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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Chapter 8 | Summary



Hrothulf, Hrothgar's 14-year-old nephew, comes to live at the meadhall after his father dies. While the Shaper sings to celebrate the boy's arrival, Grendel spots more sinister intentions in the new arrival. Grendel imagines Hrothulf's thoughts as he moves through the woods, his mind filled with thoughts against the king and queen, to "snatch my daylight by violent will and be glorified for the deed, like him." Grendel observes Hrothgar, and Wealtheow also noticing the boy's intentions.

After Hrothulf's first year at the meadhall, Grendel sees growing signs of violence in the boy. He watches as Hrothulf meets with a peasant who serves as Hrothulf's counselor and promises to help him overthrow the king. The peasant tells Hrothulf that violence is a necessary part of overthrowing the kingdom, but the kingdom deserves this violence because of the violence the kingdom does to the people. Laws and government only exist to protect the powerful and keep power out of the hands of the common people. He tells Hrothulf to ingratiate himself with the king's thanes, drive out the ones that won't play along, keep the workers in line, and answer challenges with cries of "Law!" and "Common good!" The peasant views the entire process as a pure exchange of power, of might conquering might.

Grendel sees Wealtheow in a stage of denial about the threat Hrothulf poses to her husband and her children, but Hrothgar has no such illusions, even though he cannot turn out his dead brother's son. Hrothulf is only one of many threats to his legacy Hrothgar faces these days. Aside from the monster that continues to assault his hall, Hrothgar knows his alliance with Wealtheow's brother will only last through his lifetime and will not apply to his children. Other threats from other kings who might overthrow a living Hrothgar are more pressing, and Hrothgar knows he may or may not be able to buy peace through tributes of the marriage of his daughter. Grendel remembers the "swollen-headed raider, full of boasts and stupid jokes and mead" Hrothgar was in his younger years, the Hrothgar who repeatedly attacked Grendel; Grendel feels no hesitation about continuing his attacks on the meadhall.


Grendel catches on to Hrothulf's propensity for violence almost immediately after the boy arrives in Hrothgar's hall. Hrothulf, so Grendel imagines, is like Grendel: isolated and prone to violence, not idealism or glory-seeking. Finding a human to identify with takes Grendel to a new level, as his imagination leaps in this chapter and he constructs scenarios, dialogue, and dreams. Grendel has become creative, and he now considers Hrothgar his own creation—a reference to the dragon's explanation that the men need to be able to fight Grendel to facilitate their own improvement—and asserts his right to test the limits of his creation. As much as Grendel enjoys seeing Hrothgar struggle, if Hrothgar were replaced as king, it raises the question whether Grendel could feel the same sense of purpose attacking an enemy with whom he shares no long history. The war with Hrothgar is the only connection Grendel has with another living creature. Even though the connection is based on mutual animosity, it is important to Grendel's identity.

Hrothgar's precarious position demonstrates how his past deeds are coming back to haunt him. Grendel believes Hrothulf feels entitled to take Hrothgar's realm by force because Hrothgar did the same in building the kingdom, as seen in the use of the words like him in Hrothulf's imagined internal monologue. The other kings who seek to dethrone Hrothgar also feel the same entitlement to use the same force against Hrothgar that Hrothgar used in his youth to build the kingdom. Grendel's focus on his image of Hrothgar as a younger man, the braggart drunkard conquering lands, keeps Hrothgar's past actions at the fore, easing Grendel's increasingly guilty conscience. Even the dream Grendel creates for Hrothgar is a retelling of their first meeting in the forest, when Hrothgar threw the battle-ax at Grendel.

In the estimation of at least some of his people, Hrothgar's violence did not end with kingdom-building. The peasants of Hrothgar's realm work hard and receive little food. Hrothulf's peasant adviser, Red Horse, cites the king's violence and oppression of the people as he encourages Hrothulf to overthrow Hrothgar. Not that the peasant believes Hrothulf occupies any kind of moral high ground; the adviser is driven by deep resentment toward Hrothgar, as are all of Hrothgar's enemies. The complex exploration of "public force," mass organization of society, and government systems in the chapter goes far beyond what would be expected for the period depicted in the novel, hinting at modern Marxist theories of communism and socialism. Yet Grendel, as narrator, can understand all the intricacies and uses them as fodder to build imaginary scenarios and speak in poetry. Grendel has evolved beyond his human counterparts (except Red Horse, the peasant), implying that the monster is much more sophisticated than the humans, whose understanding, consciousness, and awareness seem to dim as Grendel grows brighter.

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