Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does life depicted in the human villages in Chapter 3 of Grendel contrast with Grendel's life in his cave?

The villages are alive with activity in a way Grendel's cave is not. Men and women come and go, engaged in their daily chores. Children play. The buildings are lined with tapestries, which serve a dual purpose of providing decoration and warmth. Food appears plentiful and convenient, cooked in the evenings and shared at tables. Village life is, in short, the exact opposite of Grendel's life in the cave. The cave is cold, damp, and dark. Food is eaten raw, and feeding is solitary. The mysterious inhabitants underground, aside from Grendel and his mother, shuffle through the darkness and actively attempt to ignore the existence of one another. Even Grendel's closeness with his mother is driven more by a clinging desperation than a sense of community. Despite the men's violent impulses, their gatherings are filled with singing, celebration, and camaraderie around a warm fire. These differences draw Grendel to observe their lives closely in a way the other underground dwellers resist doing. Grendel alone seems to want a life different from the one offered by the cave, or he would not keep loitering around these villages.

What does Grendel's viewpoint regarding the villages that spring up around the countryside in Chapter 3 of Grendel reveal about his character?

Grendel lives in his cave on the edge of the villages, apparently content to observe the events there. He spends a great deal of time around them, but he does not consider approaching the settlements, and only enters the premises under the cover of darkness. He has a kind of routine: "Normally the men would howl out their daring, and the evening would get merrier, louder and louder, the king praising this one, criticizing that one, no one getting hurt except maybe some female who was asking for it, and eventually they'd all fall asleep on each other like lizards, and I'd steal a cow." The men's activities provide Grendel with entertainment, but in the end, he really just wants a cow to eat. Grendel observes humans similarly to how humans observe animals in the natural world. He, like humans who use animals as a resource, finds them fascinating and sometimes feels compassion for them, yet he slaughters animals for food. Grendel is set up almost as if he is a natural predator to human beings. Grendel's behavior toward those men exiled from the villages, the ones sent out for killing a fellow man in the meadhall, takes a different turn. It would be easy for Grendel to simply kill and eat these men right away, but he tries to befriend some of them. His attempts to socialize with these exiles reveals his own feeling of being an exile and his sense of common ground with them. These attempts also show Grendel's deep craving for friendship. Yet Grendel says, "They were treacherous." Men exiled for murder during a feast are not the best of the bunch; by definition, they have propensities for violence and are not to be trusted. All of Grendel's attempts to form connections with these men end the same way: he has to eat them. His choice of the phrase "I had to" implies that this is not something he necessarily chooses to do; rather, some action on the men's part drives him to eliminate them as a threat to him.

What is the primary cause of all the wars and fighting among men in Chapter 3 of Grendel, and what does it imply about humankind and Grendel?

The men start their wars in earnest once their settlements become prosperous. They declare their intentions to raid other settlements and take their gold. When Grendel comes across the first meadhall he finds burned, he discovers everything has been destroyed, but the only thing taken from the settlement is the gold. Grendel is not able to understand their behavior, because he sees the cattle and meat that have been left behind to rot as more valuable than gold. In Chapter 5 when the dragon tells Grendel to find gold and sit on it, Grendel dismisses this advice, which indicates his inability to see the value in gold. Even after Hrothgar takes the upper hand in all the fighting, gold motivates the peace that follows. Hrothgar forges alliances with his neighbors only if those neighbors are able to send him tributes in the form of gold and weapons, but mostly gold. Hrothgar amasses his own hoard of wealth in this way, which allows him to consolidate his power. The other changes Hrothgar creates in the landscape directly result from this thirst for gold as well. The roads he constructs are designed to facilitate the transport of gold from other settlements to his own. Even though the men later claim rivalries based on their fathers and their fathers' fathers and other displays of manhood, the lust for gold remains the root of their violence and the cause of Grendel's malice.

How do the men show themselves as monsters in Chapter 3 of Grendel?

Grendel observes the senseless and wasteful killing that is the natural product of the men's warring. Beyond that obvious example, Grendel exposes the men's subtler but equally monstrous behavior. Many of the men seem to have little true loyalty to one another, often breaking into fighting in the midst of their revelries and killing their own comrades. These men are often forgiven for these killings and allowed to remain in the village, although they are sometimes exiled instead. Even more telling is a passing comment Grendel makes about the treatment of women during these revelries. He describes how the men routinely sing and celebrate, "no one getting hurt except maybe some female who was asking for it." The use of the phrase asking for it is one historically used as a judgment against and dismissal of rape victims, which implies raping the women in the meadhall is a common occurrence, barely worth mentioning as it is so routine. Even Grendel gives these events little thought. The men are likewise cruel to their animals. Before the roads are built, oxen and horses often become mired in muddy passages while pulling heavy carts laden with gold and other tributes for Hrothgar. The men beat these animals bloody in their attempts to get them out of the mire. The animals' suffering is obvious: "The oxen rolled their eyes, floundering, and mooed." If an ox manages to escape his bonds, a man will chase it down and kill it with arrows. Mired horses fare no better; cut with whips, hit with stones, or beaten with clubs. Sometimes, the men will come to their senses and winch the horse out of the mire, but sometimes the horse is abandoned or killed where it stands.

How do the Shaper's songs in Chapter 3 of Grendel influence Hrothgar?

The Shaper sings of a great king from the past, Scyld Shefing, whose forces conquered the land, marauding through meadhalls and winning glory. The song ends with the declaration, "That was a good king!" The Shaper goes on to sing about how Scyld united the Danish kingdom—a place filled in with ashes and disarray until Scyld took power—and used his understanding of human nature to build his kingdom into a powerful empire. The story in the song mirrors Hrothgar's own rise to power, and provides justification for his violent behavior. Hrothgar has brought order to the countryside besieged by disconnected bands of warriors. All of these accomplishments also provide inspiration for Hrothgar's future goals and accomplishments. There is an implication in the Shaper's song that the violence of today will serve the greater good tomorrow. In later chapters, the seed this song plants in Hrothgar's mind inspires him to build his great meadhall as a shining example to the rest of the country. Having a skilled Shaper to sing of his deeds fuels Hrothgar's visions for his kingdom.

Why does the Shaper's song in Chapter 3 of Grendel upset Grendel?

Grendel hears the noble aspirations espoused in the Shaper's song: the use of might to bring the people into an orderly society, the strength of Denmark against its enemies, the power of a king who transforms chaos into prosperity. He knows Hrothgar is inspired by these stories and will strive to emulate them. At the same time, Grendel remembers the darker origins of the wars, the lust for gold. The men saying, with naked greed, "I'll steal their gold and burn their meadhall!" Grendel remembers "the ragged men fighting each other till the snow was red slush, whining in winter, the shriek of people and animals burning, the whip-slashed oxen in the mire," along with other atrocities. Grendel knows the reality behind the noble calling set forth in the Shaper's songs. Furthermore, Grendel sees the futility of all these actions. He acknowledges a king called Scyld once ruled the Danes, but the rest could be fiction. Scyld and whatever empire he had lives on only in a poem; whatever he built did not last, otherwise the wars among the marauding bands would not have begun. Grendel understands the contrast between the glory of the songs and the real suffering of the people and animals victimized by the fighting—including the warriors themselves—and he believes his world will be lost as man encroaches further, which causes him to despair.

Why does Grendel say the corpse he carries in Chapter 4 of Grendel proves the Shaper's story false?

On the night Grendel finds the body of the murdered man—his throat cut and his clothes stolen—the Shaper sings a song about how a great god created the world. This creation story appears to come from the Christian tradition because the Shaper follows this story with one about two brothers. One kills the other, forever dividing humanity into good and evil, light and dark. The descendants of the killer are cursed for eternity. This story is a clear allusion to the story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Cain kills his brother, Abel, in a fit of jealousy and introduces evil into the world, creating the Christian concept of the mark of Cain, an indication of the curse placed on Cain's descendants in punishment for his sins. Grendel is so taken with the Shaper's power that he believes himself to be part of the cursed lot, while the men in the hall are part of the light. Only after he discovers the body of the man, apparently killed as part of a robbery for his clothing, does he recall the reality that the men in the meadhall are the ones who did this to one of their own number. They are no better than Grendel—in fact, they may be worse. Grendel rejects the idea of "chosen" and "cursed" creatures, and takes the body into the meadhall to prove the lie in the Shaper's song, but he calls out for peace and friendship as he does so. He is brutally attacked for his trouble, providing additional proof of the men's savage instincts.

Why does Grendel think the Shaper and Hrothgar might be as lonely as he is in Chapter 4 of Grendel?

Grendel's despair after he has been run out of the meadhall is palpable. It becomes clear that Grendel's fascination with the meadhall stems from a desire to join the men, to belong. He enters the meadhall calling for peace and calling the men "friend," either because he recognizes they have violent instincts in common or because he wants all of them to be better than they seem on the surface. The men attack Grendel, and once Grendel is safely away, he asks the stars one question, "Why can't I have someone to talk to?" The simplicity of the statement reveals Grendel's anguish and loneliness. His follow-up statements about how Hrothgar and the Shaper have people to talk to reveal Grendel's jealousy of these men for their connections to others. However, as he considers the reality, he comes to two conclusions about these two men. First, he says, "If the Shaper's vision of goodness and peace was a part of himself, not idle rhymes, then no one understood him at all, not even Hrothgar." If the Shaper's songs are not only for show, his beliefs isolate him from other humans, just as Grendel's monstrous appearance isolates him. Grendel's conclusion implies that men are incapable of goodness and peace, and they are incapable of understanding it in others. Following this thread, Grendel decides the treacherous nature of men also puts Hrothgar at risk of betrayal, even by his own children. He can amass his glory and treasure, but his sons will be moved only by greed, not by whatever positive ideals exist in their father's legacy. The violence and avarice inherent in human nature does not just isolate Grendel from their company, it also isolates the men from one another.

Why do Grendel's feelings about the Shaper change in Chapter 4 of Grendel?

Even as he fears what the Shaper's songs will motivate Hrothgar and his men to do, Grendel has great respect for the Shaper himself. Grendel is a creature who embraces the concept of shaping his own reality at an early age, a desire he first expressed after his experience with the tree in Chapter 2. The Shaper has actually succeeded in this goal, even surpassed it, as he shapes the reality for the men around him as well. The Shaper's abilities earn Grendel's respect. More than that, Grendel wants the rosy version of the world the Shaper presents to be true. He wants the men to be the noble and glorious creatures the Shaper depicts, even though this depiction is at direct odds with Grendel's own observations. His hope, then, is that the Shaper's songs have, or will, change the hearts of these men. He supports this attempt at the start of Chapter 4. Only after Grendel hears the Shaper sing about him, Grendel, after he has entered the meadhall for the first time and been violently expelled, does he acknowledge that the Shaper's story is "all lies." He is angry about how the Shaper depicts him, but that does not stop him from wishing the Shaper's other lies—about a loving god and a race of blessed men—to become true through the power of storytelling. Such a reality would mean Grendel's end, which throws him into a turmoil that leads him to seek answers elsewhere.

What purpose does the dragon's treasure serve in Chapter 5 of Grendel?

While the men above the dragon's lair amass gold for their own glory, to show off as a sign of their own power and to trade for alliances with other men, the dragon's gold appears to be an end unto itself. The dragon jealously guards his things and feels no need to display them to the world as a reflection of his power. The dragon's secrecy reflects his true power; he has nothing to prove to the world. The gold as its own end also reflects the dragon's overall worldview that events and actions are essentially without meaning; the thing itself is what matters. At the same time, the gold is an expression of the dragon's power. As the previous chapters demonstrate, the way to obtain gold and gemstones is by taking it from those who have it. The presence of the dragon's treasure implies that the dragon has, at some point in his long life, taken these treasures from someone. The dragon's nature indicates this process was not peaceful or polite. Also, the dragon has used his might to obtain treasure just as the men above have done, even though he holds those men in contempt—but not for their violence. The dragon has no quarrel with violence; his problem with men lies in their shortsightedness and stupidity.

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