Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Chapter 3 | Summary



Grendel doesn't hold Hrothgar's attack with the ax against him. Instead, he watches as Hrothgar builds his kingdom. Grendel sees small bands of men roaming the countryside, battling each other and building villages as their numbers grow. Grendel observes the activity in these villages: the walls decorated with tapestries, the women farming and cooking, the men celebrating their last victory and planning the next. He sees the men congregate in the meadhalls and occasionally break into arguments that become deadly. If a man kills another man, the killer is either excused for his action or exiled for it.

Later, Grendel notices the men's talk becoming more violent—they will raid their neighbors and take their gold—as the villages become more prosperous. He hears them make declarations of war and sees the burned ruins of a meadhall surrounded by slaughtered animals and people. Only the gold has been taken. Soon after the wars begin in earnest; Grendel hears Shapers in other meadhalls singing of the glories of war as the men celebrate. Then Grendel sees these halls invaded by enemies, saying, "Sometimes the attackers would be driven back, sometimes they'd win and burn the meadhall down, sometimes they'd capture the king of the meadhall and make his people give weapons and gold rings and cows." Grendel is mostly offended by the wasted meat of the dead animals and people left in the wake of the fighting.

Hrothgar begins to "outstrip the rest," forming alliances with his neighbors who send tributes of weapons and gold in exchange for protection. Hrothgar builds roads to transport these goods more easily, which gives rise to more meadhalls and villages—and wealth for Hrothgar. A blind man comes to Hrothgar's court and sings about great kings of the past. The men and Grendel listen to the glorification of the old kings and the new king Hrothgar, but Grendel also remembers the way the wars started and the savagery. Grendel is angered and frightened by the song, but fascinated by the Shaper.


Grendel reveals a forgiving nature when he lets go of any grudge he might have held against Hrothgar for throwing an ax at him. Granted, Grendel was not severely injured by the attack, but he also understands the motivation of a creature operating by instinct. He bears Hrothgar no ill will for his actions, but his forgiveness causes him to ignore the real threat Hrothgar poses to his own way of life by taming the wild country Grendel occupies. Grendel gets his first taste of Hrothgar's destructive potential as he watches the fighting between the bands of men roaming the countryside escalate into all-out war.

The connection between Grendel and the men, who have nothing to stop their advance, suggests Grendel is perhaps a natural predator whose purpose it is to keep men in check. As a creature who follows his instincts and kills other creatures for food, enjoying the stalking and hunting, Grendel is not especially different from any other wild predator or even the men who eat meat. Grendel kills cows, but those cows were always meant to be meat for somebody; his killing serves a concrete purpose. When Grendel sees the remains of the victims of the men's warring—the charred bodies of people and cattle left to rot—he has difficulty understanding why this is happening. When he hears the men talking about killing other villagers and taking their gold, Grendel is bothered by the lust for violence. Despite his rage and isolation, Grendel does not appear to have considered the possibility of killing for other reasons; all the wasted meat bothers him, and he attempts to salvage what he can from what he finds. While Grendel minimizes his objections in the narrative, this waste is not a small point as it exposes the waste and savagery of all war. As the novel progresses, Grendel will become more like the men, killing for sport, malice, or revenge. In this chapter, the relationship between Grendel, the monster, and humans is established. Sharing a similar language, Grendel notices "we were, incredibly, related."

In almost every chapter, Grendel has an interaction with a tree. In Chapter 3, Grendel describes watching men's greed and violence from the safety of a tree. Grendel is at a crossroad here, more terrified of the men than they are of him. The men's attraction to gold and cruelty stirs a new instinct in Grendel. Also, the greed for gold in Chapter 3 alludes to a line in the prefatory poem by William Blake, where an old woman, referring to a baby born a boy, "Catches his shrieks in cups of gold." The poem seems to come to life within the chapter: the animals shriek from the violence of men; the men shriek violently at each other; and Grendel shrieks "violent, to the rims of the world ... like a thousand tortured rat-squeals" by the end of the chapter. In Blake's mythology, gold is likened to the root of evil, yet Blake uses the word golden positively when not referring to metal objects of material value. Grendel does the same when he describes the Shaper's songs as golden.

Grendel's response to hearing the Shaper sing for the first time is complicated. In retrospect, as Grendel narrates the past, he suggests the Shaper, who is "inspired by winds" strong enough to lead him to Hrothgar, actually accesses some guiding or natural force powerful enough to make men go "mad on art" and tear Grendel apart emotionally, as the novel explores the mystical power and source of poetry. In his youth, Grendel is drawn in by the Shaper's songs, just like all the men in Hrothgar's meadhall. The songs glorify the same violence and conquering behavior Grendel has seen around him for months, maybe years—the precise time span for the wars is only described in Grendel's vague term, "season after season." Grendel understands the Shaper's power to inspire the men to continue their activities and conquer further, which will lead to more death and destruction. The landscape will continue to change, which does represent an immediate threat to a creature such as Grendel.

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