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Grendel | Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

Grendel sees the onset of winter and the longest night of the year, and he feels uneasy for reasons he can't identify. He watches one of Hrothgar's men hunting a deer in the forest. When he sees the deer fall to the man's arrow, Grendel takes it as an omen.

Grendel later watches Hrothgar's men praying to the carved images of their gods, which stand in a circle near the meadhall. They pray to the Great Destroyer to defend Hrothgar's realm against his enemy, which amuses Grendel because he is the enemy they are praying to defeat. Grendel observes that the priests' actions seem to be more for show than rooted in any real sense of conviction. The same can be said of the people. When Grendel destroyed the god circle years ago, only the priests seemed bothered by the destruction. The people set up the toppled images again, but this was more a hedge against the possibility that the gods were real than any sense of true faith. Even Grendel is too bored with religion to try wrecking the shrine again.

As Grendel sits near the circle at midnight, he is aware of the hall's inhabitants—Hrothgar, Wealtheow, Unferth—either sleeping fitfully or not at all. Then Grendel hears a priest approach the circle. Ork declares himself the oldest and wisest of the priests, and he senses Grendel's presence and asks who is there. Grendel pretends to be one of the gods, the Destroyer, and he asks Ork about the King of the Gods. Ork gives a lengthy explanation of his vision of god as the basis for all reality, the limitation on the possibilities of human experience, and then he explains the only real evil is the passage of time and the way choices exclude all other choices. He is moved to tears as he describes his worldview. Four other priests approach the circle and ask Ork what he is doing. They do not believe he has talked to the Destroyer and decide the old man is losing his mind. They fear Ork's instability might cost all of them their positions. A fourth priest, a young man, believes Ork has had a vision of the Destroyer and is overjoyed to see Ork break through the rationality that has been his trademark. All the priests, including Ork, dismiss the young priest's interpretation of these events.

Grendel moves on, as he does not make a habit of raiding the meadhall in winter. Everyone inside is asleep except Unferth, who does not see Grendel. Grendel considers hibernating in his cave and moves on toward it, feeling uneasy.

Analysis

The image of the archer shooting the deer references the zodiac sign for Sagittarius, associated with late autumn and early winter. Grendel is dimly aware that a change of some kind is coming, as seen in the sense of foreboding that also closes the chapter when he has a vision of a black sun in the forest. That change will bring the hero (to whom Grendel refers as the stranger) who will destroy Grendel, but Grendel has no way of knowing this. Grendel's uneasy feelings indicate his powerlessness to change the events that are to come. Grendel misses the signs but they serve as cues to the reader, who can interpret such mysteries as winged creatures in the snow, which signify angels. The discrepancy between Grendel the character, and the author's perception, released to the reader through contradictions between the narrative and Grendel, is important, indicating repeatedly that there is more than Grendel understands.

Grendel's attention turns to religion, just as the previous chapter featured government. However, Chapter 9 is the heart of the novel. During an interview, John Gardner boiled down Grendel, saying it is essentially a book of faith, where in every value Grendel is offered to believe in—such as love or heroism—he rationalizes away. The hypocrisy Grendel perceives in these priests leads him to mock Ork during their late-night encounter. Grendel impersonates the Destroyer god as a joke, a way of passing the time and distracting himself from his own uneasiness about the future. Yet Grendel is stunned when Ork has something like a true vision, defying Grendel's expectations. Whereas Grendel previously knocked down the men's wooden gods and ate priests, he cannot break up a vision like he would wooden sticks, and his reason, like Ork's, is overcome.

Ork appears to be one of the few priests who have genuine beliefs. When they discover Ork out in the snow, the other priests dismiss Ork's meeting with the Destroyer as the product of a disturbed mind. They are not particularly concerned for Ork in this instance, but they are very concerned with how his seeming madness will affect their reputation. Yet Ork and the other priests speak in an ancient tongue, more similar to Grendel's language. This suggests a mystical relationship between them, and it serves as more evidence the dragon has lied to Grendel. It also raises the possibility that Grendel is the Destroyer; he just doesn't know it. Also, Ork's name is perhaps a nod to William Blake's character Orc, who appears in four of Blake's prophetic books.

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