Published in 1971 by the American author, John Gardner, Grendel is a powerful novel using the voice of the monster in Beowulf, an Old English epic poem. In the way of Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley and The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, the monster is lonely and questioning his existence. These writers used monsters to make readers examine what it means to be human.
In the way of Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley and The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, the monster is lonely and questioning his existence. These writers used monsters to make readers examine what it means to be human.
Grendel declares war on the Danes and it continues for twelve years. Although, it is one sided since he can kill them but they can’t kill him. But they do use his cruelties as fodder for the sagas sung by their bards. It is a way for them to prove their bravery.
Grendel is a bear like a monster who lives with his mother on the outskirts of civilization. She is a foul creature who has forgotten how to talk and is pathetic, which makes Beowulf’s murder of her in Beowulf seem less heroic than the poem did.
As a young monster, Grendel discovers a lake full of fire snakes and swims through it only to emerge in the land of humans. Naturally curious, he observes their growth from nomads to a feudal system with roads and order. As with other stories involving the displaced monsters, he watches but rarely ever involves himself in their lives, but when he does, it is disastrous.
In the book, Grendel is explained as a descendant of Cain, the son of Adam that was cast out after killing Abel. He and his offspring were cursed by God. Thus, his natural tendency is towards violence. Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, is his enemy because of his kindness. The story is the classic good versus evil, except that Gardner makes the reader question the black and white of good versus evil.
Grendel meets a dragon who puts a spell on him of invulnerability until Beowulf arrives and breaks the spell. With superhuman strength, Beowulf rips his arm off and Grendel runs away to die alone, as he spent his life.
Grendel begins with the monster in his underground lair. He is watching a ram, that is contentedly eating on the side of a hill. Grendel becomes angry at the ram and throws rocks at it trying to get it to leave, but the ram ignores him. The monster realizes the ram means spring has arrived.
With the arrival of spring, Grendel marks the twelfth year of his war with the humans. Although the war is pointless, Grendel doesn’t stop. Grendel is angry with the ram, and its need to mate. Grendel admits to himself that he is an animal, also. He sees himself as a contemptible monster who stinks of death.
Walking through his domain, Grendel notices further signs of spring. He also, notes spots where the greatest acts of violence took place. He passes the body of his mother. She is fat and foul and has not spoken for years. Because of something that happened, she feels guilty and quit talking. Anytime Grendel tries to get answers from her about the nature of their existence, she is either unable to answer his questions, or she chooses not to.
Since the weather is warming, Grendel makes his annual attack on the humans. He arrives at the mead hall of Hrothgar. They try to ward him off by turning out the lights, but of course, he can see in the dark. In a gleeful killing spree, Grendel attacks. He then puts several dead bodies in a bag and carries them off to the woods so he can eat them. But, with the dawn comes a stomach ache from the sour meat of the humans he ate. And his feelings of euphoria are fading into gloom.
Grendel watches the humans repair their mead hall, while they talk about the attack. They blame it on an angry god. Later he watches the humans build a funeral pyre. As the corpses burn the humans add rings, swords, and helmets into the fire. The group sing songs that are supposed to lead the dead to Valhalla, but the songs sound like a triumph to Grendel. He runs home in anger and with his stomach still upset from his meal.
Chapter two steps back to the first time Grendel is exposed to humans. As a child, he happily wandered through the halls of his underground lair. Grendel has no friends and is always alone. The other creatures who are there with him, other than his mother, are horrible creatures who watch him but never speak to him.
In his wanderings, Grendel finds a pool of fire snakes. He can sense that the snakes are guarding something, so he decides to find out what. Grendel dives into the water and comes out in the moonlight for the first time.
The first night, Grendel doesn’t get out of the lake, but as time passes he gets more and bolder in his explorations. Grendel’s expeditions open up his eyes to his world. He starts to realize the other creatures in his world may watch him, but they never see him. Only his mother actually sees him. Grendel thinks that maybe because they are one entity.
One day, while exploring, Grendel gets stuck in a tree. He calls for his mother, but she doesn’t hear him. A bull does, though and starts to attack. It hurts his leg, and Grendel moves his body so the bull can’t get to him. This makes Grendel believe the bull moves with blind instinct towards violence, and so does everyone else.
Grendel believes he is the center of the universe and everything either pushes against him or he pushes against it. The bull continues to attack, but Grendel ignores it. He falls asleep only to awaken in the darkness. Grendel gets his first look at humans. Grendel is surprised to discover they speak his language.
The humans think at first he may be a fungus growing on the oak tree. Then when they hear him try to talk, they decide he is a god of the tree. They think they need to feed him a pig, because he is hungry. Grendel thinks this is a great idea, but when he laughs the humans think he is an angry god and start to plan how to kill him. Grendel comes to the conclusion the humans are reasoning creatures almost too late. Just as they are about to kill him, his mother shows up.
After waking in his mother’s cave, Grendel tries to share his observances with his mother. When he tries to explain his idea of the nature of existence, she just stares at him uncomprehendingly. The more he tries to make her understand, the more agitated he becomes. Finally, his mother rushes to wrap her arms around him. She can see he is almost sick with fear. What she doesn’t see is she is almost suffocating him with her mass.
Chapter three is about the development of men. At first, there are two tribes. They meet sometimes and battle each other, then they go back to their caves, telling stories to each other about the battles. Soon the groups get larger and they join together. They erect large communal halls where they can get together and tell tales. They decorate the insides of the hall with tapestries and paintings.
The humans begin to plant crops and tame some of the animals for their use. The females stay at home to tend the camp and children, while the males go hunting. At night they meet in the mead halls. They drink and weave tales of the battles they have fought and what they plan to do to their neighbors.
One day Grendel sees that a mead hall has been destroyed. Grendel notices the changes that come over the humans as they enter the age of war. Their songs change, as well as their stories. They start to make beautiful weapons.
Grendel is disgusted by the repetitive warfare that he views from the safety of his tree. Grendel realizes that because they share a common language he must be related to the humans. This does not please him because humans are so pointlessly wasteful.
King Hrothgar stands out in Grendel’s interest. He is quickly becoming powerful. Hrothgar is organized and soon has other tribes swearing allegiance to him. He has roads built uniting all the tribes, with his own mead hall in the center. As Hrothgar treasure grows the people are forced to sleep outdoors as the mead hall fills with treasures. Hrothgar’s influence spreads to more people and Grendel’s fury mounts.
A bard arrives at the mead hall. He tells stories off the men of the history of the Danes. Since Grendel was there, he knows the stories are lies. But, the bard delivers the stories so convincingly that even Grendel has trouble not believing him.
Moved by the stories, Grendel runs to the top of a cliff and bellows into the wind. His voice comes rushing back to him. Then he runs back to his underground realm on all fours.
Hrothgar liked the stories the bard told so well, that he decided to build a communal mead hall. He wants to make the people adore him by giving out treasures from his new mead hall. Hrothgar sends for the best builders and artists to design a mead hall that is glorious. He names it Hart and invites everyone from all the tribes to see it.
Grendel watches the people in Hart. He sees that they all think Hrothgar is good and kind. This makes him feel even more morose and evil. As he wanders about the camp he comes upon a body with his throat cut, Grendel picks it up, tracking his footsteps into the blood on the ground.
Grendel stops at the window where he hears a song by the bard, “The harp turned solemn. He told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light. And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect. The terrible race God cursed.” Finally, Grendel had the answers to his origins. Grendel begins to cry for mercy and calls himself a friend. But, the body over his shoulder proves differently to the men.
They don’t understand his words, they just see a monster carrying a bloody corpse and shouting. They chase him out of the camp with battle axes and spears with poison tips. Although Grendel leaves cursing the Danes, he comes back days later to hear more of the bard’s stories.
Grendel thinks the stories of religion are ridiculous. But, he is so lonely with none of his own kind to talk to. He also battles his nature, which is to destroy. Grendel would like to talk to his mother, but she only whimpers and like him, can’t form words. Grendel goes out to a cliff and falls off. He lands in the underworld where he meets a dragon.
The dragon was expecting him. Grendel is afraid, and the dragon laughs. He says that Grendel’s reaction to him is the same reaction the humans have to him. This makes Grendel decide not to keep scaring the humans for fun. The dragon reads his mind and laughs. “Why not frighten them?” The dragon says he knows everything as he is more evolved than Grendel and the humans, both.
The dragon says that he sees backward and forwards in time. He tells Grendel the humans are seeking answers to things they don’t understand, so when the bard uses his imagination in giving them answers, they believe him. The dragon tries to make philosophical observations to Grendel, but he doesn’t understand some and disagrees with others. Since time can’t be changed, Grendel needs to just accept it and stop thinking to make changes or improve himself. Dragon’s advice to Grendel is to gather as much gold as possible and sit on it.
Dragon’s advice to Grendel is to gather as much gold as possible and sit on it. Grendel’s outlook has now changed. Although he still doesn’t plan to frighten the Danes just for the fun of it, he thinks they are all fools. When he listens to the bards songs now, he doesn’t feel shame only disgust.
While he is listening to a guard sneaks up on him and tries to stab him. The rest of the Danes attack and Grendel discovers they can’t hurt him. He deduces that the Dragon put a spell of protection on him. He takes a guard into the woods with him into the woods and bites his head off with glee.
A few nights later the twelve-year war between Grendel and the Danes begins. The raids make Grendel fill with joy for a time, but he feels more lonely than before. Now when he listens at the mead hall, the stories are of boasts of battles with him. He begins to destroy the mead hall in his fury. A thane by the name of Unferth starts to make challenges to Grendel lyrically.
They are all surprised when Grendel responds in the perfect language. He is sarcastic and taunts Unferth. His taunts reduce Unferth to tears and Grendel leaves in disgust but with satisfaction.
Grendel wakes to find that Unferth has followed him to his lair. Unferth confronts him trying to prove that he is brave, especially as no one will know whether he fled the hall out of fear or to hunt him. Grendel thinks that is stupid and points out that if he doesn’t return his bravery will not be sung about in songs.
Unferth boasts that one of them will die that night, but Grendel tells him he will take him back to the hall unhurt. After Unferth falls asleep Grendel takes him back to the hall, and for the next twelve years Grendel taunts him by never killing him during his raids.
Two years of raids have reduced the ranks of Hrothgar. Other tribes are starting to gain strength. In retaliation, Hrothgar gathers his allies together marches to Helming where Hygmod is the ruler. When he sees Hrothgar’s forces, Hygmod surrenders and offers gold as payment. But, Hrothgar turns down the offer.
Finally, Hygmod offers his sister, Wealtheov. Seeing her touches a part of Grendel that the bard’s songs did. Hrothgar takes her as his bride and Grendel stops attacking while she is in residence. Wealtheow’s influence seems to soften Hrothgar’s men.
The bard begins to sing about softer things and love. Grendel comes to the hall now just to watch her in her kindness and calming influence. In the middle of a long winter, Hygmod visits the hall and notices his sister’s effect on the men, also that her husband adores her. He slyly sees it as weakness.
Finally, Grendel attacks the mead hall. He grabs Wealtheow and thinks to destroy the hold she has over his violent tendencies. But, he releases her and goes home. His only joy is that he has destroyed one of the accepted ideas the Danes have about him.
More time passes and Hrothgar’s brother dies. He takes in his nephew, Hrothulf. But the boy is sullen and often delivers speeches to the peasants sparking them to revolt. Although the boy is kind to Hrothgar’s children, Hrothgar and his wife both realize that one day Hrothulf will grow to hate them.
As Hrothgar attends dinner in his mead hall he looks about him and sees all the threats to his kingdom. He sees Hrothulf, Hygmod, and even his wife, who is so much younger than him. Hrothgar also thinks about the threat of a neighbor ruler, Ingeld, who he plans to marry his eldest daughter too. He hopes that will forge an alliance. Of course, Hrothgar’s biggest threat is the insurgency and revolt his nephew is brewing with the people of the town. He does take the kingdom from Hrothgar in the Beowulf saga.
Grendel soon discovers that the priests are worshiping a god that resembles him. They ask their god, the Destroyer to help them get rid of Grendel. One evening he visits the ring of statues and finds an old blind priest. He convinces the man that he is the Destroyer. Although he plans to kill the priest, Grendel spends time in a theological discourse with him. Soon, three other priests run up to the old man, and Grendel slinks off.
The bard dies, and Grendel goes to the funeral. His mother gets progressively more insane and tries to get Grendel to stay in their cave. She senses an impending doom. Grendel, also senses the end coming.
The threat coming for Grendel finally arrives by ship. A large man with a group of fifteen fierce warriors. He says they are Geats from the kingdom of King Hygilac. (although he is not named, the reader knows it is Beowulf). Grendel knows he will finally be released from his boredom.
In Hart, Beowulf is meeting some resistance. The men don’t like the idea of taking help from a Geat. Unferth tries to taunt Beowulf, but his jest is turned back on him. When Grendel hears Beowulf say that Unferth is destined for hell since he killed his brothers, Grendel thinks he is insane. Why would someone say something like that in a room full of strangers.
That night Grendel attacks the mead hall. He is surprised to find Beowulf who twists his arm making Grendel feel the first pain he has felt in years. When Grendel slips in blood, Beowulf whispers in his ear the same words the dragon used. Grendel is amazed when Beowulf rips his arm off. Grendel runs from the battle. He runs to his mother, telling her what happened. Then he falls into the abyss and bleeds to death. “Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper, “So may you all.”
Grendel – Grendel is the narrator of the novel. He is huge, like a bear. The story starts with his awakening as a thoughtful creature. When he leaves his underworld home to explore the outer world, he discovers people. Grendel acknowledges their differences from him and observes them.
He begins to develop philosophical opinions brought on by his observances. The few times he tried to interact with them it did not go well because although he could understand their language, they couldn’t understand him. After finding a sentient dragon, Grendel becomes almost impervious to pain and able to speak in the language of the Danes.
But, by then he sees them as hardly above animals and has disdain for them. He wages a twelve-year war, in which he attacks when the weather warms. Although eating people upsets his stomach, he still dines on them after these raids.
Grendel is desperately lonely so when Beowulf comes to kill him, Grendel knows it and welcomes him. Still yet, he is shocked when Beowulf delivers the fatal wound.
Hrothgar – He is the King of the Danes. He is one of the intelligent Danes. He works at uniting the various tribes, with him on the head. He is pragmatic, realizing his nephew is a threat as he gives impassioned speeches on the unfairness of the social differences between the haves and the have-nots. He also sees the weaknesses brought by his love for his wife who is a gentling person.
Wealtheow – The wife of Hrothgar and Queen of the Danes. She was given to Hrothgar to be his wife after Hrothgar and his men attacked her brother’s kingdom. She is kind and giving. Her altruistic personality brings a feeling of quiet and peace whenever she enters the room. She is called for when the ruckus in the mead hall gets out of hand. With just her presence she calms the violence of the Danes.
Unferth – A Dane with dreams of becoming a hero. He has unrealistic opinions of what makes a hero. So when he tries to get Grendel to battle. But, Grendel belittles him and highlights his innate cowardly nature. He spends the rest of his life trying to best Grendel and get his pride back.
Hrothulf – The nephew of Hrothgar. When his father died, Hrothulf was sent to live with his uncle. He spreads unrest with trying to incite the workers. He often pontificates on the unfairness of the rich befitting from the work of the poor.
He seems to want to do away with the aristocracy, but the reader knows from Beowulf that he usurps his uncle’s throne and becomes ruler, himself in the future. Hrothgar knows that although Hrothulf is kind to Hrothgar’s young children and his wife, he will someday be a threat to them.
Hygmod – King of the Helmings. He is the brother of Wealtheow, who offers her in marriage to Hrothgar when he attacks his kingdom. Although this should have brought peace between the two kingdoms, Hrothgar knows that his brother in law is plotting ways to become more powerful at his expense. He wants to add to his growing power base.
John Chaplin Gardner Biography
John Chaplin Gardner, Jr. author of Grendel was born on July 21, 1933, in Batavia, New York. His father was a farmer and his mother a teacher. Both of his parents were lovers of Shakespeare and would recite the verses often together. As a child, Gardner was an avid member of the Boy Scouts of America. He became an Eagle Scout.
Gardner worked on the farm when he wasn’t in school. In 1945 Gardner was operating a multi-packer, which is a large rake-like tool, that hooks to a tractor and prepares land for tilling. His younger brother was hurt in an accident and died. Gardner spent the rest of his life carrying the guilt from the accident and suffering from reoccurring nightmares and flashbacks. As a writer, this accident showed up often in his work, especially in his short story, “Redemption” written in 1977.
Graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in 1955, Gardner went on to achieve his M. A. & PhD. In 1958 from the University of Iowa. In 1970 and 1971 Gardner was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Detroit in Michigan.
Some of Gardner’s most famous novels include The Sunlight Dialogues. It is his version of the 1960’s in America. It includes an unconventional cast of characters set in a conventional small town. The sheriff tries to unravel the mystery surrounding a drifter who paints the word “love” across two lanes of traffic. They engage in philosophical discourses about morality, freedom, and choice.
October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award and is about an older brother and sister who are forced to live together in his Vermont farmhouse after her wealthy husband dies. The two siblings don’t get along at all, (he shoots her television with a shotgun). But, they join together when the outside neighbors involve themselves.
Grendel is one of his greatest novels. Published in 1971, it is a retelling of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. The monster asks philosophical questions about life and loneliness. Gardner portrays Grendel as an antihero, hoping for redemption, but not finding it.
John Gardner taught fiction writing. He wrote two books on the subject, The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, that are considered classics for classes in writing. His book On Moral Fiction was so controversial that he became a regular on talk shows and in the media for a while.
Because he spoke out on the moral ambiguity of classical authors such as John Updike and John Barth, he was ostracized from some publishing companies. He believed that books should help to discover the values that are universally sustaining or enriching.
On September 14, 1982 , just four days before his third marriage to Susan Thornton, John Gardner died in a motorcycle accident after losing control on a curve. He was about two miles from his home in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. He is buried next to his brother in Batavia’s Grandview Cemetery, in New York.