I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good friend?”
“It is bitter-bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter
And because it is my heart.”
This reflects how both Grendel and Frankenstein must have felt during their lonely lives. “Seeking friends, the fiends found enemies; seeking hope, they found hate”(Neilson back page). The monsters simply want to live as the rest of us live. But, in our prejudice of their kind, we banish them from our elite society. Who gave society the right to judge who is acceptable and who is not? A better question might be, who is going to stop them? The answer, no one. Therefore, society continues to alienate the undesirables of our community. Some of the greatest minds of all time have been socially unacceptable. Albert Einstein lived alone and rarely wore the same color socks. Van Gogh found comfort only in his art, and the woman who consistently denied his passion. Edgar Allen Poe was “different” to say the least. Just like these great men, Grendel and Frankenstein do not conform to the societal model. Also like these men, Grendel and Frankenstein are uniquely superior to the rest of mankind. Their superiority is seen through their guile to live in a society that ostracizes their kind, their true heroism in place of society’s romantic view, and the ignorance on which society’s opinion of them is formed.
Grendel, though he needs to kill to do so, functions very well in his own sphere. Grendel survives in a hostile climate where he is hated and feared by all. He lives in a cave protected by firesnakes so as to physically, as well as spiritually, separate himself from the society that detests, yet admires, him. Grendel is “the brute existent by which humankind learns to define itself”(Gardner 73). Hrothgar’s thanes continually try to extinguish Grendel’s infernal rage, while he simply wishes to live in harmony with them.
Like Grendel, Frankenstein also learns to live in a society that despises his kind. Frankenstein also must kill, but this is only in response to the people’s abhorrence of him. Ironically, the very doctor who bore him now searches the globe seeking Frankenstein’s destruction. Even the ever-loving paternal figure now turns away from this outcast from society. Frankenstein journeys to the far reaches of the world to escape from the societal ills that cause society to hate him. He ventures to the harshest, most desolate, most uninhabitable place known to man, the north pole. He lives in isolation, in the cold acceptance of the icy glaciers. Still, Dr. Frankenstein follows, pushing his creation to the edge of the world, hoping he would fall off, never to be seen or heard from again. Frankenstein flees from his father until the Doctor’s death, where Frankenstein joins his father in the perpetual, silent acceptance of death.
Frankenstein never makes an attempt to become one with society, yet he is finally accepted by the captain to whom he justifies his existence. Frankenstein tracks Dr. Frankenstein as to better explain to himself the nature of own being by understanding the life of his creator. “Unstoppable, Frankenstein travels to the ends of the earth to destroy his creator, by destroying everyone Dr. Frankenstein loved” (Shelley afterword). As the captain listens to Frankenstein’s story, he begins to understand his plight. He accepts Frankenstein as a reluctant, yet devoted, servant to his master. Granted that Frankenstein does not “belong,” he is accepted with admiration by the captain. The respect that Frankenstein has longed for is finally given to him as he announces his suicide in the name of his father, the late Dr. Frankenstein.
On the other hand, Grendel makes numerous attempts to assimilate into society, but he is repeatedly turned back. Early in his life, Grendel dreams of associating with Hrothgar’s great warriors. Nightly, Grendel goes down to the meadhall to listen to Hrothgar’s stories and the thanes’ heroism, but most of all, he comes to hear the Shaper. The Shaper’s stories are Grendel’s only education as they enlighten him to the history of the society that he yearns to join. “The Shaper changed the world, had torn up its past by its thick gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way- and so did Grendel”(Gardner 43). Upon Grendel’s first meeting with Hrothgar, the great hero tries to kill him by chopping him out of a tree. “The king (Hrothgar) snatches an ax from the man beside him and, without any warning, he hurls it at Grendel”(Gardner 27). After being attacked by those he so admires, he turns against them to wreak havoc on their civilization.
The more that society alienates Grendel and Frankenstein, the more they come to realize the invalidity of “social heroism.” As Grendel’s oppressors see it, heroism consists of the protection of one’s name, the greater glory of their line, and most of all, their armor collection. “Beowulf, so movingly compounded with self-vindication, looks to care for his own name and honour”(Morgan xxxi-xxxii). According to Frankenstein’s time, a hero is someone who protects their lady’s name, earns greater glory for themselves and their country, and has a large collection of prestigious degrees to hang on their walls. Social heroism is not a single event, it is properly defined as a “revolution.” It is an on-going, ever-changing series of “heroic” events. This “revolution is not the substitution of immoral for moral, or of illegitimate violence for legitimate violence; it is simply the pitting of power against power, hero against hero, where the issue is freedom for the winners and enslavement of the rest”(Gardner 119). This revolution is built on intimidation by the powerful of society to oppress the undesirables. “Murder and mayhem are the life and soul of the revolution”(Gardner 118).
This revolution is most evident in John Gardner’s Grendel. In Hrothgar’s meadhall, his thanes are discussing the heroic revolution with the Shaper. According to the Shaper, the kingdom, those in power, pretends to be protecting the values of all people. Supposedly, the revolution causes the kingdom to save the values of the community-regulate compromise- improve the quality of the commonwealth. In other words, protect the power of the people in power and repress the rest It rewards people who fit the System best. The King’s immediate thanes, the thanes’ top servants, and so on till you come to the people that don’t fit in at all. No problem. Drive them to the darkest corners of the kingdom, starve them, arrest and execute a few, or put them out to war. That’s how it works. (Gardner 118) In Grendel’s time, violence is the common denominator in all righteousness. “The incitement to violence depends upon total transvaluation of the ordinary values. By a single stroke, the most criminal acts may be converted to heroic and meritorious deeds”(Gardner 117). Certainly the only difference between appalling acts of violence and heroic deeds is the matter of who commits them. What might be appropriate for a king would be unheard of by a peasant. This is obviously a social commentary that fits today as well, if not better, than it did then. The rich and powerful still succeed in oppressing the poor and helpless in every culture around the world. “If the Revolution ever comes to grief, it will be because the powerful have become alarmed at their own brutality”(Gardner 117). Then, as the rich descend, the poor will rise to power in order to complete the revolution. “The total ruin of institutions and heroism is in itself an act of creation”(Gardner 118). To break the circle would cause “evolution,” forward progress, that would enhance the natural progress of mankind. But, according to Gardner, this will never happen because the powerful enjoy their present state of grace; and when they helpless rise up, they are immediately repressed in a “cry of common good”(Gardner 119).
Though not as overt as Grendel, the concept of “revolution” is also displayed in Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s society ostracizes its undesirables by chasing them to the darkest corners of the world in much the same way that Grendel’s society does. Frankenstein is driven from his birthplace by his creator only to find that he must hide in shadowed allies to avoid social persecution. In the theme of revolution, the rich control what is acceptable, and to them, Frankenstein definitely does not fit the mold. Next, Frankenstein seeks asylum in the barn of a small farmer. The place where he finds refuge is a cold, dark corner symbolic of how society forces the non-elite from their spheres to places where they cannot be seen, nor heard, and therefore do not exist. After Frankenstein saves the starving family by harvesting their crops, they repay him by running him off their land. This incident repeats itself throughout Frankenstein’s journeys. Finally, Frankenstein is forced into the cold wasteland of the Arctic circle. In this uninhabitable place there is no one to persecute him. Yet the doctor maliciously continues to follow Frankenstein, hoping to completely destroy his creation. When Dr. Frankenstein dies, his monster is the first to come to lay his body to rest and follow him into the afterlife.
Frankenstein fits the idea of a true hero, rather than the romantic view of heroism shared by society. He is chivalrous, loyal, and true to himself. Frankenstein shows his chivalry by helping a family in need and still accepting their hatred of him. He acts to help others although he receives nothing in return. Frankenstein holds absolute loyalty to his creator. Dr. Frankenstein shuns his creation, Frankenstein, and devotes his life to killing the monster, yet Frankenstein is the first to show respect to his fallen master after his death. Frankenstein builds a funeral pyre to honor his master and creator who despised him during his life. Frankenstein’s loyalty extends as far as the ritual suicide he commits while cremating the body of his creator. Most importantly, Frankenstein is true to himself. Society wishes that he would cease to exist, so their opinion is irrelevant to him. His creator shuns him, but Frankenstein learns to cope with his own emotions in order to support himself. Frankenstein relies solely on what he believes in, not in what society believes to be important. His actions are based upon his own assessment of situations, rather than what is socially acceptable.
Grendel is also isolated from society, and his actions also classify him as a true hero. Like Frankenstein, Grendel has little outside influence and has to rely on his own emotions to make decisions. Grendel possesses bravery, yet he does not have the foolish pride of Beowulf. “The first virtue of heroism is bravery, but even more, it is blind courage”(Nicholson 47). Grendel is the epitome of “blind courage.” For example, when the bull attacks Grendel, he simply calculates the bull’s movements and fearlessly moves out of the way. Even when the bull rips through his leg, Grendel is not afraid. Grendel repeatedly charges into the meadhall and destroys its best warriors without a second thought. Grendel even has the courage to taunt Hrothgar’s bravest thanes by throwing apples at them. Grendel “breaks up their wooden gods like kindling and topples their gods of stone”(Gardner 128). It is this type of “blind courage” that Grendel believes saves his life in battle. “Fate will often spare a man if his courage holds”(Gardner 162). Beowulf, on the other hand, is foolish in his approach to battle. He goes to fight an immortal opponent, the dragon, and is killed because of his pride. “His very valor, wisdom, and magnanimity, expended unstindtly, lead only to a hero’s grave in a land soon to be conquered”(Brodeur 105). Grendel’s “blind courage” is far superior to the “blind stupidity” of Beowulf.
Just as society’s heroes fight foolishly, their opinions are made by prejudice and reflect the ignorance of humankind. Both monsters are seen as the minions of evil, and even of Satan himself. “Grendel is placed in a Biblical lineage of evil reaching back to the first murder”(Hamilton 105). Even the author of the poem alludes to “the descent of the race of Grendel from Cain”(Donaldson 1688). Frankenstein is proposed to be of “accursed origin”(Milton 130). However, neither of the two can be properly defined as Satanic, especially on the information known to the rest of society. Continuing, this belief causes extended prejudice of the monsters even in our society today.
Through the predetermined opinions of society, Grendel is seen as an evil come to destroy all of mankind. Grendel is a victim of society, he was not born inherently evil. “Woe to him who is compelled, through cruel persecution, to thrust his soul into the embrace of fire, to hope for no solace”(Kennedy 9). Society unduly restrains Grendel to heinous stereotypes that he does not fit. For example, another character more closely fits the description of Cain than Grendel. “The only one of the personages of the poem who is clearly said to be destined to suffer in hell is Unferth, who, in his responsibility for the death of his brothers, has committed the sin of Cain”(Brodeur 218). Clearly, it is not Grendel that should be condemned. He only tries to assimilate into society, but after being continually rejected he turns to violence in response to society’s hatred of him.
Similar to Grendel, Frankenstein is also pictured as satanic. Brooks concurs in saying that society “views Frankenstein to be a unique creation, like Adam ‘united by no link to any other being in existence’(Milton 129), yet by his condition more resembling Satan”(210). “There are times when he scarcely seems to be of this earth”(Venables 59). Also like Grendel, Frankenstein was not born evil, he was forced into his way of life by the society that rejected him. After this rejection, Frankenstein “like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within him”(Shelley 136). To each man his own god, and to each man his own devil as well. Frankenstein, “like Coleridge’s wedding guest, leaves ‘a sadder and wiser man’”(Scott 201). He now better understands his existence and how society wrongfully rejects it. Frankenstein simply wants society to have the “knowledge that might enable him to make them overlook the deformity of his figure”(Shelley 114). “Man how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!”(Shelley 201).
Grendel’s and Frankenstein’s superiority to humankind is made obvious by their ability to live in a society that has ostracized them, the monsters’ true heroism in place of humankind’s romantic view, and the ignorance on which society’s opinion of the monsters is based. “The monsters not only embody our fears of the way certain entities can artificially pervert nature in ourselves and our society, they also speak to us knowledgeably of nature and in a human voice, to tell us we need not be afraid of them”(Scott 201).