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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does the dragon's view of time affect his actions and thoughts in Chapter 5 of Grendel?

The dragon is able to see all points in time simultaneously. He has seen the past, present, and future to eternity, yet he claims there is an end. He is operating on a different level from linear creatures, such as men and Grendel. As a result, he is able to see the molecular connections between all things, and understands how everything that can exist has existed and will exist at different points in time. Everything that can happen will happen over and over during the course of billions of years. He also understands that nothing he does has any kind of cause or effect in the vastness of time, telling Grendel, "Dragons don't mess with your piddling free will." Knowing the events of past, present, and future does not cause those events to take place, nor prevent them, in the dragon's view. This is why he remains essentially immobile on his pile of treasure. He tells Grendel how bored he is, but he also views action as futile in the great span of time, so he sits and advises Grendel to do the same.

What is the main point the dragon tries to make Grendel understand in Chapter 5 of Grendel, and why does the dragon want Grendel to agree with him?

The dragon wants Grendel to understand that his own actions, and the actions of Hrothgar's men, lack meaning in the grand scheme of time and the universe. What will happen will happen, regardless of what Grendel or the men know or think they know. In this context, reality is an illusion created by stories—the Shaper's or Grendel's—because the knowledge of linear creatures is incomplete and often contradictory. In this respect, the men actually need Grendel to attack and scare them. The presence of an adversary moves humans to action, to improve their thinking, to better themselves and their strategies in order to fight and, perhaps, defeat that adversary. Grendel serves that purpose for Hrothgar and his men, so the dragon tells him to embrace his role if he wants to, or not. If Grendel does not, they will find a different enemy, a different monster for the tales that shape their reality. Another reason the dragon tries to convince Grendel is that this philosophy aligns with Judeo-Christian beliefs about the fall, which the dragon refers to as "the long dull fall of eternity." With God's permission, Satan tempted Adam and Eve; when they gave in to temptation, all of creation was cursed. There are many allusions to this story in the dialogue between Grendel and the dragon. The dragon plays the part of the tempting Satan, and by deceiving Grendel into believing his existence is meaningless and he is only meant to kill and frighten men, he makes Grendel stop believing, evolving, and hoping for a different life. For example, the dragon says, "You want the word ... my advice is, don't ask!" This alludes to the Word of God, a Christian concept mentioned frequently in the Bible. Grendel calls the dragon "serpent to the core," and the black sun Grendel sees in his vision alludes to the prophet Joel's apocalyptic vision of the sun going dark in the Old Testament. Grendel does not really understand the dragon's allusions to "free will" or his religious allusions; therefore, he doesn't understand that these allusions indicate the dragon is lying to him.

How does his talk with the dragon influence Grendel's behavior in Chapters 5 and 6 of Grendel?

Grendel appears to stand firm in his resolution to refrain from frightening Hrothgar's men without reason, even though the dragon mocks this decision because it is ultimately meaningless. If Grendel doesn't scare them, they will find something else to do the job. Grendel feels the futility of his actions permeate his being, even as he tries to process the dragon's words. Despite Grendel's efforts to take the high road, though, his nature—as the dragon observes—is violent. Grendel kills the occasional straggler, as his nature mandates, but he resists the urge to enter the meadhall again, even as he is drawn there as an observer to listen to the Shaper's songs. Even though the dragon has mocked the Shaper's songs and Grendel knows they present an illusion of reality, his desire to hear them and his desire for them to become true remains. He seems to still want the songs, and his actions, to mean something, even though the dragon has told him otherwise.

What causes Grendel to abandon his restraint and launch his first raid on Hrothgar's meadhall in Chapter 6 of Grendel?

Even after he talks to the dragon, Grendel feels compelled to rise above his violent nature. He approaches the meadhall in stealth, to watch and listen. He does not want to frighten the men—perhaps because the dragon has told him the presence of a monster improves the men. Even after the previous attack when the men came at him the night Grendel entered the meadhall, Grendel feels no drive for revenge. He calls his foray into the meadhall "ridiculous," blaming himself for the events of that night. Despite Grendel's relatively peaceful intentions, a guard attacks Grendel. The other men join the fray, but now Grendel is impervious to their weapons. During the fight, Grendel understands this is how it will always be between him and the men. He will mean no harm, but the men will always attack him. "They were crazy," Grendel observes. The men will not see how it is unreasonable to provoke a large monster impervious to weapons, and they will not attempt to see Grendel as anything less than a threat. After this third attack, armed with this understanding, Grendel understands what the dragon meant when he said "Why not scare them?" Grendel has nothing to gain by remaining peaceful, and the expansion of Hrothgar's power does pose a threat to Grendel, so he begins his midnight raids. Grendel attacks the men for another reason: his meeting with the dragon changed him internally, and as the chapter progresses, his move toward violence accelerates. He begins by saying that whatever he "understood or misunderstood in the dragon's talk, something much deeper stayed with me, became my aura." The dragon also put a charm on Grendel. However mysterious the charm is, it shows that the dragon altered Grendel's nature, perhaps to allow Grendel to become the dragon's tool for violence. Grendel reacts with rage to the men's gratitude toward God, and he feels as if the dragon is a mist all around him, representing an anti-God state of mind. Finally, when Grendel gives in to violence, he feels as "hollow as a rotten tree," signifying his inner state.

How does Grendel feel about his raids on the meadhall in Chapter 6 of Grendel?

Grendel describes feelings about his first raid on Hrothgar's meadhall by saying, "I felt a strange, unearthly joy" as he sits in the hall and devours seven men he has taken from their beds. He compares the feeling to the pain that "imploded" on the tree where he was trapped as a child. Now, the pain "blasted outward." Grendel is following his instincts for violence, which is certainly freeing for him. The pain he has experienced for much of his life stems from feeling threatened by others, ashamed of what he is, and now he is able to embrace his nature. Moreover, Grendel now has an outlet for the rage and pain he has carried through a lifetime of rejection and attacks, mostly at the hands of the very men he is now devouring. He no longer has to deny himself, and if he still feels the pain of isolation, he is at least able to punish the men of the meadhall for having the community he covets.

How does Unferth's character reflect the exploration of virginity presented through the astrological association with Virgo in Chapter 6 of Grendel, and why is it significant?

Grendel calls Unferth a "harvest virgin," which is a reference to the zodiac symbol Virgo the virgin, associated with late summer and harvest time. While astrology is not a formal area of study, personality traits associated with the sign include intelligence and modesty along with a meticulous nature and irritability. Unferth is physically modest, but his belief in his ability to defeat Grendel reflects a lack of modesty. He visits Grendel's cave, prepared to die, but he also boasts how he will be the subject of the Shaper's songs. Grendel questions Unferth's intelligence, but Unferth is intelligent enough to locate Grendel's lair and follow him there, which also reflects meticulous attention to details. His desire to continue to pick fights with Grendel, even after he has been defeated, reflects Unferth's irritability at being bested. Beyond the symbolism in the zodiac, however, the association with virginity reflects Unferth's idealism and naïveté. He believes in the stories of the hero and has confidence in his own place as a hero. He does not understand that the world is not like the stories he has heard until he reaches Grendel's cave—having gone through trials and danger to get there—and faces the probability of his own demise. Grendel is likewise naive and inexperienced for much of the novel, refusing to embrace the dragon's cynicism wholeheartedly and wishing the Shaper's vision to be true.

Why is Grendel's refusal to kill Unferth in Chapter 6 of Grendel humiliating for Unferth?

Unferth stands up to Grendel first in the meadhall, while Grendel attacks Unferth's comrades. Even though Unferth taunts Grendel and declares his intention to end Grendel, Grendel laughs at him. Unferth does not understand that Grendel can't be killed by weapons. Grendel does not even bother to fight Unferth in a traditional way. Instead, Grendel spots a table laden with apples and proceeds to defend himself using fresh fruit, bombarding Unferth with apples and preventing him from getting near enough to attempt a strike. That Unferth can be put off by such a clear nonweapon is an assault on his abilities as a fighter, embarrassing to Unferth and comical to Grendel. Later, Grendel reflects on this battle as his favorite of all his fights with Hrothgar's men. Unferth, naturally, cannot allow this embarrassment to stand, so he follows Grendel to his lair. He does not anticipate the water or the fire snakes, so he arrives in Grendel's lair much worse for wear but feeling he will die a hero's death because of his self-sacrifice. Both Grendel and Unferth make much of being a hero, and Unferth's defeat turns the stories upside down. The only thing that might save Unferth's reputation among the other men and in his own mind is for Grendel to kill him. Then he will have completed his sacrifice and become worthy of songs. Because Grendel knows Unferth wants this, he refuses to satisfy the warrior's desire. Unferth's final humiliation does not even come from Grendel's own hands. Unferth falls asleep, exhausted by the journey to the cave, while talking to Grendel about the nature of heroes, which makes him objectively unfit to be a hero. He does not attack. He naps. Grendel takes the sleeping Unferth back to the meadhall and kills two guards when he leaves the living Unferth behind. The humiliation is complete, as Grendel has made clear that he could have killed Unferth along with the guards but Unferth is not worthy of Grendel's attention. He has not earned a hero's right to die in battle.

In Chapter 7 of Grendel, what stops Grendel from killing all of Hrothgar's men if he knows he can do it?

Grendel begins the chapter by saying "Balance is everything," a possible reference to the zodiac sign Libra, represented by balanced scales. He knows he could kill off all the men in a single night, but he holds back. He states his one law: that he must only fill the needs of his desire, no more. He likes being able to come to the meadhall on his raids. He enjoys the power he has over them, the mayhem he creates, the fear. The raids provide his only real connection to the outside world beyond his cave. If he kills all the men at once, he will no longer have the raids. It will take away his purpose. He uses the men's story of him as the "Hrothgar-Wrecker" to define himself. They need him to be their monster, to facilitate their progress as the dragon explained to Grendel, but Grendel also now needs to be the monster to the men in order to know his place in the world.

Why does Grendel begin using poetry and song to tell his story, starting in Chapter 7 of Grendel?

Grendel begins singing songs about himself in Chapter 7, a construction that will continue into subsequent chapters. This change in structure reflects Grendel's assumption of the role of Shaper for himself, even if the songs he sings at first are overly simplified: "Pity poor Hrothgar,/Grendel's foe!/Pity poor Grendel,/O, O, O!" Although the tone is mocking, these words show that Grendel recognizes the symbiotic relationship he has with Hrothgar and the meadhall. The men need Grendel to define themselves, but Grendel needs the men to define himself, too. They are locked together, all suffering, and no one can win. In later lines, Grendel refers to "Grengar" and "Hrothdel." Blending their names together reads like a joke, but the technique also expresses how both Hrothgar and Grendel are locked together in a state of mutual need and dependence. It raises the possibility that Grendel is linked to Hrothgar by fate, not choice, and he perhaps represents the dark side of the king, a buried and repressed inner state of being. Grendel moves in tandem with Hrothgar throughout the novel, and just as Hrothgar meets and loves Wealtheow in this chapter, so does Grendel. Also, it is fitting Grendel should become more poetic in his speech when he experiences something like romantic desire for the first time, as his shift in speech reflects the shift in his inner state.

In Grendel, how does Wealtheow's presence in Chapter 7 affect Grendel, and why is her influence on him significant?

Grendel is overwhelmed by Wealtheow's beauty and kindness. He compares his feelings toward her when she arrives at the meadhall to his feelings toward the Shaper when Grendel first heard him sing. Her gentle presence, her ability to keep the men calm, her willingness to serve them even though she is their queen give Grendel hope for humanity's better nature. He stops raiding the meadhall for months after she arrives, but he watches her constantly. This obsession and protective feeling toward her may be as close as Grendel ever comes to love in a romantic sense. At the same time, Grendel is frustrated by these feelings—just as he has felt frustrated and conflicted about the Shaper and his songs. He seems to feel more sympathy for her when he sees her private suffering and loneliness; this gives them common ground. It is no accident that Grendel elects to attack her during her brother's visit to the meadhall, when she is happy and glowing with joy at being with her family again. His attack reveals the weakness of the men who fail to jump to Wealtheow's rescue. The attack is both sexual and chaste. Grendel grabs Wealtheow in her bed, pulling her legs apart. He considers holding her over the fire and "cooking the ugly hole between her legs." Grendel's attack seems to be an expression of frustrated sexual desire, but he is also repelled by Wealtheow's nakedness. He claims the sight of her private parts has "cured" him of his obsession with her, and he focuses on the ugliness of her body, reducing her to something less than the ideal she was before. He changes his mind about killing her, as if on the same whim that led him to attack her in the first place. He decides the act would be meaningless, as is letting her live. Just as he refrains from wiping out the men of the meadhall because he would no longer be able to kill and torture them, he refrains from killing Wealtheow because he would no longer be able to watch her and terrify her.

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