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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Chapter 2 | Summary



Grendel remembers his childhood games, played with imaginary friends. He explores the corners of his cave, vaguely aware of other creatures living down there in the darkness with him and his mother, even though he never sees what they are. One night, he dives through the mere (pond), past the fire snakes, and emerges into the outside world, which frightens but fascinates him. He remembers the way his mother looks at him as a child, their sense of oneness, and her love for him as her creation. Aware of the eyes of the other creatures in the cave, Grendel often feels "alone and ugly." He flings himself at his mother for comfort, then returns to his stalking games in the outside world.

One day, Grendel, lured through the forest by the scent of a calf, gets his foot caught in the crack between two tree trunks and is unable to get himself free. His foot is injured and bleeding, so Grendel calls out for his mother, but she does not hear him. He fears he will die there. Then he sees a bull. His efforts to shoo the bull away only angers the bull, and the animal rams the tree. The bull persists in its attacks from morning through the afternoon, and Grendel falls asleep. When he wakes, the bull is gone and vultures are circling overhead.

That night, Hrothgar and his men happen upon Grendel and the tree. At first, they think Grendel is a fungus killing the tree, but then they decide he is a tree spirit. They speculate that Grendel is hungry—and he is—and Hrothgar sends some of his men to fetch Grendel some pigs. Grendel gets excited about this and cries out for pig. The men are alarmed; only one of them seems to understand what Grendel is saying. The horses are spooked, and Hrothgar throws a battle-ax at Grendel, grazing his shoulder. The men surround Grendel, meaning to kill him, but Grendel's mother finally arrives, knocking down trees in her path. Her noise and stink drive the men away. She frees Grendel and takes him back to the cave. Grendel tries to talk to her, but she only buries him under her bulk.


Grendel's alienation from everything is clear from his account of his childhood as he describes the powerful moment shaping his belief he alone exists. He feels no connection to the creatures whose eyes peer at him in the darkness below; he doesn't even know what those creatures are. They could be, as he imagines while caught in the tree, his own relatives. Under the gaze of these creatures and those in the outside world, Grendel feels disquieting self-awareness. He believes that he is ugly and alone, and that no meaning can be shared or understood with other creatures, even his own mother. To Grendel, everyone is locked in their own minds and ways of looking at the world. Grendel, as a thinker, is obviously more advanced than his "relatives," and why he is more advanced is as much a mystery to Grendel as it is to the reader.

As a child, Grendel's only connection to another living being is to his mother. He is aware of her love for him, even though she does not speak. She clutches him to her body and seems unwilling to let him go. Her dependence on him is clear from her actions, but Grendel is equally dependent on her as a child. He cries for her when he is caught in the tree. As he bleeds and believes he will die there, he feels sorry for himself, but he also feels sorry for "Poor old Mama!" It is a rare moment of empathy for Grendel, as he understands what the loss of her child will mean to his mother, made even more bitter by the possibility she may never know what happened to him. Grendel's mother never leaves the cave, so when she understands he is missing, her instinct to protect him is strong enough to draw her to the surface. Her protective instincts are powerful enough to knock down trees and drive the men away from a great distance. Her anguish for her missing son is evident from the terrible sound she produces and the destruction she leaves in her wake. As Grendel is narrating his childhood experience from a mature perspective, it is interesting to note his comments about how his mother's presence could make the world "snap into position around her." Then right after, he says the world snapped into position around the bull. As much as Grendel says he does not believe in connectedness or an objective reality, he often contradicts his beliefs when speaking of events, as if there is meaning and reality but he chooses to ignore it.

The encounter with Hrothgar and his men also illustrates Grendel's relatively benign intentions and the way the world sees him in a light very different from his intent. In this sense, Grendel is perhaps correct; every viewpoint is subjective, deeply personal to the individual perspective. Grendel is a wounded, young animal in a tree. The men take him for a fungus, a destructive growth that will damage the tree, which must be saved. Only when they consider he might be a protective spirit for the tree do they approach him with care. All of the men see or feel something different in the tree, and all of their versions of what Grendel is have a shade of truth in them. Things seem to be looking up for Grendel when they offer him pigs, but Grendel is doomed to be misunderstood even when his intentions are entirely positive. He is excited to eat after starving in the tree all day. He is excited to have an interaction with these men. They take his joy as aggression and attack him. This scenario, Grendel meaning no harm only to meet with hostility, will play out repeatedly in Grendel's early years, keeping him from the community he craves, and it reveals the men's fear of the unknown, and propensity for violence.

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