The Deconstruction of the Heroic Ideal in John Gardner's Grendel

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The heroic ideal is perhaps the most important aspect of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The poetry and literature of the Old English age celebrated heroic deeds and encouraged those listening to emulate heroic values at any and all opportunities. The epic poem Beowulf sets out to articulate this heroic code, which values strength, courage, and loyalty in its warriors. In contrast, John Gardner’s novel Grendel establishes a deconstruction of this heroic ideal. Through its exploration of various veins of philosophical thought, including nihilism and solipsism, Gardner’s work introduces alternatives and challenges to the practicality of heroism. The primary goal of the Anglo-Saxon warrior was to act in accordance with the heroic code and to hopefully perform an action worthy enough to be remembered throughout history, passed down from generation to generation within poetry. The code encompasses several values that men of this era were expected to observe: bravery in battle, loyalty to king and kinsmen, and selfless acts that could help to achieve a greater good. This code was paramount to these societies as a means of understanding their places in the world and the threats that hovered outside their established communities. All people’s moral judgments stemmed from the framework of the heroic code and heroic ideals; individual actions could be judged in a clear-cut manner as either conforming to or violating the code. In this way, the code was an important source of stability for a people whose very society was perpetually in a precarious state, constantly threatened by outside invading forces. The text of Beowulf exhibits several instances that support the idea of a heroic code. Beowulf himself can be seen as the archetypal hero. For example, Beowulf demonstrates the heroic virtue of fairness by refusing to bring weapons with him to a fight with Grendel, as Grendel is
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