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Grendel | Study Guide

John Gardner

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Grendel | Themes



Grendel resents his isolation from the rest of the world—from humans, from animals, from his own mother—even as he pretends to embrace it. He sees himself as a unique creature, forging his own reality, yet he resents Hrothgar and his men for their camaraderie, wishing to join in even though he believes their connections are not genuine. In his childhood, Grendel chose to isolate himself from men, his mother, and other creatures by embracing the ideas that meaning cannot be shared and he alone exists in the world. His choice to follow his instincts and reject idealism, heroism, love, and God, which he sees as traps, lead him further into isolation.

Although Grendel's suffering is the most acute, others around him also suffer from isolation. Wealtheow is "alone and never alone" as someone who has been willingly traded to a violent king to protect her people. As a pawn in a game she doesn't control, her isolation is intensified by the potential risks to her personal safety if she fails to please. In a world ruled by men, the women remain isolated; even Wealtheow's daughter, Freawaru, prepares to follow in her mother's footsteps as she is betrothed to hostile King Ingeld of the Heathobards for the same purposes. In addition, something vital is missing from Wealtheow's interactions with Hrothgar, and she is unable to judge Grendel as anything but a monster despite his good traits, calling into question just how connected two separate entities can be.

Fate versus Free Will

Readers who are familiar with Grendel's source material, Beowulf, know that Grendel's fate is sealed from the start. Less clear is whether Grendel has any control over his destiny; his conversation with the dragon hints that all events, including Grendel's life and death, are predetermined. Yet the dragon uses faulty logic and conflated philosophical babble to confuse Grendel into rejecting ideas about fate, God, and free will; readers will notice the dragon's illogical statements, even if Grendel does not. For example, the dragon says he may do what he wants to do, but that doesn't mean he causes events to happen; it just means he sees events before they happen. Following the dragon's blurry logic on the topic of free will, he says, "So much for free will and intercession!" Nothing comes of his comment, as it is far beyond Grendel's understanding.

Intercession is a major tenet in Christianity; Jesus, the angels, and the saints intercede or act in favor of someone else through prayer, moving God to mercy on behalf of creatures on Earth. It never occurs to Grendel to pray; he does not know the Judeo-Christian belief that the soul's free will is at stake, nor does he know of a serpent or a Lucifer whose purpose it is to tempt the soul. It is important to notice that the dragon explains nothing of substance to Grendel. The way the theme plays out suggests that Grendel is locked into his fate, and he feels death coming inexorably toward him. But Grendel also follows his natural instincts, which could equate to free will, though he grapples with and reaches for something beyond. Because the dragon has so thoroughly tricked Grendel, Grendel never fully understands how to use his free will; nor does he comprehend how free will connects to the divine, faith, or belief in connectedness and meaning.

Paradoxically, it is possible at times to read about events in the novel from the humans' perspective, despite Grendel's narration. This perspective shows how spiritual forces are at play in the charm Grendel is under, during his encounter with Ork, and when Grendel is blocked from killing humans for no logical reason. And the stranger (as Grendel refers to as Beowulf) is portrayed as part human, part angel, confirming something mystical has a hand in Grendel's fate.

Monsters and Humans

Although Grendel is a monster, he has complex thoughts and feelings. He attempts to connect with the humans and has a familial connection to his mother. He shows devotion to the land he calls home and resents the changes humans make to his environment. Meanwhile, the humans attack Grendel without understanding him or his intentions, and they recklessly destroy resources as they conquer the lands around them. Grendel's actions and people's violence blur the line between monster and human. Like a human, Grendel theorizes, uses reason, searches for meaning, and senses he has more than one mind while he observes his own life. Grendel evolves into a poet like the Shaper and learns to use his imagination, outstripping humans who are locked into cycles of ambition, violence, and materialism. In some ways, Grendel is portrayed as a natural predator of humans, a part of nature meant to keep them in check. He compares his role to that of humans mastering and domesticating animals: "I cut down my visits, conserving the game, and watched them. Nature lover."


Grendel is fascinated with the power of words and stories to shape perceptions of reality—hence, the court minstrel/storyteller is called the Shaper. As the dragon tells Grendel, the men need a creature like Grendel to inform their stories and press their own progress forward. Grendel's decision to tell his own story is an attempt to harness the same power for himself, to create and shape the reality of his own life. Throughout the novel, Grendel explores the nature of poetry and the idea of using words to shape the world. At first, he says the Shaper's inspiration comes from "winds (or whatever you please)," as though he does not quite believe in the Shaper's powers. The trees become a narrative perspective in Chapter 7, as though they are portents observing Grendel, who is still searching for signs. By Chapter 8, Grendel has learned to use his imagination to create poetry and scenes with powerful imagery; he fantasizes about what Hrothulf is thinking and feeling. It is as if Grendel has entered into a communion with nature, or something higher, and it gives him the power to create. When the Shaper dies, Grendel mourns the loss of his own history; without someone to tell his stories to, Grendel feels his poetic powers are ultimately useless. However, language and poetry are imbued with such power and mystical force in Grendel that his love and mastery of them points toward redemption for his character.

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