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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Chapter 4 | Summary



Grendel notices the Shaper's songs have become more melancholy since he arrived in Hrothgar's court. The Shaper could move on to serve another king, but he remains because he helped create Hrothgar's realm through his songs, inspiring Hrothgar to build his grand meadhall on a hill. Even as he sees the meadhall rise, Grendel thinks Hrothgar's vision is ridiculous. He describes the men acting peacefully, "as if not a man in all that lot had ever twisted a knife in his neighbor's chest." Grendel considers how the Shaper's songs may have genuinely changed the men. As he muses on the Shaper's power, he hears laughter from the meadhall, which annoys him and draws him closer. Grendel steps on the body of a man whose clothes have been stolen and whose throat has been cut. Grendel picks up the body and approaches the hall, annoyed. He hears the Shaper singing of the great God who created the world and of two brothers, "which split all the world between darkness and light" when one killed the other. Grendel is part of the dark side, cursed by God, and Grendel believes the Shaper's story. Distraught, Grendel steps into the hall with the body. He begs for mercy and peace, calling out "friend." They attack him with spears, and Grendel must use the body as a shield as he flees.

Once Grendel escapes he weeps, then grows angry at the attack and swears at the men. He wonders why he has no one to talk to while Hrothgar and the Shaper do, but then he thinks they really don't have anyone, either. Grendel returns to watch the meadhall a few nights later and finds the Shaper singing about him. Grendel says the song is all lies. He angrily returns to his cave. He thinks the Shaper's songs about a loving God who created the world are also lies, but he wants them to be true. He watches his mother in mindless sleep and falls asleep himself. When Grendel wakes, he makes his mind blank and sinks away toward the dragon.


Grendel's observation about the Shaper's option to move on to sing for a different king provides a glimpse at the effect Grendel's war is having on Hrothgar's reputation and standing. The implication is that greener pastures exist for the Shaper; Hrothgar's meadhall is not the shining example Hrothgar intended, and his wealth may be suffering as well. Constant vicious attacks from a monster tend to have an effect on a kingdom.

In Chapter 1, Grendel tells the reader he is not proud nor ashamed; in Chapter 3, he speaks of Hrothgar's and the Shaper's pride, which motivates men, not Grendel. In fact, witnessing human pride infuriates Grendel, bringing into question for the reader Grendel's purpose. Is it religious? Is Grendel's instinct to smash Hrothgar's pride part of his fate? Pride and shame are religious tropes in Judeo-Christianity: Adam and Eve were tempted by the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge by Lucifer posing as a snake. Giving into temptation cast Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, where they experienced shame for the first time. Pride caused Lucifer to fall from God's favor, wanting to be as powerful as God. The religious idea of free will is also an important element in Lucifer's fall in that he chose to rebel against God. It is well known and confirmed by the author that in Grendel, each chapter represents a major mode of thought in Western tradition. Each chapter also aligns with a sign from the zodiac, which John Gardner has said in interviews gives clues to the core philosophy in the chapter. In Chapter 4, which aligns with the zodiac sign Cancer, Grendel comes face to face with Judeo-Christianity and its Lucifer character, the ancient serpent Grendel describes as a dark presence following him. The presence, Grendel wonders, seems to be within and without, and he specifically calls it evil. Grendel confuses snakes and vines as he wrestles with a dark presence throughout the chapter; the Shaper's song mentions Cain and Abel (Adam and Eve's sons). When the Shaper sings, "But lucky the man who ... shall seek the Prince, find peace in his father's embrace!" Grendel says, "Oh what a conversion!" A conversion is very specific to Christianity, as well as the Shaper singing about seeking a prince, which signifies Jesus, who is called the Prince of Peace. Grendel wants to believe in this idea of God but ultimately rejects it. In essence, Grendel moves through the Judeo-Christian spiritual milieu, then rejects it by the end, which spirals him toward the dragon, who Grendel says is "something deeper, an impression from another mind." The reader will wonder whether the dragon is real or something within Grendel. Gardner likely left it ambiguous on purpose, encouraging Grendel to be read literally and figuratively—Grendel is a monster, yet he is also an idea moving through time and the community living in that time.

At the heart of Grendel's rejection of the god the Shaper describes is his jealousy, which in Judeo-Christianity is considered evil. It is no accident that Grendel is teeming with jealousy in this chapter, where Cain and Abel are mentioned. Cain killed Abel because he was jealous of his brother. Grendel is jealous of the Shaper's power. He looks at the Shaper from different angles and mimics him, speaking poetically, trying to shape reality, too. Earlier, Hrothgar's goodness makes Grendel jealous and his heart "leaden with grief at [his] own bloodthirsty ways." Like the crab, which signifies the zodiac sign of Cancer, Grendel's jealousy creates a hard shell around him and makes him scuttle in the darkness, backing away from the light. Grendel must use mental tricks to ease his jealousy, such as convincing himself it is not the Shaper who is powerful but art itself; or the Shaper is like a bird, not truly conscious of what he is even saying. Hrothgar's descendants will be greedy: all excuses to ease Grendel's destructive jealousy. Grendel contradicts his own understanding as he struggles with his own dark thoughts and the dark presence following him, perhaps tempting him; his belief in the Shaper and Hrothgar's goodness bleeds through his narrative, even as he rejects everything.

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