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Grendel, John Gardner - Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2679 words Published: 14th Jul 2017

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In John Gardner’s Grendel, he presents Grendel as a truly unique character. Gardner portrays Grendel as a misunderstood, confused yet a complex creature. Whom he humanizes. I feel that by portraying him this way, Gardner shows how there are two sides to each story. This makes him more relatable to the reader. Grendel is monstrous, but not brutish. Grendel is a character who is capable of learning, thinking, feeling emotions and communicating.

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Personally what attracts me to Grendel is his curiosity. Readers can relate to Grendel in many ways. He knows that his actions are cruel, yet he wants to understand why he persists in them. Grendel has been at war with the Danes and it was “twelfth year of his idiotic war” (5).Grendel knows that his war with the Danes is a cycle, which involves him killing people but he still continues it. He knows what he is doing is stupid and idiotic because he describes it as “idiotic” (5). I feel that the reason he still goes on with the war is because he is curious to find out why he does the thing he does .I think he is hoping for an epiphany. Grendel is longing for an answer. The curiosity of Grendel, gives the reader the reasoning behind his attacks and this makes him more understandable to the reader.

Like humans Grendel is able to learn quickly. He learns a lot about himself and the world while he is trapped in the tree. While he was up on the tree, Grendel realizes that the whole world is unstable. In other words, he thinks that the world is chaotic and violent. “I understood that, finally and absolute, I alone exist” (22), Grendel realizes that he is alone in this world. Through the entire novel it has been a learning process for him. During his first encounter he learns that humans are “no dull mechanical bull” (27) but they were the “most dangerous thing” (27) he has ever met. His first encounter with humans made him want to learn more about the humans and this is why he watched humans. He would watch them “from the eaves of the forest” (30), he wanted to know more about humans. He felt a connection with humans, even though they misunderstood him and attacked him. I think he found more of a connection with humans that with his own mother because they had similar traits such as thinking, learning and curiosity. I feel that Grendel is an intelligent creature because he is able to use what he has learned from past observations. He knew that the Danes “were doomed” (53), Grendel has seen people fight each other and destroy each other and he knew that the same fate awaited them. The way that Gardner portrays Grendel’s rationalization and his ability to learn show how much of a complex character he is. He was able to recognize humans have a similar language.

Grendel like humans is also able to feel emotions. This is what separates him from the all the other creatures. When Grendel was stuck in the tree trunk, he “bellowed for [his] mother” (27). I feel sympathy for Grendel because he reminds me of a child .His behavior is childlike. He is in search of love just like any other child. Grendel is scared just like any child would be. By Gardner humanizing Grendel he is able to draw sympathy towards him. After sparing Unferth, each time he sees him, he “roll[s] on the floor with laughter” is mocking him (90). Grendel is able to feel and shows that he knows that humans have feeling too because he knows each time he mocks Unferth he knows that it kills him a little on the inside. When Grendel encounters Wealtheow, he describes her as “beautiful [and] as innocent as dawn on winter hills” (100).Wealtheow “tore [him] apart as once the shaper’s song had done” (100).Grendel is moved by her beauty. He had the “greatest admiration” (144) for her.

Grendel’s ability to think attracts the reader because ability to think separates human from animals. He is a bit of philosopher. He seeks, like an existentialist philosopher, to understand the nature of his being and to bring his nature to completion. He understands that the “world was nothing” (21).He understands the world is nothing and that a person define meaning to their life. His existential views are also shown when he was tempted to whisper, “all of us must sooner or later pass” (145). He understands that people are only here for a short period of time. With his encounter with the dragon, he understands “the dragon could lie. He was evil enough” (71).I feel this shows how complex Grendel’s thinking ability is. He can synthesize information about the dragon, after meeting with him and uses reasoning to figure out that he couldn’t trust the dragon. He doubts the dragon. I feel that this shows his ability to think because doubt is caused by thinking and analyzing information and assessing the validity of the information.

Finally Grendel is a character who is full of pride. He thinks that he is better than other creature. He considers other creatures as low-life. He wonders “why can’t these creatures discover a little dignity” (6). He thinks he is better than the bull because he has “dignity.” When he was fighting with Beowulf he thinks he is better than humans. He thinks he “can escape him” (169).He thinks that he is better than humans.

Point of view

In John Gardner’s Grendel, Grendel, both the main character and narrator of the story, narrates the story from a first person point of view. I feel that this adds a personal touch to the story because all the emotions he describes are raw emotions. As I go through Grendel’s life, I am sympathetic towards him because of his raw emotions. Because it is told from the first person perspective, the emotions described are the same exact emotions Grendel felt.

I think the reason Gardner chose to tell it from Grendel’s point of view because there are always two sides to each story. In the epic, Grendel is portrayed as a simply monster who is plain evil and has no emotions what so ever. Gardner gives a chance for Grendel to tell his side of the story. Grendel’s first encounter with men, they consider him as a “spirit’ (25).The significance of this experience is not how he encounter men for the first time but how the people reacted towards him. They misunderstood him from the get go. They didn’t even try to understand him. At one point they though he was a “fungus” (24). Gardner uses Grendel to convey the idea that bullies are like monsters in a sense because no one tries to understand them. People jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts like how they classified Grendel as a spirit without having any concrete evidence that proves he is a spirit. Another example is when Grendel’s mouth “moved but nothing would come out” (26) and they assume that Grendel is hungry. Then they mistaken him as an enemy, and the king “hurdles an axe towards at [Grendel]” (27). I feel bad for Grendel because everyone misunderstands him.

Grendel telling the story makes us feel pity towards him which was lacking in the original Beowulf. In the epic Grendel was a monster who was pure evil but in Grendel, he is almost childlike which makes us feel pity towards him. When he was being attacked by humans, “he bellowed for his mother” (27) just like how a child would call out for his mom when the kid is being picked on. In Beowulf he is portrayed as an evil monster that was fearless and his mind set on killing but in Grendel he admits being “afraid of them” (79).

Grendel being narrated in first person adds a personal touch to the novel. Because the main character narrates the novel, raw emotion is described. Who is better to describe how he feels than Grendel. Throughout the novel, I get to know what exactly what Grendel is feeling and what is going through his mind. For example during his first raid, he “felt an unearthly joy” (79).Because he describes this as a first person, it feels personal and the emotions see, strong but this would be lost if it was narrated in third person. Being narrated in first person amplifies the emotions. For example after attacking, he decided, “meaningless to kill her” (110). We know what is going through his head, this amplifies any emotion we have towards Grendel. We would feel differently towards Grendel if it was said through someone else.

One thing that is lost through first person point of view is the truth. The facts are clouded because we have a limited perspective. We only see one side of the story, in this case Grendel’s side on how the events happened. Grendel narrates the story in past tense so his feelings are clouded with how he feels at the moment. For example “I have eaten several priests. They sit on the stomach like duck eggs” (129).He might have felt differently when he had actually eaten them but reflecting on it, he feels they were like duck eggs.


One of the predominate themes in Grendel is the need for community. Throughout the novel, Grendel is in search of community. Grendel desperately tries to fit in a community, but he will always be an outsider. Grendel tries to join the human community when he went to the hall and cried out “friend! Friend! ” (52). He wanted to be part of the human community but he wasn’t accepted. The way people reacted towards him was they tried to kill him. He would observe human behavior. Season after season he would “watch from the high cliff wall” (37) and observe humans and how they fought. Why would he observe humans if he didn’t want to be part of their community. He is definitely intrigued by them. At times Grendel would feel “alone and ugly” (17).Grendel relates being alone to ugliness so he needs companionship to feel good about himself. I feel that Grendel has a need for community is because he doesn’t want to be alone. He has no one to talk to. His own mother can’t communicate with him. He is in search of a companion. He is jealous of the shaper because he has “people to talk to” (53).Even though he wants companionship with humans he knows he will never fit in.

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Grendel sees many benefits and flaws with humans. I think Gardner is addressing the benefits and drawbacks of human community through Grendel. One of the benefits he sees with community is teamwork. He called humans “Crafty-witted killers that worked in teams” (31) He admires their team work. Another benefit he sees of community is how “they would listen to each other at meadhall tables” (32).The problems that he sees with community is how much they waste. When he came to the hall he say “cows in their pens lay burbling blood through their nostrils, with javelin holes in their neck. None had been eaten” (33) .Another problem he had seen with communities was war. He observed how the “wars began” (34)He saw all the destruction of wars.

Another predominate theme in Grendel is art. The shaper plays a huge part in this theme. Grendel is so enticed by the shaper that he wanted to part of his stories. He was so enticed that the sharper made him believe that he was part of the “dark side” (51).He was addicted to shaper’s story and kept coming back for more. The Shaper’s songs implant in Grendel a sense of despair and longing for emotional contact. He at first attempts to repent and embrace the ideology of the humans in exchange of acceptance, but when he is rejected he instead decides to fall in to the role which the Shaper had assigned him. His idea of the Shaper changes after his encounter with the dragon. He realizes that the shaper is just like everyone else and that it was all an “illusion” (62).The way they change the world through the arts in craft is by changing is history. History is told by the victor. Shaper tells people what they want to hear.

In the epic Grendel is a character of pure evil with no good intention in his heart that is if he has a heart. Gardner, on the other hand uses a different approach in Grendel. In Grendel, Gardner shows some sign of goodness in him. On act of goodness is when he decides not to kill Unferth. Unferth passes out and Grendel decides to “pick him up gently and carried him home” (90).He feels pity towards him and decides not to kill him. Another act of goodness is when he decides not to kill. Grendel cannot see himself past the monster that he is. Every time he does something bad he feels guilty, but every time he does something good he feels like a sissy and a bad monster. Grendel is a monster because he accepts his role as a monster. When new people show up he is “mad with joy” (151) because he now has new people to terrorize. If he didn’t accept his role as a monster why would be in his twelfth year.

Grendel has different idea of good and evil. To him humans are evil because they would constantly fight each other. He would watch the “fighting going on all that summer and begin again the next” (36).He sees how fighting leads to destruction.


Grendel’s cave has a both a symbolic and a literal meaning. In his mother’s cave “large old shapes with smoldering eyes sat watching me. A continuous grumble came out of their mouths; their backs were humped. Then little by little it dawned on me that the eyes that seemed to bore into my body were in fact gazing through” (16).When he awakens Grendel describes the cave as “dark” (23). The caves symbolize darkness and the evil within it. They are associated with each other because darkness can evoke fear and that is what both the caves and monsters do. The cave in this novel can be used in both literal and symbolic ways because a monster, Grendel, lives inside of it. The cave also represents the fact that they are not always evil because Grendel is not portrayed as a completely evil creature.

The most interesting thing about Hart to Grendel is the people. He learns about what happens to them when they become angry or when they decide to work together. He is impressed by their organization. Grendel is impressed by how Hrothgar “shown them the strength of his organization” (37).It is a symbol of how complex the human race can be. What Hart means to them is home. They all gather their and share their lives. It symbolizes their strength to live through all of the things that happen to them. Hart is a place where they can socialize because it was a place where where “they would listen to each other.”(32) It also symbolizes unity because they can accomplish many things when they work together.

 I don’t think that Grendel fully understands the physical conditions of the human world because, while he wants to be a part of them, he doesn’t know what it’s like to be part of a community, and just getting information through observation isn’t enough when it’s about culture and tradition. The most striking thing that Grendel finds about the way humans live is their ability to make patterns and create façades over the real world to make it appear the way they want it to.

Grendel feels that the physical world is not really there. He feels that Grendel is the only living thing that is truly there and living. He feels like he is the only one that matters at all. Everything else is just space for him to move around in because he “create[s] the whole universe, blink by blink” (22).He feels that the world is just one big machine with no thoughts of its own. Only he, Grendel, is truly alive and intelligent.


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