The Mixture of Modernity and Philosophy:
How Fantasy Tries to Teach Us a Lesson What is the criterion that constitutes the making of a fantasy fiction? Thecommon answers would be: dragons, wizards, king and queens, sword battles, etc. which represent all the right answers. However, there are two novels in particular that go beyond this typical setting and change the way we think about our world and the fantasy genre in general. John Gardner's Grendel and J.G. Ballard's Crash are both post-modern fantasy novels that capture the philosophies of the protagonist and open the reader's eyes to the wonderment of our real human world. Gardner stays in the theme of the typical fantasy tradition but adds a twist: for the interest of fairness, the monster Grendel speaks and gives his point of view to the epic classic “Beowulf”. Ballard however changes fantasy completely and what happens is a mixture of realism and the illusions (or delusions) of the protagonist's cloudy mind. Grendel and Ballard, the main characters, are essentially antiheroes in the visions of society of their fantastical world, however they become heroes in the real world because they teach us how fragile and disturbing human life really is.
Ballard presents to us a narrative that creates a sense of confusion. Since the author of Crash and its narrator—who is telling the story in the first person—both share the same name, Crash then becomes indicative of an autobiography and not fantasy fiction. Although this is not true, the reader receives an authentic understanding of the protagonist's (or Ballard's) real inner thoughts and emotions. Through this complex narrative structure the reader is invited to a world that Ballard understands it to be. Crash becomes not only a post-modern fantasy; it is also a simulation of human experience.
Crash does this by exploring into the human mind of another person and it is realized that Ballard's thoughts are just as obscene as your own thoughts. These abstract and sexual thoughts that Ballard describes are the instinctive human-animal emotions all mankind represses in a public world. Ballard's inner thoughts are shared with his reader (mostly men one would assume) and the reader sympathizes and learns from him.
Grendel, like Crash, is written as a first person narrative and both are a form of meta-fiction. Although Grendel is able to speak the same language as the humans he is unable to correspond with them. The small amounts of dialogue within both texts show how strong an imagination both Ballard and Grendel possess as narrators because they essentially have to perceive the other character's inner thoughts. This indicates the speed of Grendel's growing maturity throughout the novel and it is evident through his life from the beginning to the end. His wisdom and maturity are modeled mostly from the Shaper but also through observation of human life. Grendel's first encounter with the natural world as he steps outside the darkness of his cave brings to him a sense of uniqueness because he realizes that he is not human. For the rest of the novel, this sense of uniqueness and the truthful observation of human activity creates a feeling of epiphany within the reader because they see how monstrous human activity really is.
Technology and machinery is a major theme in Crash. Technology is a symbol of human innovation to overcome impossible difficulties—natural or man-made—and new innovations are welcomed by most cultures in the present day. Ballard uses the theme of technology as an antithesis. Crash suggests that technology will eventually be the downfall of humanity specifically in the culture complex that is the automobile. In describing the landscape surrounding him, Ballard's references to landmarks of human technology reflect how the automobile has changed the natural world: “For half an hour I sat by the window in her office, looking down at the hundreds of cars in the parking lot. Their roofs formed a lake of metal” (Ballard, 76). The creation of the automobile has led to an explosion of other technologies (e.g., carports, tunnels, bridges) that allow it to overcome any obstacles. This fits into the idea of ugly humanity because these new constructions also create airports, subways and bus stations which allude to ignorant human behaviour. In other words, it is at these places, because of the presence of strangers, that we are secluded to think only of ourselves and have the only time available to reflect upon our lives. These are the places where we feel a state of solipsism.
Grendel realizes his philosophy as a solipsist during his battle with the bull. Because of his young age, Grendel's natural tendency during times of nervous tension is to call for his mother. Grendel's mother does not help and he realizes his place in the world: “I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist” (Gardner, 21-22). This moment is pivotal for Grendel because he realizes his freedom (after the bull tires from hitting the tree) and his ability to wonder and discover his outer world. Grendel, in contrast to Ballard, also admits to a world depended upon technology, as he states in those words ‘mechanical chaos' suggesting his dislike for the repetitive processes of everything around him. Grendel's maturity level after this incident indicates he is entering post-adolescence.
The use of subjective personal pronouns, normally used by children speakers, starts to decline and an indication that Grendel is learning the English language is apparent. The reader appreciates Grendel more as an author of literature rather than an everyday being writing in a diary.
Ballard exerts his provisions on how the automobile and technology are able to change human behaviour, human psychology and their physical appearances. One imagines the idea of relaxation juxtaposed to nature (e.g., a visit to a National Park or a day out to the beach) but it is a traffic jam that Ballard realizes is able to relax his anxiety.
“Around me the morning traffic lay in the fly-infested sunlight. Strangely, I felt almost no sense of anxiety” (Ballard, 106). This expresses the concern of technology and how it changes human behaviour which is reminiscent of today and how the use of the IPOD relaxes the generations of the 21st century. The questionnaire full of gruesome depictions of human injuries caused by auto accidents: “Almost every conceivable violent confrontation between the automobile and its occupants was listed…” (Ballard, 133-134), the imagery of noticeable injuries displayed on human faces indicates the brutality of technology and the trail it leaves behind within a society. Technology, as Ballard hints, is not only helping us, it is destroying us. Indicators of technological disaster is witnessed on the face of Helen Remington, “…she was now inspecting with a clear and unsentimental eye the technology which had brought about the death of her husband”
(Ballard, 77-78). Ballard is showing evidence of technology scarring human life. Grendel also demonstrates how other forms of technology can shape and change human behaviour. Grendel is set in the pre-industrial era leaving no choice to him (because of the lack of educational innovations) but to observe the interactions of people and to read literature as a means for most of his education. Everyone he watches becomes a moral model to him. The most influential role models to Grendel are the Shaper and the Dragon. Grendel becomes torn between the ideologies of both role models, in turn, Grendel's philosophies become a mixture of the two personalities and his own. This is evident when Grendel finds Hrothulf alone and the style and structure of the novel transforms into a monologue play. This indicates the level of Grendel's development because the style used in Hrothulf's song are similar to the Shaper's song and the idea of a poetic play is probably from past dramatic books from Grendel's time:
“(O hear me, rocks and trees, loud waterfalls! You imagine I tell you these things just to hear myself speak? A little respect there, brothers and sisters…” (Gardner, 111). Thisreflects the type of literature Grendel would have been reading in his time because of the apostrophe beginning and the epic simile structure.
Grendel and Crash, both published in the early 1970s, are set in different eras of time but they both parallel on the reflection of the current culture. Grendel is set the in 4th century and Crash in the current time of its publication. Vaughn's fascination with Elizabeth Taylor and Grendel's fascination with the Shaper both associate our overall fascination with celebrities. In Crash, violent acts of carnage through the auto accident are heightened by the narrator or Vaughn's speech whenever it is looked at through the lens of the camera or the slow motion television screen suggesting how the media loves a catastrophic event: “Sections of the collision were replayed in slow motion. In a dream- like calm, the front wheel of the motorcycle struck the fender of the car…The audience of thirty or so visitors stared at the screen, waiting for something to happen” (Ballard 126-128).
This three page passage is a good example of how tragic events seem to mesmerize our minds, and slow down the passage of time. It reminds us of the impossibility to turn ourselves away from the scene of a passing auto accident (a termed coined ‘rubbernecking') and questions our psyche into the fascination of brutality. The death of Vaughn and Grendel were essentially the same. Vaughn passes away via a car accident and a group of people stand around and watch; they are helpless in knowing what to do.
Grendel sees the irony in his death and the motionless people as they watch him die: “Animals gather around me, enemies of old, to watch me die…They watch with mindless, indifferent eyes, as calm and midnight black as the chasm below me…They watch on, incredibly stupid, enjoying my destruction” (Gardner, 173). Grendel at first glance wants to partake in the current culture but his disfigurement and lack of communication lead to society banishing him. He functions well as an outsider and a loner but the lack of social support turns on him in the end. His philosophies are explained clearly during a verbal battle with Hrothulf:
“The total ruin of institutions and morals is an act of creation. A religious act. Murder and mayhem are the life and soul of revolution. I imagine you won't laugh when I tell you that. There are plenty of fools who would.” (Gardner, 118). Gardner is describing a common conspiracy theory that some of the Western societies believe about government and power, that is, higher priority is always given to those in the highest power and little help is given to those at the bottom of the social or economical ladder. Grendel and Ballard become heroes in the mind of their readers without the usual fantastical models that have been written previous. Through the use of imagery and philosophy that is located deep within their subconscious mind, Grendel and Ballard are able to stand for what they believe in. Both texts stay mature to their themes which consequently cause the reader to imagine a very respectable narrator therefore being able to listen closely to the hidden lessons. Crash, a novel littered with sexual overtones, is able to keep the comical value of sex to a low level, therefore becoming a more mature text. All references to sex were narrated professionally (e.g., semen and penis instead of the ‘other words'). They are able to prove to their world and the reader's world that following society's fads and trends lead to patterned and mechanical movements meaning we become robots trapped within our society. If the reader is able to learn any lessons from these texts, for example, safer driving or being more respectable to someone, nomatter how ugly they are, then this is how they become heroes.
Ballard, J.G. Crash. New York: Picador, 1973.
Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.