Learned Helplessness and Grendel

Marc Tiskewicz
Mr. Prosser
English 3
19 November 1998

John Gardner constructs an all to familiar story in his novel Grendel. Not that the stories of Dragon’s are part of our everyday existence, but rather the experiences parallel to those of Grendel. These experiences Gardner constructs seem to follow the pattern of the psychological condition of learned helplessness. Grendel’s overwhelming accumulation of failures cause this condition. The primary supporting components to this idea are Grendel’s reactions to the Shaper, his reactions to the Dragon, and his reaction to Beowulf.
The name “Shaper” immediately imparts some meaning to this character. The most obvious application of this name is that of how the Shaper shapes his stories. As we dig deeper though, there is more the link between this character’s name and role in the story than just the apparent easy-to-remember label. In the field of psychology the phenomenon of shaping offering enforcement and/or punishment for behavior that get progressively closer and closer to the complete desired behavior. The shaper offers experiences to the Danes and to Grendel that they seem to take as truth: “. . .and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way—and so did I” (43). They therefore base their own actions upon this “wisdom” they have gained through the Shaper’s stories. This is quite a power for one man to have in any age.
Though Grendel holds much doubt in human thinking, explaining it as “lunatic theory,” he finds himself strangely attracted to his songs: “Even to me, incredibly, he had made it all seem true and very fine” (43). When Grendel places much trust in the word of the Shaper, the Shaper and the people reject Grendel—making him to be the race of failure, or evil. Grendel listens to the Shaper tell of Grendel, “He told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light. And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect. The terrible race God cursed” (51). Grendel appears visibly hurt by the what the Shaper—and therefore the people—now think of him, “Stood wriggling my face, letting tears down my nose, grinding my fists into my streaming eyes. . .” (51). He then proceeds to try to explain that this is not true by staggering up to the hall, “groaning out ‘Mercy! Peace!’” (51). Without hesitation the people violently reject him by hacking at him with battle axes and screaming in fear (52).
This event of failure for Grendel is the first of those leading to his psychological condition.
The next character Grendel encounters, the Dragon, further stacks failure on Grendel’s conscience. The Dragon explains the man that Grendel held so dearly in his heart as “Illusion.” Grendel wants to believe that he ultimately has the choice of what he can do in any situation, and that he can have cause. The Dragon explains this is not possible though, “My knowledge of the future does not cause the future” (63). The Dragon then tells Grendel of the nature of time, explaining that no one event now can necessarily have an effect on an event a thousand, million, and even million million years from now. The dragon in a great many words prompts Grendel to find his own meaning, but leaves him with the helpless thought that it will eventually have no effect in the long run. Though the Dragon’s call to Grendel to find his own meaning may be a good one, his commentary on the meaningless of it disheartens Grendel. Grendel now takes on the full effect of learned helplessness: he feels that no matter what he does, it will fail to have any of his desired effects. He is now enraged by the human’s feelings of hope and all associated feeling. He then gives in to what he thinks is the only role he has in this world: that of the evil race of Cain—one who haunts humanity. He no longer feels he has free choice of what to do in any given situation. He is the existential antihero.
Beowulf offers a challenge to Grendel just as the Dragon did. However the challenge Beowulf offers is for Grendel to realize that things are real and his actions do matter. Grendel recognizes this uncomfortable challenge to him