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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In Grendel, how does Grendel's mother's behavior foreshadow the ending of the novel?

Grendel is convinced his mother is going insane. She is restless in their cave, and she attempts to communicate with Grendel. She makes noises, an apparent attempt at speech she is not capable of delivering. She maneuvers herself between Grendel and the door, trying to keep him in the cave with her. Somehow she manages to convey the message "Beware the fish" to Grendel, but this seems like nonsense to him. Between the murmurings in the town about a giant across the sea, the Shaper's cryptic last words implying a return to something for the Danes, and Grendel's own feelings of unease, clearly something is coming. While Grendel dismisses his mother's behavior as a sign of her deterioration, he is selling her short. She does not just know something is coming; she seems to know exactly what it is and what it will do to her child. The meaning of "Beware the fish" becomes clear in Chapter 11 when the stranger is revealed to be a superhuman swimmer. Her anxiety to keep Grendel in the cave is an attempt to protect him from the danger she knows about but can't effectively communicate.

What is the significance of the song performed at the Shaper's funeral in Chapter 10 of Grendel?

The song performed at the funeral is like so many of the songs the Shaper performed during his life. The complete song appears in the text of Beowulf during the celebration feast after Grendel is killed. The repetition of these songs after the deaths of the Shaper in Grendel and Grendel in Beowulf draws a connection between the two characters. The poem tells the story of Finn, who according to legend was a king of the Frisians, a neighboring tribe to the Danes. Finn attacks the Danes, but they fight to a stalemate. Finn runs out of men, but the Danes have no king, so they form a truce that makes Finn their leader in a nominal sense. The truce lasts through winter, but the young warrior Hengest kills Finn in the spring before the Danes depart for their homeland. The song reflects the danger Hrothgar faces within his own walls from the threat of Hrothulf, which explains Hrothgar's dry-eyed response to the song. The other members of the family, including Hrothulf, also reveal nothing in their faces. With the Shaper gone, as Grendel says, they are all on their own.

What is the meaning of the final poem Grendel presents in Chapter 10 of Grendel?

Grendel provides a poem of his own at the end of Chapter 10, in which he declares he is not the only monster on the moors. He describes a meeting with a thin, old woman dressed in white and carrying the scent of the dragon upon her. The image of the white dress evokes the paleness of Grendel's mother, who glows in the dark cave. The woman also has "murdered eyes," and combined with the scent of the dragon is a manifestation of the fate awaiting Grendel. In the last lines of the poem, Grendel considers again the possibility of hibernating until spring, avoiding his customary winter raids. To do so might save his life. He describes the feeling of hands on his throat in his sleep, another sign Grendel's fate is determined and inexorable. Grendel is impervious to weapons, but he remains vulnerable to attack from hands that are sufficiently strong. He concludes with the words "Nihil ex nihilo, I always say." The phrase translates to "nothing comes from nothing," and the embrace of nothingness and meaninglessness also echoes the dragon, even more than the scent on the old woman. Without the Shaper, Grendel's world has lost whatever structure it had, and now the nothingness is what is left for Grendel.

How has Grendel's connection to his mother deteriorated in Chapter 11 of Grendel?

Grendel's connection to his mother has been thin for years, but as he prepares to face his fate in the meadhall, to go fight the newly arrived Geats, he returns to his initial rejection of her and, indeed, the rest of the world. He embraces the idea that only he exists. He also rejects the love she has shown him for his whole life, deciding she does not love him for himself but for his "son-ness, [his] possessedness, [his] displacement of air as visible proof of her power." He no longer believes his mother loves him or cares about him, except as a possession and as an extension of herself, proof of her own ability to create and shape something. This belief isolates Grendel even further, removing the last tenuous connection he has to another creature in the world. With this connection severed, he goes to meet the Geats; he does so with the belief he is the only thing that exists, and everything else exists as he wills it.

In Chapter 11 of Grendel, why does Grendel go to the meadhall even after he has seen his opponent?

Grendel says, "Tedium is the worst pain." He is so paralyzed by the boredom of his life, of his war with Hrothgar, his isolation, even the cold of winter. If tedium is the worst pain, for Grendel, any pain he might meet at the hands of the stranger is less than the tedium of going through the motions of his life right now. Like Unferth when he visited Grendel's cave many years ago, Grendel feels confident he has a chance against the newcomers, and he is excited for the possibility of a change, a different opponent. That excitement outweighs any fear he has of the strength and size of these new opponents. While Grendel theoretically has a choice about going to the meadhall on this night, his temperament, his ego, and his curiosity guide him to his end in such a way that it is doubtful he ever had a real choice at all.

In Chapter 11 of Grendel, why is Unferth's question about the stranger's swimming competition significant?

Unferth mentions that the stranger lost a swimming competition to another hero, his childhood friend Breca. Unferth brings this up because he is jealous of the stranger's chances in battle with Grendel and wants to remind the stranger of a previous defeat. Unferth believes Grendel will defeat the stranger because he can't imagine any hero strong enough to defeat Grendel. He also does not want to admit the stranger might succeed where Unferth has failed so many times. The stranger corrects Unferth's version of events, describing how he and Breca swam for five nights in their competition, carrying swords with them to defend against whales. He also describes surviving a storm and fighting off nine sea monsters in the course of the contest. He claims to be "stronger in the ocean than any other man alive." He concludes by saying no one else could have survived such an ordeal, and Unferth has never fought such a battle. The story illustrates the stranger's superhuman strength and ability, and it minimizes the threat he sees in Grendel. Grendel is not, after all, nine sea monsters. The story also associates the stranger with the warning from Grendel's mother—"Beware the fish"—and with the zodiac sign of Pisces. Pisces is symbolized by two fish—the stranger and Breca—and represents the end of the astrological cycle, just as the cycle of Grendel's life is about to end.

How is Unferth humiliated again during the dinner with the Geats in Chapter 11 of Grendel, and why is his humiliation significant?

Unferth means to embarrass the stranger by reminding him of a past defeat in a swimming competition. First, the stranger responds by recounting a superhuman battle and adventure in the sea that amply demonstrates his prowess as a fighter beyond anything Unferth or the others have seen before. This demonstration might have been sufficient embarrassment for Unferth, but the stranger takes it one step further. He says, "Nevertheless, I don't recall hearing any glorious deeds of yours, except that you murdered your brothers." With this statement the stranger calls Unferth a nobody, but he isn't a complete nobody. Being completely unknown would be better than being known for the one story that has brought Unferth some little measure of fame: his treachery against his brothers. The stranger caps the humiliation by declaring Unferth will "prowl the stalagmites of hell for that." The entire meadhall witnesses this exchange and is silenced when it concludes. Unferth is brought even lower when Wealtheow calls the stranger "a man whose courage I can trust," withdrawing the previous encouragement and understanding she gave Unferth. Unferth, like the other men of the meadhall, made no stir to save Wealtheow when Grendel attacked her, but this public declaration cows Unferth into total silence. With the appearance of a real hero, Unferth's failure as a hero is complete.

In Chapter 11 of Grendel, how is the final poem the new Shaper sings related to Grendel's character?

At the end of the dinner between the Danes and the Geats, the new Shaper (the old Shaper's assistant) sings a song that begins "Frost shall freeze, and fire melt wood;/The earth shall give fruit, and ice shall bridge dark water." The first lines of the song echo Grendel's sentiments, "It is the business of rams to be rams and of goats to be goats, the business of shapers to sing and of kings to rule." All creatures have a nature that defines their purpose and their actions. He might have added that it is the business of monsters to frighten and the business of heroes to fight them. In the sense that creatures and elements have a purpose they are built to serve, Grendel's fate was sealed from the moment he entered the world. He has only been following his nature, just as fire follows its nature to burn wood and goats to follow their nature to be goats.

Why does the stranger demand that Grendel sing about the wall in Chapter 12 of Grendel?

Before the stranger kills Grendel, he is determined to tear down Grendel's nihilist philosophy of being the center and creator of his own reality. The world will continue to exist without Grendel in it, and the stranger is the harbinger of a new understanding of reality for Grendel. The passage of time and seasons, the renewal of the world in spring, will happen independent of Grendel and his will. The stranger tells Grendel to feel the wall and sing of walls as he smashes Grendel against the wall. This is a literal expression of how the world—in this case, the wall—exists independently of Grendel's perception. Grendel does perceive it as a wall and does perceive it as hard, but those traits existed before Grendel touched the wall and will continue after Grendel has gone away. By forcing Grendel to acknowledge the wall in this way, the stranger forces Grendel to understand existence beyond himself.

Why does Grendel claim, even at the very end, his death is an accident in Chapter 12 of Grendel?

On the surface, Grendel's claims that his death is an accident appear to be the ravings of a sore loser, who cannot accept he is beaten in a fight, so he says the stranger's victory is the result of an accidental slip of his, Grendel's, feet. But accident can also be defined as a chance, the working of fate. In this light, Grendel's death becomes an unavoidable circumstance, destined to happen, regardless of action or inaction on the part of Grendel or anyone else. Free will does not enter into this interpretation of the word accident. The term also appears in philosophy to describe a trait of something that is not part of its essential nature. This interpretation allows Grendel to believe his defeat at the stranger's hands does not change what Grendel essentially is. Grendel dies as he has lived his life, alone in the dark, surrounded by and conscious of the indifferent eyes upon him.

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