Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

Grendel recognizes his ability to destroy all of Hrothgar's men in a single night, but he holds back. He reflects on the progress of his war with Hrothgar and counts his blessings: sound teeth, sound cave, and his ability to refrain from "the ultimate act of nihilism," killing the queen. Then Grendel recalls how the queen, Wealtheow, comes to live at the meadhall during the second year of his war on Hrothgar. At this point, Hrothgar's position and reputation have been severely compromised by his inability to defend his hall against the monster's attacks. Other kings present a threat to Hrothgar's realm as a result, so Hrothgar gathers an army and marches to another king's hall. King Hygmod recognizes the threat posed by Hrothgar's forces and offers gifts to make peace, the most important of which is his sister, Wealtheow. Grendel watches from afar and is overwhelmed by her beauty. Hrothgar accepts Wealtheow as his wife, and the marriage creates an alliance between the two kings.

Grendel spends the winter avoiding raids on the meadhall, hiding in his cave and punching the walls in frustration. His mother pities him but is unable to alleviate her child's suffering. Grendel does go to spy on the meadhall, watching Wealtheow serve the men, and keeping the peace when they argue. The Shaper sings songs about new topics, "comfort, beauty, a wisdom softer, more permanent, than Hrothgar's." When one of the men accuses Unferth of killing his own brother, Wealtheow steps in with a smile and says that happened in the past, which instantly softens Unferth.

Grendel also sees Wealtheow's private grief at being separated from her family and married to an old man. When her brother comes to visit in winter, Grendel sees her joy. Even though Grendel is fixated on Wealtheow to the point of obsession, he resists the urge to attack the meadhall for months. When he does resume his raids, during the visit from Wealtheow's brother he bursts into Wealtheow's bedroom. The men of the meadhall, including Hrothgar and Wealtheow's brother, are too terrified to defend the queen, yet Grendel does not kill her. He thinks about it and changes his mind. After he leaves the meadhall, he claims to be over his fascination with Wealtheow. He then considers killing himself "for love of the Baby Grendel that used to be," but in the next moment, he changes his mind about that as well.

Analysis

Wealtheow's presence in the meadhall precipitates an unraveling for Grendel. He feels paralyzed to attack the hall while she is there, and he is confused by the protective feelings for her. His comments about her beauty and her presence, as well as the nature of his attack on her in her bed—which veers dangerously close to a rape—indicate that Grendel feels desire for Wealtheow. However, her presence "teases" Grendel toward disbelieving the dragon's truths. Wealtheow represents something beyond reason, "mother's love," and perhaps the general qualities of goodness and love. At this point, Grendel considers anything coming between his fixed view of reality as a trap. His capricious decision to attack her, followed by his midattack decision to kill her, followed by the decision not to kill her expose how her influence has left Grendel unable to clear his thoughts and commit the actions that should come easily to him. Near the start of the chapter, Grendel calls killing the queen "the ultimate act of nihilism"—a rejection of all moral principals and religious sentiments—and this idea echoes in his realization during the attack that killing her would be "meaningless." Grendel still carries the dragon's influence with him, but he also wants his actions to mean something, especially where Wealtheow is concerned. While he claims to be disgusted by Wealtheow after his attack on her and "cured" of his feelings for her, he also momentarily contemplates suicide. He is as capricious about his own death as he has been about Wealtheow's, but his reference to Baby Grendel implies a measure of guilt about the machine he has become—killing and terrorizing for pleasure—in contrast with the relatively innocent creature who killed for food. Grendel's thoughts are not unusual, as most adults feel some sorrow for the loss of childhood innocence, but the move toward suicide confirms the self-loathing that has crept around the edges of Grendel's being for years.

Chapter 7 breaks structural consistency with the rest of Grendel, as an omniscient narrative voice breaks in to describe Grendel observing three lightning-struck trees, portents that point to Christianity and the three crosses on Golgatha, where Jesus was crucified. The narrative voice says Grendel is looking for signs, and "Oh man, us portents!" suggests the viewpoint here is that of the trees or the signs Grendel seeks. Perhaps Gardner is making the point that more is happening than Grendel is aware of. Several threads of magic appear unexplained in the novel: Grendel is charmed by the dragon, and during this particular winter, Grendel is also unable to kill humans for some unknown reason. "I couldn't lay a hand on them, prevented as if by a charm," Grendel tells the reader. If Grendel can be charmed by the dragon, who represents darkness, then it is possible goodness or light could also be a force. As it is Wealtheow's presence that coincides with the charm acting as a barrier, perhaps it is the power of love stopping Grendel, even if he is unaware of it. He believes he is the one who decides not to kill Wealtheow, but the structure in the chapter calls his viewpoint into question.

Another break in the narrative structure in Grendel happens in this chapter when an obvious cut ("Time-space cross-section ... Cut A:") signifies Grendel's flashback to when he first saw Wealtheow. This connects to the omniscient narrator describing how Grendel "lies on the cliff-edge, scratching his belly, and thoughtfully watches his thoughtfully watching the queen." The form of the chapter is self-conscious, matching Grendel's self-consciousness, and the author is drawing attention to the narrative construct on purpose. Instead of seamlessly weaving the past into Grendel's narrative, he makes a filmic cut to show that memory is a form of time travel, perhaps the only true form of traveling to the past, unless the dragon is telling the truth and the past, present, and future are all happening simultaneously. Even if the contradictions are not resolved, the central focus of the chapter is an exploration on time, as it begins with Grendel's metaphor of being like a boat headed toward hell, mast up to poke out heaven's eye, riding out time.

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