Aghem. I am not sure what possessed me to choose this book, given what we know about its source material.
So John Gardner's wonderful little novel Grendel is a retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of the beast. But here's the rub. The beast eats humans. Both in Beowulf and in Grendel, and I should have known that. I knew that. I took "Beowulf to Dryden" in my first semester in college. I knew that. But I have promised myself I wouldn't preview books to ensure that they have a connection to food (that would sort of ruin the project); but seriously. I have a graduate degree in English. I probably should have thought this one through.
So, to be quite clear, I am not making human. I promise. I am, instead, focusing on what those 10th-century Brits who retell stories about 5th-century Danes may have eaten (because we don't really know). And so we're having steak and cheese pie. That makes reasonable sense, right? It seems like the best compromise, I think.
I will tell you this: the resulting steak and cheese pie is actually quite good. However, if your belly is a bit squeamish, you might just want to skip ahead to the recipe.
Alright, let's recap Beowulf to prep us for Grendel, and then let's get down to business, my friends. Beuwulf goes something like this: we have a Danish king (Hrothgar) who is plagued by the monster Grendel. Nightly, Grendel attacks the meadhall, killing and eating (of course) the Danish warriors. This goes on for some time (okay, 12 years), with Grendel snatching up the men and eating them, until the remaining warriors are scared to sleep at night. Declining with age, Hrothgar accepts the help of the Geats (a seafaring people from the south of Sweden), specifically our hero, Beowulf. That night, there is feasting, as can be expected. Grendel attacks Heorot Hall, and Beowulf fights Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, tearing the monster's arm off at the shoulder (and subsequently displaying it in the mead-hall). Grendel flees into the wilderness and dies. Festivities ensue. Let's imagine it is here that meat and cheese pie would be served. However, the story is not over.
Grendel's mother arrives to avenge her son's death. As the warriors are sleeping off a night of mead and ale, she attacks. Panicked, she retreats to her lair, a cave beneath a lake. Not to be outdone, Beowulf follows, dives into the lake, slays her with a sword he finds in her mountains of treasure, and returns to the surface of the earth with her severed head. Again, much partying ensues. Perhaps more meat and cheese pie. Beowulf heads home, eventually becomes the King of the Geats, and rules for fifty years. However, Beowulf has one last battle in him: he goes after a village-slaughtering dragon who doesn't take kindly to thieves. With only one man, Wiglaf, at his side, he defeats the dragon, but suffers his own wound, thus shuffling off this mortal coil. Funeral follows. Earthen memorial mounds are built. Perhaps more meat pie is eaten. Hard to say.
Enter in John Gardner's retelling of this epic, this time from the monster's point of view. Nearing the end of his 12-year run on terrorizing the Danish meadhall, Grendel has sort of had it with all things Danish. Each year is the same as the last, and like any eye-liner wearing, existentialist teenager, he cannot see the point of any of it. He fancies himself the intellectual philosopher, stranded in a lonely world, and the humans are the base consumers. It's as if he's dressed all in black and just carrying around Sartre's Being and Nothingness. Yes, he eats people, but it's the part he has to play: even he says, "I had to eat them" (33). Sure, he has eaten an old woman who tasted of "urine and spleen, which made me spit" (7), and "[M]y belly rumbles, sick on their sour meat" (13). This is duty, this is fulfilling one's role in a society. This is fate, but not some fate from the gods. No this is a human-inflicted fate.
Twelve years prior, Grendel merely lurked around the meadhall, fascinated by The Shaper, who takes the reality of a brutal world and retells it as poetry ("he stares strange-eyed at the mindless world and turns dry sticks to old" (49)), where monsters, such as he, are to be feared. While the beauty of the songs enrapture Grendel, they remind Grendel that he can communicate with no one, including the meadhall goers, whom he pleads for "Mercy! Peace!" (51) as he tries to join them, and they do not understand his language, as they scream and flee in terror. Nor can he communicate with his strange mute mother who smells of "wild pig and fish" (29). And when he returns to the meadhall two days after killing those who attacked him when he asked for peace, the Shaper sings of how the brave dead fought the monster (54). Grendel comes to understand that language is just another way to create the world, and currently the Shaper is creating a world where one race is to be saved, and another--Grendel's--not (55). Tormented and lonely, Grendel does not know what to believe--the Shaper, who prophesies a life of loneliness or his own understanding of reality, where he is also tormented by loneliness. No way this monster is going to win.
Grendel falls in with a bad crowd, mostly a dragon who encourages Grendel to make a choice--either be a hero or a monster. But no matter what he chooses, he should choose it fully. We're all going to die anyway. So Grendel chooses monster, in part, because when he returns to the meadhall, he hears the Shaper. The Shaper sings of the goodness of a god that blessed the Danes with Hrothgar, who accepts their toast with "bits of food in his beard" (77). A guard comes upon Grendel as he listens, "I'd meant them no harm, but they attacked me again, as always" (79). And so, Grendel devours the guard "with glee" (77). Thus, he begins his reign of terror on the meadhall, launching his first of many raids on the meadhall, killing seven and devouring them on the spot (79). He claims:
I was transformed. I was a new focus for the clutter of space I stood in: if the world had once imploded on the tree where I waited, trapped and full of pain, it now blasted outward, away from me, screeching terror. I had become myself, the mama I'd searched the cliffs for once in vain. But that merely hints at what I mean. I had become something, as if born again. I had hung between possibilities before, between the cold truths I knew and the heart-sucking conjuring tricks of the Shaper; now that was passed: I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings! (80)He has found it now: the ability to be something. To claim an identity. Yes, an identity of the destruction--ruiner, wrecker--but an identity nonetheless.
Upon realizing his own new identity, Grendel ends up in a conversation with Unferth, the best of Hrothgar's thanes. It takes some time, but eventually, Unferth understands, at least part of, what Grendel is saying: finally, the ability to communicate with language. They have a talk about heroism, or at least Grendel does, and he mocks it thoroughly because he comes to understand his role in others' heroism: "I went on polishing the apple, smiling. "And the awful inconvenience," I said. "Always having to stand erect, always having to find noble language! It must wear on a man."" (84). Heroism is itself as much destruction as Grendel's consumption is:
Ah, ah, it must be a terrible burden, though, being a hero—glory reaper, harvester of monsters! Everybody always watching you, seeing if you're still heroic... But no doubt there are compensations," I said. "The pleasant feeling of vast superiority, the easy success with women... And the joy of self-knowledge, that's a great compensation! The easy and absolute certainty that whatever the danger, however terrible the odds, you'll stand firm, behave with the dignity of a hero, yea, even to the grave!" (84-85)
This is not the glory that Grendel had hoped for in finally making the overtures with the Danes. "So much for heroism. So much for the harvest virgin. So much, also, for the alternative visions of blind old poets and dragons" (90). And Grendel toys with Unferth mocking him and not even killing him, which would afford him a hero's death. He is beginning to realize the part he is made to play, and that they are dependent upon him always remaining monstrous: "My enemies define themselves...on me" (91). "So much for heroism," indeed. The Shaper dies. And Grendel is bored, so achingly bored by playing his role. He fancies that his killing gives the Danes as much meaning as it gives them--it gives them a sense of purpose and the opportunity to engage in battles and perform great deeds. His killing gives them their humanity, but it is so boring.
And we're only in year two (of twelve).
Then a woman Wealthoew arrives as a gift from her brother to Hrothgar, and she is breathtaking. Wealtheow is new queen and meadbowl-bearer, and, of course, Grendel falls hopelessly in love with her. Or as much as a teen-aged monster with no real ability to communicate with his beloved can do. And he decides to kill her because he is a teen-aged monster with no real communicate that he is frustrated by the men's lack of ability to see her sorrow and her isolation in a community that is not her own. And just as quickly he decides not to kill her. Such is the fate of teen-aged love. So he goes back to his more general killing and eating. "Tedium is the worst pain" (138).
Then the Geats arrive. The Danes are embarrassed to have to be rescued by the Stranger (whom we all know is Beowulf), and even Grendel notices "Honor is very big with them; they'd rather be eaten alive than be bailed out by strangers" (159). Much mead boasting ensues. And Grendel declares that Beowulf "was insane" (162). He one-ups Unferth in stories, and Hrothgar calls for Wealtheow to pass the meadbowl some more. They sleep, and Grendel enters the meadhall's "great cavernous belly" once more (169). The hall itself is the consumer of Danes, Geats, and Grendel alike, and Grendel merely an active agent. He ties a tablecloth around his neck as a napkin and eats one sleeping man and goes after another--Beowulf (168). Then we learn that Beowulf is more monstrous than the monster. He rips Grendel's arm from his body. "I scream, facing him, grotesquely shaking hands—dear long-lost brother, kinsman-thane—and the timbered hall screams back at me--who is the monster? Who is the hero?" (168-69). He is Beowulf and Beowulf is he. Long lost brothers, ripping limb from limb. And Grendel realizes he will die, just as the dragon suggested, without a lot of fanfare or importance and merely out of an accident, a slip of fate (or in this case on blood). The only one who will mourn him is himself, in this indifferent world.
So let's think about consumption in Grendel and by extension in Beowulf. In this world, Grendel consumes and consumes, so let's recap three different ways this voracious consumption matters--
Identity: As much as he consumes these people he so wants to be accepted by, they will not recognize him as any more than monster. Yes, it's the consumption that makes him monstrous in their eyes, but he can be and is nothing else. Might as well consume the very thing he wishes desperately to be associated with.
The threat the the host/guest relationship: Grendel likes to crash a good feast. And in doing so, he serves as a threat between the host/guest relationship. Hosts welcome guests, provide them food, warmth, shelter, protection. Guests act accordingly with gratitude. Enter monster. Now everything is all awry. To not be a protective host is to lose your standing, and Hrothgar cannot protect his guests or even his kinsmen. He has no power, and Grendel, it seems, has it all.
Power: There is certainly power in Grendel's consumption, but it is a nihilistic power that brings him nothing in the end. His power becomes tedious and predictable, and it doesn't have any meaning, or fulfillment for the teen-aged and petulant monster. From the well-stocked meadhall (filled with wine, mead, ale (and let's assume) meat and cheese pie) to Grendel's feasting upon the Danes, this is a world of blind consumption that gives a thin identity. What does all this consumption add up to save a nihilistic recognition that we are trapped in some cycle of celebrate, consume, mourn? We are completely dependent upon each other for binary power definition, breaking the power is nigh impossible, and again and again we slip back into the cycle, try as Grendel might to change the narrative.
Oh John Gardner, you pessimistic but wickedly brilliant fellow (beyond this little blog post, apparently Gardner was interested in exploring "the main ideas of Western Civilization. . . and go through them in the voice of the monster, with the story already taken care of, with the various philosophical attitudes (though with Sartre in particular), and see[ing] what I could do"--go have a gander).
Let's just go eat some meat pie, shall we? I should have served our nihilism with mead.
Steak and Cheese PieShe was brighter than the hearthfire, talking again with her family and friends, observing the antics of the bear. It was the king, old Hrothgar, who carried the meadbowl from table to table tonight. He walked, dignified, from group to group, smiling and filling the drinking cups, and you'dhave sworn from his look that never until tonight had the old man been absolutely happy. He would glance at his queen from time to time as he moved among his people and hers, the Danes and Helmings, and with each glance his smile would grow warmer for a moment and a thoughtful look would come over his eyes (Grendel, 106).
Doesn't it seem as if Steak and Cheese Pie would be served at such an event? If only I had purchased mead!
Adapted from The Cottage Kitchen
This is a lovely steak and cheese pie. You might cut up some button mushrooms and throw them in for even more umami goodness. Do watch the salt--we put a little too much in. Also this is delightful the next day, too.
2 Tbsp salted butter, plus more for greasing
2 Tbsp olive oil
2-3 garlic cloves
1½ pounds stewing beef, cut into 1-inch cubes
1½ cups chicken or beef stock
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
½ cup plus 2 Tbsp dry white wine
1½ Tbsp dried porcini mushrooms, roughly chopped
3-4 fresh thyme sprigs
1 Tbsp chopped fresh sage leaves
2 dried bay leaves
8 ounces frozen puff pastry, thawed
7 ounces Taleggio cheese, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
3. Add the remaining Tbsp of oil and the onion and cook, stirring, until lightly transparent, 2-3 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook until golden, about 3 minutes. Add the stock, wine, mushrooms, thyme, sage, and bay leaves, and bring to a boil.
4. Return the meat to the pan, and place the pan in the oven. Bake until the meat is tender, about 1½ hours. At this point, you can cool the filling and refrigerate overnight. Or you can sally forth.
5. Butter a 9½-inch round pie dish with a depth of 1½ inches.
6. On a slightly floured work surface, roll out the pastry into 2 circles large enough to fit the pie dish. Place a circle in the bottom of the pie dish. Add the meat filling and cheese pieces in 3-4 layers. Cover the dish with the remaining pastry, trim, and pinch the edges to seal. Cut a hole in the middle of the pie to allow steam to escape.
7. Bake until browned on top and heated through, 40-55 minutes. If the pastry browns too quickly, cover with foil. Serve hot straight from the oven.