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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Motifs



As time moves through "season after season," Grendel marks its passage. The cycle through summers and winters also marks Grendel's progression as a character. Grendel is organized into 12 chapters, corresponding to the signs of the zodiac, their ruling planets and constellations, and the symbolic meanings associated with each sign; from Chapter 1 to Chapter 12: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces. In spring, Grendel is hopeful. In summer, he draws back from the meaning he is creating. Winter, a season associated with Sagittarius, comes near the novel's climax; Grendel says, "The trees are dead, and only the deepest religion can break through time and believe they'll revive." Although Grendel embraces the dragon's truth that nothing matters and there is no God, Grendel's very being cycles between belief and emptiness.


Grendel compares the mindless behavior of those around him—animals, men, his mother—to the actions of machines: unthinking, automatic, and often destructive. At his lowest and most disconnected emotional points, Grendel sees even the sun, moon, and stars as machines operating in a mechanical world. This perception leads him to believe he is more powerful than the reality around him. He makes himself a god over the mechanical, pointless universe: "I alone exist ... I create the whole universe, blink by blink." The more Grendel thinks this way, the more mechanical he becomes, and the more he follows his wrathful instinct to kill. Reason, poetry, love, and admiration are at the opposite end of the spectrum from mechanical in the novel. Throughout, Grendel rejects every opportunity to venture beyond the instinctive; instead, he clings hopelessly to the dragon's words about the meaninglessness of existence.


Each chapter of the novel makes reference to a figure from the astrological zodiac, seen literally in the introduction of the ram (Aries) in Chapter 1, the bull (Taurus) in Chapter 2, and the goat in Chapter 10 (Capricorn). The references are more symbolic and esoteric in other chapters. For example, when Wealtheow arrives during Chapter 7 (Libra), she represents a balancing force. This highly organized structure contrasts with Grendel's perceptions that the world is random and mechanical. Ultimately, Grendel lives in a world full of patterns; but although he often perceives and intuits signs and supernatural occurrences, he often chooses to rationalize them away.

  • Aries: Ram
  • Taurus: Bull
  • Gemini: Twins
  • Cancer: Crab
  • Leo: Lion
  • Virgo: Maiden
  • Libra: Scales
  • Scorpio: Scorpion
  • Sagittarius: Archer
  • Capricorn: Goat
  • Aquarius: Water-bearer
  • Pisces: Fish


Trees and their imagery reflect Grendel's interior state, worldview, or circumstances in almost every chapter. One pivotal event occurs when Grendel gets stuck in a tree and Hrothgar throws an ax at him; this sets the stage for Grendel's subsequent war on Hrothgar. By the end of the novel, Grendel feels empty and hollow as a rotting tree. Humans also mistake Grendel for a tree spirit or tree-killing fungus, implying there is a physical connection between Grendel and trees, and the men's perception of Grendel's body is vastly different from his own reality.

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