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Grendel | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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What does the ram represent in Chapter 1 of Grendel?

The ram stands on the side of a hill, looking down at rubble below. Grendel says the ram is in the midst of mating season, following these instincts mindlessly, mechanically, which earns Grendel's contempt. The ram refuses to be moved or otherwise affected by Grendel's shouting and stamping, which underlines Grendel's irrelevance and isolation in nature, increasing Grendel's frustration. The ram is also a symbol in astrology, affiliated with the constellation Aries, interpreted as a ram in Western culture. It is the first sign in the astrological zodiac, which fits with the ram's appearance in Grendel's first chapter. While astrology is an imprecise area of study, the sign is associated with the month of April, hence spring and renewal, as the ram appears in conjunction with spring and renewal in Grendel's world. Personality traits associated with this sign include activity, energy, and daring, alongside flaws such as egotism and impatience. These traits are evident in Grendel's character development, starting with his decision to raid Hrothgar's meadhall at the end of the chapter.

Why does Grendel say his laughter and his "gasping and sobbing" are "mostly fake" in Chapter 1 of Grendel?

As Grendel observes the ram, he claims he does not think of himself as more noble than this ram he holds in contempt as an undignified creature, slave to its instincts. He cries out, "Ah, sad one, poor old freak!" It is unclear from context whether he is talking about the ram or himself, but he may be drawing a connection between both of them, alone in the countryside, both freakish in Grendel's estimation. He describes crying and laughing until he falls to the ground gasping and sobbing, but he claims these histrionics are "mostly fake" in parentheses. This claim seems unreliable given Grendel's other expressions of emotion, especially rage, in the chapter. Instead, the claim may be an attempt to cover a moment of vulnerability and an attempt to distance himself from any similarity he sees between this ram, which he obviously holds in a high level of contempt, and himself.

Why does the deer run from Grendel in Chapter 1 of Grendel, and what does this retreat reveal about him?

After Grendel leaves the ram on the hillside, as he moves toward Hrothgar's meadhall, Grendel encounters a doe in a clearing. She "goes stiff at sight of [his] horridness, then remembers her legs and is gone." Grendel, already in a foul mood from his encounter with the ram, becomes angry and claims, "Blind prejudice!" It is a brief encounter, but it presents some indication of Grendel's place in the world and his appearance. Grendel provides few details about his own appearance, only dropping hints at his shagginess and calling himself a monster. He stinks of the animals and humans he has killed, as he indicates early in the chapter, and his attacks on Hrothgar's men indicate great strength and size, but the specifics are few. However, the doe's reaction to seeing Grendel—first freezing in terror then running away—shows how fearsome he is. Grendel takes offense at this reaction, at the doe's assumption he means her harm based only on his appearance. Later chapters show that early in his life, before commencing his war with Hrothgar, he hunted for food but not to cause terror or harm. The doe's flight and Grendel's reaction to her reaction reveal his feelings of rejection from the world, as well as a refusal to recognize that he might have brought some of that rejection upon himself.

How does Grendel feel when he attacks the meadhall in Chapter 1 of Grendel?

Grendel's feelings when he approaches the meadhall are mixed. He has brought rage with him; describes himself as "burning with murderous lust." He has no outlet for expressing any other form of lust. At the same time, he thinks about the disgust he felt for his mother and their cave when he was a child and sighs with a hint of depression about his lot. Yet when he enters the meadhall, Grendel is smiling, and he laughs at the thanes who rise in an attempt to fight him. For all his feelings of isolation and possible accompanying sadness, Grendel enjoys these attacks. He makes no attempt to hide his enjoyment, either. His laughter indicates contempt for the men who try to thwart him and his supreme confidence. Grendel may be a lonely and isolated creature, but raiding Hrothgar's meadhall provides him a place in the world and a means of expressing his frustration with the humans who reject him.

What is the significance of the way Grendel's mother is presented in Chapters 1 and 2 of Grendel?

Grendel describes his mother as a "pale slightly glowing fat" creature who lives in darkness. She does not speak. When Grendel asks her about their living conditions, she makes gestures to discourage his questions. Grendel speculates she feels guilt for "some unremembered, perhaps ancestral crime," and assumes this means she has "some human in her." Presumably, the sense of guilt comes from having human ancestry, and at no point in the novel does Grendel express guilt for anything he has done. Still, if his mother "has some human in her," this means Grendel does as well. Grendel's mother is largely inactive, remaining in the cave and picking through piles of bones—hence, her paleness. As a child, she has a compulsion to hold Grendel close to her body "as if to make [him] a part of her flesh again." Grendel believes she feels a sense of ownership toward him as her creation, but during his childhood, he displays the same dependence on her. He frequently cries for her when he is young, calls to her when he is in trouble, and craves her physical attention when he needs comfort. She is also fiercely protective of her child and more ferocious and terrifying than he is when moved to action. The only occasion in which she ventures out of her cave is to save him from Hrothgar's men, who attack Grendel when he is caught in a tree. Her great mass is implied when Grendel describes trees falling in her path and her stench preceding her from a mile away. Her sound is "like a thousand hurricanes." She is an all-encompassing presence for the young Grendel, and she provides the connection he needs during these early years. Later, when her inability to respond to Grendel's thoughts and questions becomes a hindrance to their relationship, Grendel begins to pull away from her.

How does Grendel feel during his first forays into the outside world in Chapter 2 of Grendel?

Grendel finds his way through the mere, which is a swamp or pond, and out of the cave into a moonlit world, but when he first peeks into the outside world, he goes no further than the mouth of the cave. He ventures out on subsequent nights cautiously, "darting from tree to tree." He doesn't want to be seen. In the cave, he is dimly aware of other creatures down there with him and his mother, although he is never certain what they are (if they are more creatures like him or something else). He knows they look on him with indifference, but they make him self-conscious. He flees to his mother for comfort. In the outside world, he experiences other eyes looking on him, the same self-consciousness, and this, too, makes him run to her for comfort. But he continues to return to his playing outside, enjoying games and stalking through the dark with imaginary friends. He has no real friends because he is unable to connect with the creatures above or below, so he is forced to invent them. The isolation does not seem to bother him when he is young; he is sustained by his mother's love.

What does the bull represent in Chapter 2 of Grendel?

On the surface, the bull represents the very real dangers of the outside world. Even though Grendel is a monster, when he encounters the bull, he is a vulnerable child. At the same time, the bull operates on instinct, and Grendel compares him to a machine in his approach to the tree. The bull aims too low to do any real damage to Grendel or the tree, but the bull also lacks any kind of thought process that might allow the creature to adjust his behavior. Like the ram in Chapter 1, the bull in Chapter 2 has a corresponding zodiac symbol, Taurus. Taurus the bull, like Aries the ram, is associated with springtime and youth, so it is fitting Grendel encounters the bull while he is a child. While astrology is an imprecise area of study, personality traits associated with Taurus include stubbornness and persistence, as evidenced by the bull's repeated assaults on Grendel and the tree where he is stuck, which last from morning through the afternoon. Grendel can be said to have the same streak of stubbornness in later chapters, as his repeated assaults on Hrothgar's meadhall mirror the bull ramming the tree. Neither creature gets the result he wants, yet each persists.

What does the first interaction Grendel has with humans in Chapter 2 of Grendel reveal about Hrothgar and his men?

Hrothgar's men are immediately hostile toward Grendel. They first assume he is a destructive fungus attached to the tree, sapping it of life. Their instinct, then, is to kill the fungus before it kills the tree. Their association of Grendel with fungus also associates Grendel with a lower and generally reviled life form. When they entertain the idea that Grendel is a tree spirit, they reveal a superstitious nature and a refusal to see the reality before them, that they are confronting a creature different from themselves and from anything they have seen before. It makes more sense to them to attribute Grendel's existence to a supernatural force. At the same time, they are clearly on their guard against him. They interpret Grendel's joy at the prospect of being fed pig as an immediate threat. Only one of them interprets Grendel correctly, but as a group, they are panicky and their hostility resumes immediately—as if they are looking for an excuse to attack this thing they do not understand.

How does Grendel's interaction with the men in Chapter 2 of Grendel change his view of the world around him?

Grendel returns to his mother after his experience with Hrothgar's men with a much more cynical attitude. This experience effectively marks the end of Grendel's childhood innocence, such that it has been. Grendel tries to make his mother understand how he feels rejected by the world, and his subsequent rejection of it. Grendel resolves to shape his own reality, because reality as it stands now does not work for Grendel. Even as Grendel's mother smothers him in her embrace, he now feels disconnected from her—even though she senses this disconnection and pulls him close to her. He is only thinking about the texture of her fur and defining her by his perception of her in sensory experience: "My mother's fur is bristly ... Her flesh is loose." The only connection he has to another living creature, his mother, is severed by her inability to understand his experience and his thoughts about the world.

Why doesn't Grendel turn against Hrothgar in Chapter 3 of Grendel after Hrothgar throws the ax at him in Chapter 2?

Grendel is remarkably good-natured about Hrothgar's attempt to kill him with an ax. Grendel says, "That was mere midnight foolishness. I dismissed it, thought of it afterward only as you remember a tree that fell on you or an adder you stepped on by accident." Grendel accepts that Hrothgar was operating primarily on instinct when he threw the ax. He rationalizes Hrothgar's actions by assuming that the attempt on his life was not an act of malice but a natural expression of fear toward a threat. Grendel, as a creature of instinct himself, who kills cattle for food, may even view Hrothgar's act as a source of similarity and connection between the two of them. As Grendel finishes the statement, he says, "Except of course that Hrothgar was more to be feared than a tree or snake." It is clear at this point in his relationship with Hrothgar, Grendel does not understand what kind of threat Hrothgar poses for him.

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