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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What is the significance of how Grendel views the peasants of Hrothgar's realm through Hrothulf's eyes in Chapter 8 of Grendel?

Grendel imagines what Hrothulf thinks of the peasants as he watches Hrothulf watch them at work in the fields. In Grendel's version of Hrothulf's thoughts, Hrothulf thinks the peasants are stupid and deluded by their love of the king and their belief in his goodness. This version of the peasants' reality paints Hrothgar as a king indifferent to the suffering of the common people in his realm. And they do suffer. They are thin, underfed. Grendel describes the smell of their food as foul. The mothers are described as girls, too young to be mothers, who nurse babies whose only purpose in life will be to tend the fields when they are old enough. Old men have parasites—ringworm—on their faces, in their beards, and they are unlikely the only ones. They are subject to "the king's justice," but that justice is inconsistent. Men who steal bread to sate their hunger are put to death, but thanes who commit murder are set free. In short, the lot of the peasants is terrible, but Grendel also judges them harshly for blind allegiance to the king who exploits them. Grendel's understanding has become more complex; he has moved from despising men for their wastefulness and senseless violence to contemplating society as a collective—how individuals fit together to make a community. Hrothulf's brooding presence and Grendel's spying on him with his peasant mentor, Red Horse, have influenced Grendel's perspective, implying Grendel, even though he is a monster, can change, evolve, and possibly even find redemption alongside humankind.

Why does Hrothulf's peasant advisor advocate Hrothulf use violence to overthrow the king in Chapter 8 of Grendel?

Hrothulf's adviser is a peasant who opposes the government as cruel and murderous, but he is also willing to assist Hrothulf in his quest for the throne. The man has no sense of ideals and does not believe anything substantial will change in the course of these events, but he knows powerful men reward those who are loyal, so he can feel some assurance that his lot will improve if Hrothulf is successful. He does not believe revolutions are based in any kind of moral superiority of one system over another. Instead, revolutions are about the replacement of one power with another, so violence, a show of might, is the only way to make that kind of change happen. He feels no compunction about advocating violence, either, because he believes government is, by definition, "an organization of violence." The state commits sanctioned acts of violence against the people every day.

How does Grendel—and everyone else—know what Hrothulf is plotting in Chapter 8 of Grendel?

Grendel has suspicions about Hrothulf from the moment the boy arrives at Hrothgar's meadhall, describing the boy as brooding, with the manner of a "half-tamed wolf." Hrothulf is too quiet, too surly to be trusted. Even though Grendel allows him the benefit of a doubt because the boy's father has recently died, he watches the boy and recognizes the violence within the boy because that same violence runs in him. For the same reason, Hrothgar can see the violence in the boy as a reflection of the violence that lived within him long ago when he built his kingdom. However, Hrothulf's demeanor is so withdrawn and antisocial that even the pure-of-heart Wealtheow can see the threat hiding behind the boy's face. He is polite to his cousins, but he rarely speaks. He appears to have a crush on his female cousin because he blushes when she speaks to him, but she is destined to be married to a king Hrothgar wishes to form an alliance with, which removes the only—very thin—possibility of appeasing the threat Hrothulf presents.

If Grendel understands Hrothgar's weakened position in old age, as seen in Chapter 8 of Grendel, why does he continue to raid Hrothgar's hall?

Grendel's philosophy where Hrothgar is concerned remains the same as it has been since his conversation with the dragon: Why not? His rationale for continuing his war with Hrothgar, even in Hrothgar's weakened state, makes explicit the implied rationale for starting the war in the first place. Hrothgar has never made any overtures of kindness toward Grendel, and after his repeated attacks on Grendel, he cannot be trusted to keep any kind of treaty they might strike. Indeed, Grendel is unlikely to be allowed to approach the meadhall to make such an agreement, if past experience can be taken as evidence. Grendel also believes Hrothgar is, in some ways, his creation, following the logic of the dragon who told him the men need the monster to make them improve themselves. Grendel wants to see what will happen if he continues, and he fears the loss of his own identity if he stops.

What is the meaning of the dream Grendel creates for Hrothgar in Chapter 8 of Grendel?

Grendel creates a hypothetical dream for Hrothgar based on the old king's struggles with many potential enemies, and his fears of getting old, of dying, of being forgotten. Grendel envisions the king standing in a mossy thicket in the woods, standing by a tree with a double trunk, and he sees that the two trees have grown together, twisted around a scar he recognizes. Grendel describes "a heavy blade in flight" then striking the tree. This dream echoes the first meeting between Grendel and Hrothgar. The tree with the double trunk is the same tree Grendel was caught in, and the scar Hrothgar recognizes is the one made when his ax struck the tree after he threw it at Grendel. Clearly, Grendel feels more of a grudge about this incident than he has previously acknowledged. The implication that Grendel is perhaps a part of Hrothgar's own psyche is powerful in this instance. Hrothgar's first perception of Grendel as a fungus killing the tree is what leads to the war between demon and human; it is the root cause for Grendel's isolation and his embracing the nihilistic dragon's view of reality, so it makes sense Grendel imagines Hrothgar's dream will be a recurring dream. Grendel and Hrothgar have become "two trees/Grown into one," like two warring perceptions within one mind. Further, when they met at that tree, Grendel was a helpless, injured child, and Hrothgar attacked him in spite of his weakened condition. Now the tables have turned. Hrothgar is weakened and old, caught in the trap of his realm and his efforts to hold onto it. Now Grendel is the blade that can injure the weakened old man. The dream brings balance to Grendel's history with Hrothgar.

Why does Grendel choose to toy with Ork in the circle of the gods in Chapter 9 of Grendel?

Grendel has seen the priests and the people go through the motions of practicing religion for some time. Many of Grendel's comments and actions—including his earlier desecration of the shrine where he meets Ork—indicate he has no religious belief of his own. At the same time, he wants to call out the hypocrisy he believes he sees in the priests. In addition, Grendel has been feeling uneasy about the future for a while and needs a distraction. Grendel sees an opportunity to amuse himself at Ork's expense, and he takes it, in keeping with his guiding philosophy of "Why not?" Why not have a little fun at this hypocritical priest's expense? Why not find something to break up the boredom of season after season? Making the prank sweeter is Grendel's choice to pretend to be the Great Destroyer. He could have pretended to be the King of the Gods, but he elects to impersonate the same god he has heard the people praying to defeat Grendel, which appeals to his sense of irony.

In Chapter 9 of Grendel, how does Ork's explanation of the King of the Gods apply to Grendel?

Ork's answer to Grendel's question is complicated, but it begins with his statement that the King of the Gods is the "ultimate limitation ... and His existence is the ultimate irrationality." This means Ork believes God is both the force that makes all things possible but He is also the force limiting the possibilities available. Nothing exists that God does not allow, and whatever does exist does so within the limitations set by God. At the same time, God's existence is not concrete or rational, which makes His nature impossible to define. Most relevant to Grendel's own experience is Ork's assertion that "[God] is the eternal urge of desire establishing the purposes of all creatures. He is an infinite patience, a tender care that nothing in the universe be vain." Ork's delivery and word choices resemble those of the dragon in Chapter 5, except Ork is overflowing with emotion, tears streaming down his cheeks, while the dragon delivers his views by coldly appealing to Grendel's intellect. The dragon's thesis rests on the idea that nothing has meaning because everything possible can and will happen in the long stretch of time. Ork presents an opposing view that the existence of God means everything has a place and purpose in the universe, as nothing exists that God does not allow—even Grendel. This is the reason Ork's stream of emotion shocks Grendel; that Ork is surprised by his own words as he reaches to answer Grendel's question gives Grendel a flicker of hope the dragon destroyed long ago.

What is the meaning of Grendel's vision of the black sun as he travels home through the forest in Chapter 9 of Grendel?

Grendel returns from his conversation with Ork, the priest, with new ideas in his mind. Ork's vision of the world under the hand of the King of the Gods assigns a measure of value and meaning to all things God allows to exist, which is everything. However, Grendel has seen the black sun before in a vision in the dragon's lair in Chapter 5 of infinite space with a black sun at the center. At the time the dragon showed Grendel this vision, Grendel thought he was going to die. The appearance of the black sun serves two purposes. First, it connects Ork's speech with that of the dragon, whose worldview of meaninglessness and infinite time stands in sharp contrast with Ork's. The dragon's influence still looms large in Grendel's mind. Second, it stands as a portent—a foreshadowing or omen—of Grendel's doom. Grendel has had a sense that a great change is on the horizon, and readers familiar with Beowulf know that change will be the arrival of the hero who will kill Grendel. Like the black sun in the forest, Grendel's fate hangs over him—although he is unaware of this—and this ending is inescapable, as the dragon said it would be.

In Grendel, how is the Shaper's death in Chapter 10 similar to or different from Grendel's death in Chapter 12?

Grendel goes to observe activity in the village because he knows the Shaper is dying, and he wants to see what is happening. However, he does not go straight to the Shaper's house to see what is happening. He lingers around the village, watching the work, the play, the cooking, and all the other activity around him. He sees masters teaching their apprentices and families gathering for meals. Like his early fascination with the meadhall, Grendel is drawn to these places of activity and community so different from his underground existence. A creature on the margins, always watching, never able to participate, he longs for an end to his isolation and at the same time scorns these villages and communities, seeking ways to destroy them. His loneliness is insurmountable. When the Shaper dies, he is surrounded by loved ones and celebrated in a funeral. When Grendel dies in Chapter 12, he is alone in the dark, his only company the peering, indifferent eyes of animal enemies. Both Grendel and the Shaper die in much the same manner as they lived.

How do the Shaper's last words in Chapter 10 reinforce ideas about time's cyclical nature in Grendel?

The Shaper's last words are cryptic, cut off midway through the sentence: "I see a time ... when the Danes once again—." There is evidence this statement predicts the end of Grendel and the rebirth of Hrothgar's realm. The Shaper has spent his entire career building Hrothgar's realm through his songs, celebrating the achievements of Hrothgar and his men alongside the kings of old. It is unlikely he would use his last breath to predict the downfall of the Danes. Furthermore, at the time of the Shaper's death, Hrothgar is in deep trouble. He can't fall again because he is already low. The word again implies a return to a past time, one in which the Danes enjoyed glory and security, in the Shaper's view at any rate. Other hints of Beowulf's imminent arrival appear shortly before and after the Shaper dies, with an old woman in the village talking of a giant from across the sea who will save them all, and Grendel's mother becoming more protective of her son. Grendel dismisses these signs, but he might take the words from the Shaper as a serious warning. When the statement remains incomplete, Grendel has no more knowledge than he had before, which removes yet another opportunity Grendel might have had to save himself. Yet at the heart of the novel lies the dragon's knowledge that another Grendel will come along to prey on humans and cause them to strive to be better, just as the stranger will return to his homeland and become a great king; Hrothgar will die, and his nephew or children will replace him; the Shaper's assistant will shape and recall history as the cycles repeat, over and over. Near death, the dying Shaper—along with Grendel's mother and the old woman—can see beyond the present into the future, another implication Grendel misses because the dragon has convinced him repetition suggests meaninglessness.

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