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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Chapter 6 | Summary



Even though Grendel does not fully understand the dragon, he leaves the meeting with a sense of "futility" and "doom" that he can't escape. He also discovers the dragon has made him impervious to weapons. Grendel returns to Hrothgar's meadhall, only to observe. He has no intention of scaring the men on purpose, but as Grendel listens to the Shaper and the people celebrate God's bounty in the harvest, a guard happens upon him. The guard attacks Grendel with his sword, which has no effect. As Grendel and the guard fight, other men join in with spears and swords, but Grendel remains unhurt. Grendel backs away with the guard in hand and bites the man's head off in full view of the crowd before escaping into the forest.

A few nights later, Grendel makes his first raid, taking seven men from their beds and eating them. He continues the raids for several months; sometimes the men rise from their beds in an attempt to fight. On one such night, Unferth, known as a great hero among Hrothgar's men, attempts to attack Grendel. Grendel mocks Unferth's walk and his speech before pelting him with apples.

Later that night, Grendel awakens in his cave to see his mother stalking something, and discovers Unferth is there. Unferth came to kill Grendel, but he did not estimate the difficulty of the journey to the cave, the water, and the fire snakes. Still, Unferth believes his death will become a topic of songs, even as he denounces poetry and fairy tales. Grendel refuses to kill Unferth, and Unferth threatens to kill himself. Then Unferth falls asleep. Grendel returns Unferth to Hrothgar's doorstep, but he kills two guards to "make [his] meaning clear." Unferth lives on, and periodically attempts to challenge Grendel's attacks, season after season.


Grendel finds his newfound invincibility somewhat disappointing. It removes his final connection to the men and makes him go further into darkness. "Though I scorned them, sometimes hated them, there had been something between myself and the men when we could fight," Grendel says. The connection of battle lies in the possibility that anything is possible; either opponent can get the upper hand. It is, at least, an honest interaction, and it was the only real interaction Grendel had before the dragon put a charm on him. With this final barrier between Grendel and the rest of the world in place, Grendel abandons any remaining desire he may have had to do no harm to the men.

As the dragon implies, Grendel's actions make no difference. The men will attack him no matter what he does, so he lashes out in the only way he can. Also, Grendel has fully embraced the dragon's philosophy, and this is the outcome, which is the main point of the chapter. The dragon has confused Grendel and taken away whatever sense of choice or free will Grendel is using to find meaning in his existence; the dragon's charm makes him feel mechanical, like the other animals he detests, subject to instinct alone, without reasoning, without language. However, the dragon has so thoroughly tricked Grendel that the reader will wonder if he is acting by instinct or simply suppressing the good inclinations he has. Is being a monster his true destiny or calling, his fate, or did the dragon take him over in some way? After all, he is charmed now and cannot be killed. This points to some mystical relationship with the dragon, and at one point in the chapter, Grendel feels the dragon as if it is a mist around him.

In retrospect, Grendel says Unferth was his salvation before recalling their first encounter. When Grendel comes up against Unferth's innocence and idealism, it extinguishes his wrath, and mocking him brings more joy than killing Unferth will. It is telling that Grendel cannot bring himself to kill Unferth, even if he is rejecting the thane's lofty idealism and ridiculous heroism. There is still hope for Grendel; witnessing "a new kind of Scylding" causes a new shift in Grendel's interior life. He wholly identifies with Unferth's search for meaning, desire to shape reality, and need to follow a higher calling. Grendel makes a sly confession in this chapter, too; he says that if Unferth were to cry—"If for even an instant he pretended to misery like mine"—Grendel would have killed him. This shows the depth of the monster's isolation, the intensity of his pain, and perhaps why he is so angry toward the human community.

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