“Nihil ex nihilo, I always say”(Gardner 150). These are the words of the infamous Grendel from the novel, titled that same character, by John Gardner. They represent the phrase “life itself is meaningless” which is taught to Grendel by a few different people throughout this novel. In the following essay, the explanation of this phrase, the way Grendel learns about nihilism, and how Grendel develops the concept of nihilism, as it is known, will be discussed.
First, we attack the nihilism itself. What is Nihilism? Well, this is one of the main components of the book. It means life itself is meaningless. What is meant by that phrase is that anything you do or decide to do, means nothing. For example, if you make a huge decision that you think will affect you for the rest of your life, according to a nihilist it means nothing. To them, it will all turn out how it is supposed to turn out and that is that. Nihilism also refers to people who do not believe they should be told how to live their life by the government. One major example of a nihilism uprise was in Russia during the 1860’s. During this decade, nihilism was primarily a rejection of tradition and authoritarianism in favor of rationalism and individualism. In Lament’s terms, live your lives how you want to live it and do not let anyone tell you how.
In the novel, Grendel first learns this theory indirectly from the hypocrisy of man. This starts in chapter three where Grendel is observing man for the very first time. He watches in horror as they fight and scream over land and treasure. After all of this nonsense and chaos, they still have the nerve to make speeches about how honorable or great they or their king is, even though they still kill one another. This is an early sign in the book of the hypocrisy of man. From chapter three: “Terrible threats, from the few words I could catch. Things about their fathers, and their fathers’ fathers, things about justice and honor and lawful revenge, their throats swollen, their eyes rolling like a newborn colts, sweat running down their shoulders.”(Gardner 35). This quote is Grendel talking about what he sees and only what he sees. This is where he is wrongly taught about how the humans live out their hypocrisy. You could compare this situation to a toddler watching an adult and learning by repeating and mimicking everything done by the older one. This is exactly how Grendel is learning.
In Chapter four, Grendel’s learning is furthered even more when he comes in contact with the people of Herot. At first, he comes to the hall and offers peace and mercy. Immediately the humans hack away at him with their swords. This really gets Grendel angry since he just offered his peace. He then becomes part of this hypocrisy by fighting man himself. From chapter four: “I staggered out into the open and up toward the hall with my burden, groaning out, ?Mercy! Peace!’ The Harper broke off, the people screamed. (They all have their own versions, but this is the truth.) Drunken men rushed over with battle-axes. I sank to my knees crying, ?Friend! Friend!’ They hacked at me yipping like dogs….”, “…. I crushed the body in my hug, then hurled it in their faces, turned, and fled.”(Gardner 52) This was the event that really made Grendel into a nihilist. The only thing left was to develop this daring new concept. Enter stage left, the Dragon.
The Dragon, the mentor, the teacher to Grendel of nihilism. Grendel is awakened by the dragon and is brought to his lair. The Dragon, not caring at all about Grendel as a person, helps Grendel develop his nihilist ideas. To do this, he explains to him that repetition is the key to nihilism. No matter how hard the universe try’s to stop repetition, it always goes on. For example, if Grendel were not there, some other evil would be tormenting the humans. From chapter five: “The essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order. The universe refuses the deading influence of complete conformity.”(Gardner 67) The Dragon’s teachings do not get through to Grendel very well and finally the Dragon just lets it all out. “You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.” (Gardner 73) After that comment, Grendel stubbornly blurts out that he does not want to be the brute. The dragon sarcastically replies by telling him to feed the hungry and help the poor. The dragon knows that it is inevitable for Grendel to be the brute but Grendel does not yet understand this.
By chapters seven and eight, Grendel realizes his role in the hypocrisy. He realizes that when the queen is brought to Hrothgar that letting her live is the best thing to do after she loses her trust in the king. In chapter eight Hrothulf is the student of nihilism as Grendel observes. Grendel learns by listening to Red Horse about the corruption of the government. This is all in contribution to Grendel’s developing of his idea of nihilism. By chapter ten, Grendel says to the reader, “Nihil ex nihilo, I always say.” (Gardner 150) He now knows his role.
In conclusion, this essay has gone through the development of the idea of nihilism throughout the book. From its early stages in chapters three and four, to its development in chapter five, to its full blown out ideas in chapters seven and eight. Grendel at the end of chapter ten sums up the whole hypocrisy in a simple phrase. “A stupid business.” (Gardner 150)