Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Chapter 1 | Summary



Grendel sees a ram on a hillside, recognizes that it is mating season, and considers the animal undignified and gross. He observes other signs of spring coming and feels angry. He extends his middle finger to the sky and howls in frustration. He remembers past kills and observes the monotony of his life, saying, "So it goes with me ... age by age." He recognizes that this is the beginning of his 12th year at war with Hrothgar.

As he stalks through the darkness, Grendel remembers his childhood contained the same monotony, even as he explored the world around him. He thinks of his mother clutching at him in the cave when he was young and her inability to explain why they lived in such a dreary, dark place. Grendel arrives at Hrothgar's meadhall, knocking "politely on the high oak door, bursting its hinges and sending the shock of [his] greeting inward like a cold blast out of a cave." Grendel wreaks havoc, scaring Hrothgar, his queen, and the Shaper. He kills some men and takes their remains with him.

The morning after this raid, Grendel wakes and hears the people lamenting the attack. He sees the men already at work building a funeral pyre and repairing the meadhall door. He sees the funeral pyre burn and hears the men and women singing, "as if by some lunatic theory they had won." Grendel, filled with rage, heads home.


Grendel's isolation and anger at the world around him are evident from his introduction. The ram isn't doing anything to bother Grendel other than existing where Grendel can see him. Grendel's focus on the ram's drive to mate highlights Grendel's own isolation. While Grendel may think the ram's mounting of anything, ewe or not, is undignified, the ram at least has the option of mating, of forming a connection with another creature, however primitive or fleeting. The only other member of his species Grendel knows is his own mother, so he has no options for mating.

Many clues in Chapter 1 point to what Grendel is and is not, as the reader will likely try to guess at Grendel's physicality. Grendel howls and the water at his feet turns to ice. This makes Grendel a force of nature. Yet Grendel is walking, talking, bursting open doors, and giving the sky the middle finger. To Grendel, he has fingers. To the men in the meadhall, he is a dark shadow. He sees trees, animals, space, sun, stars, and sky around him as mechanical, yet he is a part of the machinery he detests, with his instinctive "murderous lust" for blood, and when he is angry. Later in Chapter 1, Grendel says the stars taunt him toward making meaningful patterns that don't exist. Grendel, as a character, is at odds with the novel's structure, which is arranged in 12 chapters, each corresponding to a sign of the zodiac based on the shapes found in the constellations, which are patterns humans saw in the stars and used to create corresponding meanings. This initial contradiction between main character and structure separates the author from his creation. Gardner is showing that there are patterns, even if his character Grendel does not believe in them.

In fact, Grendel's atheism here is as obvious as it is contradictory. Grendel scoffs at religious notions, yet uses religious language to express himself. Looking toward the sky he says, "Him too I hate," implying he is speaking about God. He repeats this type of contradiction later when he dares the dark chasm to seize him, knowing it cannot; he will only fall in if "in a lunatic fit of religion" he jumps. He calls the villagers' prayers "dogmatism," and he brings up abandonment, a well-known idea in the philosophy of existentialism, coined by Jean Paul Sartre and described as the deep sadness individuals feel when they can no longer logically believe in God. "The cold night air is reality ... to show that the world is abandoned," Grendel declares, his words going far beyond the literal, as Grendel often becomes a philosophical mouthpiece in the novel.

Grendel's description of his cave—isolated, dark, damp—stands in sharp contrast with the meadhall and surrounding village, where men and women gather for warmth and safety. Even after the late-night raid leaves the survivors shaken, they come together in daylight to repair what damage they can and to pay respects to their dead. Their song, in a sense, does reflect a feeling of victory. They are still alive. They are together, and they have a sense of community Grendel lacks.

When Grendel describes his war with Hrothgar as "idiotic," he also reveals a disconnection from himself. He calls himself a "pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows," which reflects strongly negative feelings about himself and his quest to destroy Hrothgar, even as he claims he is "neither proud nor ashamed" of his actions. His inability to acknowledge his feelings and actions fully indicates an inability (or unwillingness) to understand his own state of mind.

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