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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Chapter 12 | Summary



Grendel enters the hall, shattering the heavy door with a light touch. He thinks the Geats are asleep and ties a tablecloth around his neck as a napkin in his excitement to eat them. He kills and eats one of the men, but he finds his next intended victim, the stranger, is only pretending to sleep. The stranger watches Grendel make his first kill, studying Grendel's methods. The stranger grabs Grendel's arm, which is painful for the monster. Grendel envisions wings on the stranger's back, but the image quickly fades and returns to reality.

Hero and monster grapple, but the stranger gets the upper hand when Grendel slips on the bloody floor. The stranger whispers words that chill and burn Grendel; he says Grendel's vision of the world as one of his own making is incorrect, and reality exists beyond Grendel's own experience of it. Grendel calls for his mother and tells the stranger that if he wins, it is only by chance because Grendel slipped on the floor. The stranger responds by smashing Grendel into a wall and forcing him to sing of the wall's existence. Then the stranger rips off Grendel's arm. Blind with pain and bleeding profusely, Grendel imagines the stranger with white wings and breathing fire. Grendel runs for the door and cries out for his mother as he makes his way back to his cave. At the edge of a cliff, Grendel stops. The animals gather to watch Grendel die, and Grendel can feel their eyes on him. He questions the feeling he has at this moment and wonders if it is joy. In his last words, Grendel says he has had an accident and says, "So may you all."


Grendel's death is undignified, placing him on a level with the animals and men he has scorned over the years. In the same way Grendel once mocked Unferth and his view of himself as a hero, the stranger now mocks Grendel's worldview. Grendel has spent his life enmeshed in the belief that he creates and controls his own reality, but the stranger hits him with the truth in the form of a literal brick wall. He forces Grendel to acknowledge the existence of the wall, which breaks down the wall Grendel has built between himself and reality. During the battle, Grendel fights to retain the "truth" the dragon taught him, as he engages in a mystical battle of words, a clash of viewpoints, but the stranger uses words in a prayer-like manner to access a force far more powerful than Grendel's will or poetry. Paradoxically, after using words almost like a magic spell on Grendel, the stranger proves things exist beyond the realm of Grendel's mind. The reader will wonder how the stranger comes to know Grendel's viewpoint, what lesson Grendel needs to learn before he dies, and how to deliver the lesson. When Grendel envisions wings on the stranger's back and fire from his mouth, Grendel associates the stranger with the dragon; thus, Grendel comes to understand the interconnectedness of all things, which the dragon spoke of long ago. The stranger's powers can only be supernatural.

Grendel's indignity continues as he dies. He claims repeatedly his death was an accident, a twist of chance—a trick—the stranger has played on him. Grendel cannot accept the possibility he has been overpowered by superior strength and cunning, nor does he consider this was how he was destined to die. Instead, he cries "Wa!" and calls out for his mother as he did in childhood, when he was stuck in a tree and Hrothgar threw an ax at him. Now his association with Hrothgar ends in roughly the same terms, tears and a bleeding wound, as the novel comes full circle, reinforcing the idea connected to the prefatory verse from William Blake's poem "The Mental Traveller." Grendel, on a figurative level, is only an ideology, his character a philosophical mouthpiece very similar to rationality and existentialism, and his death represents the death of a philosophical way of thinking. Further, Grendel's calls for his mother allude to the source text of Beowulf, in which Grendel's mother does emerge from her cave after Grendel's death to seek revenge on the men who killed her child.

On the literal level, Grendel's moment of death and his last words are deliberately ambiguous, a reflection of the contradictory feelings Grendel has expressed throughout his life. He asks, "Is it joy I feel?" The monotony of Grendel's life has been permanently broken, as death releases Grendel from the isolation and self-loathing he has felt for most of his days. The joy he feels when the stranger arrives in Chapter 11 and at the moment of his death in Chapter 12 gives readers hope that Grendel has fulfilled his purpose as a part of nature and he will find redemption after death. At the same time, Grendel has resisted his death to this moment—crying and screaming, shifting blame for the accident—and his character is a bitter and violent creature. In that respect, his last words ring as a curse, "so may you all suffer" as Grendel has suffered. However, it is more likely his final statement reads more like a hope, "so may you all" find the release and understanding Grendel has found.

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