D. Keith Mano praised Grendel lavishly in The New York Times Book Review, saying: "John Gardner's 'Grendel' is myth itself: permeated with revelation, with dark instincts, with swimming, riotous universals. The special profundity of Gardner's vision or visions is so thought-fertile that it shunts even his fine poet's prose to a second importance".[8] Another Times reviewer, Richard Locke, declared the novel "an extraordinary achievement – very funny, original and deft, altogether lovable, poignant, rich with thought and feeling".[9] Kirkus Reviews also reviewed Grendel favorably, saying "Gardner demonstrates his agility at juggling metaphysical notions while telling a diverting tale".[10]

The book was nominated for the 1972 Mythopoeic Award for best novel.[11]

It was given special mention by Diana Athill in her memoir Stet, covering her decades as an editor with UK publisher Andre Deutsch: "Having to read Beowulf almost turned me against Oxford, so when a New York agent offered me this novel I could hardly bring myself to open it. If I hadn't, I would have missed a great pleasure – a really powerful feat of imagination."[12]

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