John Gardner is Not a Dragon

…or so he claims. Still, I couldn’t help but feel as though Gardner’s tone throughout the passage–cynical, direct, pretentious–really mirrored the dragon’s.  Gardner begins the passage by enumerating the reasons it took him so long to reply to Ms. West’s letter.  He argues that Beowulf was not at all optimistic.  Instead, he illustrated the grim reality at the end.  Hinting at a baptism that could not save him, Gardner suggests that the essential message from Beowulf is that we can’t hope to be transcendent; the only thing we can wish for is temporary fame.  This interpretation of Beowulf surprised me, because, after all, the poem is an epic.  He’s right though.  The end of the epic has the great hero dying–a suggestion that his clan is going to die without his protection.  (yay Beowulf?)

Gardner’s thoughts on the value and proper presentation of art struck me. Humans search for singularity and finality.  We want one meaning to satisfy our needs.  When, in reality, the entire purpose of the ambiguity of art  is not to be a puzzle with one solution but a collection of glass fragments that can be used to illustrate a picture that accommodates our understanding.    Essentially, Gardner articulates repeatedly that the readers need not be searching for balance and opposing sides to understand what we may.  Further, his commentary on Teresa’s commentary that [man’s corruption comes from society] raises a key question in the novel: who is the more negative influence on Grendel, society (humans) or himself (the dragon).  This is a difficult one to answer, but overall, the humans are behaving with the intention to do good (despite their battles, blood, etc.) while the dragon is not.  Ultimately, this means that the dragon symbol of Grendel’s isolation, is more corrupting than any society can be.

Overall, Gardner had an enlightening view on his own work.  He didn’t call it a masterpiece (he seemed like he was about to), thankfully.  So maybe Gardner wasn’t the Dragon, after all.



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