PrintE-mail Written by Alister Davison

First published in 1971, and now the latest in Gollancz’s revamped Fantasy Masterworks series, John Gardner’s Grendel is a fascinating beast. It's a book that, on first impression, aims to retell the classic Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view, but as events progress, it becomes apparent that it is so much more.

Two introductions pave the way for Gardner’s actual text, which weighs in at a slender 120 pages. Yet Grendel is a book that epitomises quality over quantity, a text that has been praised for its philosophical leanings as well as the storytelling abilities of its author. Rightly so; Gardner’s skills as a writer give him the confidence to experiment with both form and structure, giving his readers both prose and poetry, sometimes even a combination of the two. He’s able to say in a few words what other authors would take a page to do, delivering his prose in short, sharp bursts that still bring to life the thoughts of the narrator.

There are moments, however, where the more philosophic discourse pushes the story to one side. It can often sound incongruous, too; Viking warriors and dragons speaking modern phrases can jolt the reader out of the world that Gardner has done so well to establish. They may also dissuade readers from continuing, thinking it is too much of an academic book for their liking. Indeed, both introductions sing the praises of such things and could be seen as off-putting, but there's so much heart and soul in the writing that it seems a shame to dismiss it as such. Yes, Grendel is deep and meaningful, with layers upon layers and striking symbolism, but it's only as dense as the reader wants it to be, a demonstration of its writer’s profound intellect, but also his ability to entertain.

Above all, Grendel is a short yet powerful story, crafted in punchy writing that will keep its reader wanting to know more until the final page has been turned. At the same price as the larger volumes in the series, it may seem expensive, but this is a book that warrants a multitude of readings. It's also warm and deeply moving, extremely atmospheric and with possibly the best description of a dragon ever committed to the printed page.



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