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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Chapter 5 | Summary



Grendel arrives at the dragon's lair, a cave stuffed with gold, silver, and jewels. He sees the dragon resting on top of a pile of this treasure. The dragon greets him and cautions him to stand clear of potential fire that the dragon might breathe or cough. He recognizes Grendel's fear in his presence, and compares Grendel's fear of him with the fear men have for Grendel. This similarity makes the dragon laugh, and he becomes serious when Grendel picks up an emerald to throw at him, telling Grendel never to touch his things.

Grendel has decided to stay away from the men, feeling it is unfair to scare them for fun, but the dragon says, "Why not frighten them?" The dragon is impatient with Grendel and advises him to "seek out gold—but not my gold—and guard it!" He tells Grendel the Shaper's stories are an illusion and explains how, as a dragon, he has seen the past, present, and future. The dragon mocks men's obsession with facts and theories, saying they have "dim apprehensions" these theories are wrong, so they rely on the Shapers to pull together their reality. He talks about other ages and how everything comes and goes repeatedly over the long span of time.

Grendel struggles to follow the dragon's train of thought, but the dragon addresses Grendel's specific dilemma. He tells Grendel he improves the men by giving them something to think about and plot against. All their science, religion, and poetry evolves in response to the threat Grendel poses, and Grendel might as well scare them because if he doesn't, he will be replaced by a different monster. Grendel resolves to do something else, and the dragon mocks him again, saying his own ambition is to count and sort his hoard of treasure. He again advises Grendel to get his own pile of gold to sit on.


The dragon represents an objective, detached view of reality. He is all-seeing, and he understands the connections between all things and the futility of action. The dragon wholly rejects free will, contradictorily arguing everything is predestined, so his choices turn out to be fate. He encourages Grendel not to ask questions or seek meaning but to do nothing and act as he pleases (Why not scare Hrothgar's men?), but his contradictions imply that he is lying to Grendel and tricking him. He uses cold reasoning and logic to espouse chaos and randomness theories, which are not predictive. If everything is random, how can the dragon have seen the past, present, and future? The dragon's logic is faulty; Grendel cannot follow the dragon's theories, but he still senses he is being lied to. Grendel even shyly tries to tell the dragon what the Shaper said about a god who created the world, hoping the dragon will confirm it. Grendel rejects his own intuition and clings instead to the dragon's version of the truth. The reader will perhaps pity Grendel or begin to root for him to find something to believe in or redemption.

The dragon explains how the Shaper's songs and stories help the men make sense of the contradictions in their reality, the conflict between what they know to be true, what they suspect to be true, and what they want to be true. Grendel has a similar problem. Yet, the dragon contradicts himself again. The dragon argues that the Shaper uses illusion to show the connectedness of creatures and nature to the people, which the dragon says earlier is the true reality in the world. This implies there is meaning, but Grendel misses the implication. The dragon also explains Grendel's importance to the men. They need a villain for the narrative they tell themselves, in order to make sense of their own lies. Paradoxically, the dragon's story is just that—another story Grendel hears and uses to try to make sense of his life. The dragon has shaped his reality into one in which nothing ultimately matters because the story he knows and tells encompasses the vast swath of all time. Grendel and the men embrace other stories to make sense of the limited slices of time they experience. Whether dragon, monster, or man, however, each of them is creating a reality through the narratives they create for themselves. Even Grendel itself, a narrative from the viewpoint of the monster, represents an attempt for Grendel to tell his story and shape a reality for himself instead of leaving reality to be shaped by others. The importance of perspective is not lost on Grendel, as he experiences the fear the men have of him when he meets the dragon. That fear is the men's reality and their motivation. Grendel's fear of the dragon is his reality, and it motivates him to a different understanding of his role in his own story and in the Shaper's stories.

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