Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Plot Summary

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The large, shaggy monster, Grendel, is hideous to behold. He spends his childhood stalking animals and watching the activities of the humans who wage war and build settlements around him. He lives in a cave with his bloated, obsessive mother, keenly aware of other creatures peering at him through the darkness. He might have spent his entire life stealing cows and hunching in the dark, but his experiences in the outside world set him on a different path.

Self-conscious and isolated as a child, with only imaginary friends for company, Grendel the monster is made monstrous by the loneliness, frustration, and monotony of his routine, as well as by his encounters with humans. He watches as they wage war on one another, destroying settlements and abusing animals, and his focus comes to rest on the man who has fought, burned, and pillaged his way to ruling the kingdom: Hrothgar.

When he first meets Hrothgar, Grendel is a young monster, caught in the gap between two tree trunks. Helpless, bleeding, and hungry, he hopes Hrothgar and his men will help him; instead, Hrothgar throws a battle-ax at him, which sets the stage for a combative relationship. Over time, Grendel comes to resent the king when he realizes that Hrothgar's kingdom, with its expanding roads and settlements, threatens his way of life. He also becomes envious when he spies on Hrothgar's meadhall, which is full of the warmth and connection Grendel lacks in his own life.

Grendel is especially fascinated by Hrothgar's minstrel, a man called the Shaper for his ability to inspire action and influence thought through his songs. Grendel envies that power and wishes to either prove the Shaper a liar or learn to shape reality himself. Yet Grendel remains alone in the shadows. Then Hrothgar's men attack Grendel twice more, and he visits a dragon who casts a spell that makes him impervious to weapons. That's when Grendel begins his 12-year war against Hrothgar and his people, conducting periodic raids to snatch sleeping men from their beds and eat them.

The war takes its toll on both Grendel and Hrothgar. Hrothgar loses his reputation as a powerful king, and other kings threaten to take over his realm. Even Hrothgar's own 14-year-old nephew, Hrothulf, plots against him. Grendel remains enmeshed in his loneliness and boredom, facing an existential crisis as he struggles to learn what—if anything—his actions mean and where he fits in the world. He is tormented by his desire for Hrothgar's queen, Wealtheow, as well as his own contradictory urges to be violent and to be understood. As Grendel becomes estranged even from his own mother, his isolation becomes soul-crushing.

After 12 years of attrition, a stranger (Beowulf) arrives from across the sea, accompanied by 14 other men, all superhuman in size and strength. Grendel later learns they are called the Geats. Grendel is energized by their arrival and excited by the challenge of new opponents. That night, he makes a raid on the meadhall that ends in disaster. The stranger fights Grendel without weapons, using only the strength of his hands. He rips off Grendel's arm, sending the bleeding and weeping monster out into the night to die alone.

Grendel Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Grendel lives in a cave with his clingy, grotesque mother.

Rising Action

2 Grendel explores beyond his cave and hunts animals for food.

3 Grendel watches Hrothgar, disgusted by man's wasteful ways.

4 Hrothgar's men attack Grendel when he's near the meadhall.

5 The dragon convinces Grendel his purpose is to scare humans.

6 Grendel launches his war against Hrothgar.


7 Grendel fights the stranger, who rips off his arm.

Falling Action

8 Grendel retreats, claiming his defeat was an accident.


9 Grendel dies, cursing all who continue to live.

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