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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Symbols



Grendel's cave—cold, dark, dank, and protected by fire snakes—reflects his deep sense of isolation and loneliness. Its inhospitable character underlines the suffering of Grendel's loneliness. The cave is unappealing in the same way Grendel is unappealing to those he encounters. In Chapter 2, Grendel says, "I am lack." Grendel must confront the ancient emptiness and darkness inside himself; he embraces it instead of seizing opportunities for change and learning to believe in something greater, beyond reason. The hollow cave is home to Grendel's murky, speechless mother who never leaves, as well as dim shapes that are trapped in an "inviolable gloom," as Grendel observes. The cave dwellers represent emptiness, subjectivity, and an inner void. Grendel's comments in Chapter 11 clarify the symbolism of the cave: "The watchful mind lies, cunning and swift, about the dark blood's lust ... then sudden and swift the enemy strikes from nowhere, the cavernous heart." Grendel's true enemy all along has been isolation and emptiness.


Hrothgar's meadhall stands in sharp contrast to Grendel's gloomy cave. It is a warm and hospitable respite from the dangers of nature and winter's cold. It is filled with light and song, a place where men may fight but also embrace one another as brothers. It represents the friendship and connection Grendel cannot enjoy. Mead is a beer-like drink from the Old English period, made from fermented honey, and it is used in Grendel to arouse a feeling of celebration and camaraderie among all members of the community, including women. The meadhall also symbolizes Hrothgar's dream of establishing a peaceful, productive community. Grendel may tell himself he attacks the meadhall because of his predator instincts or because of Hrothgar's pride, but in truth, he attacks because he is envious of Hrothgar's vision and theories. The meadhall is where the Shaper manipulates reality, and Grendel tries to undo the reality the humans are constructing because he is not included in a positive way. Grendel longs to be known, and if being known to humankind means he must be destructive, then so be it.

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