italian TV channel. It appeared to be a film. People talked, people got into cars and drove and talked, people got out of cars and fired guns at each other. People went into a houses and talked.

I understood nothing. It occurred to me how much of our reality is speech to provide a narrative for events. Without the speech the film made very little sense. Perhaps this could be said of our lives in a similar way to the tribes that Grendel observed.
I get up, I go to work, I sit at a desk, I get into a car, I drive, I arrive home. But we humans seem to need a narrative to make sense of the world. We need a story to justify what we do. Each time we fight wars we are murdering people yet we over lay the reality of this with a story of great heroism.

Heroes or Murderers?

And perhaps our identity is bound up with the narrative. The Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland are more or less identical in many ways. They are far more similar to each other than they are to Chinese or West Indians. Yet they feel themselves to be very different and it seems to me that this difference can only be understood by considering their history. Not necessarily the history of each individual but the history of the tribe with which they identify.

Poor Grendel had no tribe and had to make up his own narrative. “Poor Grednel had an accident, so may you all.”


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