My Elastic Mind
My Elastic Mind > Senior > Grendel
full title · Grendel
author · John Gardner
type of work · Novel
genre · Postmodern novel; prose poem; bildungsroman (novel about the growth of the protagonist)
language · English
time and place written · 1969–1970; San Francisco
date of first publication · 1971
publisher · Knopf
narrator · Grendel
point of view · Grendel narrates in the first person, conveying his inner thoughts and observations; occasionally he narrates from the point of view of another character
tone · Grendel attempts to maintain a satirical, mocking distance throughout the novel, but often finds himself slipping into an impassioned earnestness
tense · Present, but with substantial flashbacks in Chapters 1–8
setting (time) · The fourth century a.d.
setting (place) · Denmark
protagonist · Grendel
major conflict · Grendel struggles, within his own mind, to understand his place in a potentially meaningless world
rising action · Grendel's exposure to the opposing philosophies of the Shaper and the dragon provide him with two options of how to live in a world without inherent meaning or values: he can either try to create and assert his own meaning in the world or resign and accept the fact that such an endeavor is futile.
climax · By engaging in a full-scale war with the humans, Grendel chooses to create a system of meaning for himself.
falling action · Though warfare fulfills Grendel for a time, it soon becomes just as mechanical and empty as anything else. At this point, the only way out of Grendel's trap is death.
themes · Art as falsehood; the incompatibility of reason and emotion; the power of stories; the pain of isolation
motifs · The seasons; the zodiac; machinery
symbols · The bull; the corpse; Hart
foreshadowing · The unresponsive ram foreshadows the unresponsive humans; the allusion to the curse of Cain foreshadows the charm of the dragon and the Christian imagery that surrounds Beowulf; the dark presence that Grendel feels in the woods and the snake he mistakes for a vine foreshadow his meeting with the dragon; the onset of winter foreshadows Grendel's death.
Chapter One Notes:
Grendel is a monster who is self-aware, yet "unnatural," and opposed to human beings because of his own nature. Therefore, the narration of this chapter (and the rest of the novel) is a slippery mix of human-like feelings, protests against nature, and sly, undercutting comments revealing how Grendel is both an outsider to nature and to human experience and yet connected to those two worlds. Grendel treats his attack on the humans as if it is outside of his control, part of a meaningless springtime ritual. In fact, Grendel protests against all kinds of meaningful patterns, spoken and unspoken, especially the rhythm of the seasons and the "voices" of animals, trees, and the lake. Grendel may only be pretending not to like the war that he is waging.
Grendel himself undercuts many of his protests against his war and nature by claiming he is joking, or trying to fool himself. At one point, Grendel compares himself with an "objective" observer of a thousand years later. But the emotional nature of his narration reveals that Grendel is anything but objective and thus an unreliable narrator. He is, after all, in control of some of the decisions that lead to this cruel, painful war. But Grendel cannot resist his war against the people in Hrothgar's hall, in part because he is fascinated by the humans' attempt to make meaning from it. Grendel downplays his own violence, spending little time describing the actual attack on Hrothgar's hall. He pretends the violence is all a big misunderstanding, a theme that continues throughout the novel. Misunderstanding exists on a grand scale between Grendel and the humans he encounters, but there is also an undercurrent of connectedness.
There are several examples of foreshadowing in the first chapter - hints that Grendel has more to say about humans, his experience with a dragon, and his admiration for the Shaper. The Shaper will be a key character in later chapters. He is a blind singer, not unlike the anonymous author of Beowulf. In many ways he parallels Grendel. Grendel notices the Shaper smartly sneaking out the back window rather than confronting Grendel directly. The Shaper is a survivor, despite his handicap, much like Grendel himself. The language of this chapter captures the feel of ancient Anglo-Saxon while using modern words. For example, the author uses three compound words ("rockslide," "cowshed," and "skull-size") in the first paragraph alone, an common technique for creating new words in ancient English. Also, the stream-of-consciousness style brings readers closer to Grendel's state of mind.
Chapter Two Notes
This chapter is a twisted, monstrous version of the fight that all children must go through to distinguish themselves from their parents, combined with a real life-or-death struggle against men. It is comical or absurd in parts. The blunt language of the men especially serves as a comical contrast to Grendel's sly self-awareness. The men seem at first to be dull-witted in comparison to Grendel, but Grendel soon learns that they are, in fact, aware of their surroundings, able to adapt, and therefore dangerous to him. The contrast between the men and the bull, unable to adapt to Grendel's situation, repeating the same attack over and over, is clear. The men attempt to understand what Grendel is. Unfortunately, they fail, in part because of the language difference that Grendel mentions at the beginning of the chapter, but also because he is so foreign to them that they do not recognize him as anything close to human. According to Grendel, it is the men's misunderstanding that leads them to attack him, not anything threatening that he does. Grendel, however, is an unreliable witness, and it is possible he sounded threatening to the men.
Grendel's struggle to distinguish himself from his mother is exposed in this chapter. He begins by keeping his adventures outside the cave and in the world of men secret from her. When he gets stuck in the tree and realizes that his mother might not come for him, Grendel swings to the extreme conclusion that "I alone exist." This swing from not being separate from mother to being the only identity in the world mirrors a child's selfishness. To become a healthy adult, it is essential to separate oneself from parents without adopting an all-or-nothing view of the world. In Grendel's account, his mother is the real monster, knowing only a disgusting, basic kind of love that expresses itself physically, without words, while his own self-absorbed talk is not monstrous. In fact, his monstrous self-absorption is destructive to the world of men and to Grendel himself. Grendel's self-awareness and his web of words are designed to protect him from his mother's trapping love, but they are not entirely successful at it. At the end of the chapter, he is engrossed in his mother's embrace once again, and he cannot escape it mentally or physically. Grendel ultimately fails to define himself as separate from his mother, and his struggle to escape her embrace leads only to the other extreme of self-absorption.
Chapter Three Notes
Grendel announces at the beginning of the chapter that, as an outsider, his soul is committed to a slow, cruel war against Hrothgar. Grendel knows that he is, in fact, related to people, since he can understand their language. He does not understand men's actions, though. The wars they fight baffle Grendel. He understands violence, but not violence against one's own kind. Grendel sees the violence that surrounds men as wasteful. In fact, he tries to preserve some of the wasted "meat" and bring it back to the cave, but his mother complains about the smell. Still, he cannot resist observing the world of men.
The Shaper's song destroys Grendel's ability to distance himself from men. The song, quoted directly for the first time in this chapter, creates a heroic version of events that shatters Grendel's ability to cope with man's intrusions on his world. From Grendel's perspective, the song writes a new history, although it claims to be an ancient song about how things really were. This attempt to create history drives Grendel mad with rage. He decides to launch his war on Hrothgar partially because his past has been taken away. Grendel's narration itself is an attempt to write a counter-story to the myths the Shaper creates, but it is not entirely successful. Bits and pieces of the Shaper's song are retained. Grendel remembers the Shaper's version of events as well as his own, and he seems to know that he writes a loser's version of history. Hence, in the very first chapter, he calls his war "idiotic," even as he goes down to fight it for the twelfth time.
Chapter Four Notes
Grendel encounters two alternate versions of reality opposed to his own philosophy. Both versions of reality compete for his attention, while Grendel struggles to be understood by people. Grendel at first holds the idea that the world is nothing but pure mechanical instinct and "bruteness," without meaning. His narcissism and isolation continue, with him believing it is him against the world. Then, in the stories the Shaper sings, he encounters an alternate version of reality, as well as a call to justice. Hrothgar takes up the cause of building a glorious empire that would "give out treasures" and last for generations. The Shaper's song inspires this effort. Hrothgar seems successful to some degree to Grendel, and Grendel is drawn in to hear more of the Shaper's song.
The symbolism of snakes is important here. The snake is the traditional enemy of mankind in the Adam and Eve story, the tempter that tricks people into eating the forbidden fruit, leading to their exile from Eden. In the same way, snakes appear to Grendel when he is drawn toward people and tempted by their version of reality. The first appearance of a snake comes when Grendel begins to believe that the Shaper's song can change the world of men. Comically, he picks up a snake on purpose, looking for someone to talk to about men. But at the same time as Grendel begins to believe the Shaper's song, he hears an answering echo to his question, "Why not?" coming from deep in the forest. This is the dragon's version of reality, revealed more fully in the next chapter. Dragons have magical abilities and powerful minds in this novel, and the dragon projects his thoughts to Grendel, opposing both men and Grendel. The dragon's mental projections cause Grendel to doubt his own investigations of people.
A dragon is, essentially, a big snake, so the presence of snakes in the forest connect the dots between the consciousness Grendel feels and the dragon. When Grendel feels the consciousness a second time, he looks for a snake. Instead, comically, he finds a vine. Grendel wants to believe the version of the world that the Shaper offers, but he is drawn back into the forest by nagging doubts. Grendel is confused and bewildered by these two alternate realities, and wants to believe that everything is meaningless but cannot. When he stumbles across the man's naked body, he wants to believe the Shaper's song and reaches out to people as a "conversion" to their religion, but he is confronted with men's cruelty toward each other and, ultimately, toward himself. The men attack him.
Grendel rages against the men's religion, feeling betrayed after his failed attempt at reconciliation with men. Still, he is addicted to their religion and returns to hear more of the Shaper's song. He hears the answering, taunting, "Why not?" coming from the dragon's consciousness, reaches out a hand to steady himself on a vine, and this time, encounters a snake when he does not expect it. He is terrified at first and runs back to his mama, but then, still unsatisfied with his mother's brutal love, he ventures out onto the moor and is drawn into the dragon's lair.
Chapter Five Notes
This chapter is both comical and philosophical, offering a contrast between questioning belief and atheism as represented by the characters of the two monsters The dragon is clearly a key character, foreshadowed in previous chapters and referred back to in later chapters. There is no mistaking the evil intent of the dragon, who does everything he can to undermine Grendel's just-beginning, questioning belief in the human's religion. The dragon represents an atheistic understanding of the world. Knowing the future, he is like an evil god.
At the beginning of the chapter, Grendel is not quite a believer but not quite ready to abandon belief. He is baffled by the dragon's philosophical and scientific discourse, but his instincts eventually lead him to believe that there is no god. Still, he remains attached to the humans' account of a loving god who created the world, and he is almost ready to fight the dragon to defend that belief. Grendel is not satisfied with the dragon's advice to be selfish and seek out plunder, nor does he like being called a "brute existent" against which the humans define themselves. Grendel is "addicted" to the human religion. He wants to believe, even if he knows it is not the truth. This desire will ultimately lead him to greater and greater confrontations with men and the surprise ending in Chapter 12 (at least it is a surprise to Grendel), but for now, it is enough for Grendel that "something will come of" the Shaper's song.
If Chapter 5 is a contest between belief and atheism, Chapter 6 is to some extent a battle between heroism and fate. The dragon's smell referred to in the beginning of the chapter symbolizes both fate and the cynicism a belief in fate creates. Cynicism can be defined as the belief in the impossibility of positive change. From the beginning of the chapter on, the dragon's belief system has infected Grendel with both a grave sense of doom and a conviction that everything is meaningless. On the other hand, heroism, represented by Unferth, attempts to defy fate by latching on to high ideals and seeking to defend a reputation. Grendel immediately adopts a cynical, indifferent stance toward heroism in this chapter, seeking to make fun of Unferth's "absurd" pretensions, in contrast to the rage he feels when confronted with the Shaper's song.
Like all wars, Grendel's war against Hrothgar begins with a sense of strategic advantage and continues through a gradual hardening of positions. Grendel never stops fearing men, but the dragon's charm emboldens him, showcasing how the belief in doom or fate effects Grendel. Grendel finds a liberating but isolating new identity as the destroyer of men. But Grendel's discovery of his invulnerability to the humans' blades, like cynicism, also works against him. Grendel's literal advantage in the fight against men causes a hardening of positions, prolongs the war and Grendel's cynicism toward men and isolation from them grows. Cynicism in its turn, like a protective charm, negates any reason for hope. Cynicism labels hope blind belief. In the same way, the dragon's charm simply negates the attack of the enemy without eliminating his fear of men.
When Unferth heroically enters the scene, Grendel's response is to laugh. Unferth is made to look foolish, but he does have some genuine heroic qualities. He confronts the monster in a more intentional way than the drunken boasts of the other thanes. He bravely tracks down Grendel and swims through the firesnakes, risking and receiving serious bodily injuries. Still, he is only a youth, and his strength is not enough to overcome Grendel's natural and unnatural protections. Unferth's lengthy attempt to explain heroism to Grendel is met only with indifference, and his vision of heroism is much less compelling to Grendel than that of the Shaper. Unferth's heroism fails in part because it is dependent on the vision of others, and in part because the hope for defying fate that heroes possess is simply denied by Grendel's cynicism and grounding in what Grendel calls reality. Unferth's attempt to live up to an impossible ideal and to defend his reputation is comical in light of Grendel's immunity
This chapter describes Grendel as a tortured and love-struck hero who watches his love from afar. He cannot resist the influence of the queen, Wealtheow. He begins by feigning control, but is actually terribly unbalanced in the winter of the twelfth year of war. Grendel introduces the chapter with a strained bit of poetry, encourages himself to dance, and shouts across the cliff-edge to invite far-off riders to come his way. Seemingly coming apart at the seams, he pulls himself together to announce this law: "There is no limit to desire but desire's needs." Grendel seems to have regained his old, self-indulgent mentality.When he tells of how he first saw the queen, it is quite apparent that Grendel is in love with her. He notices her beauty, and he attributes a number of good qualities to her. Ultimately, he cannot bring himself to kill her, although he holds out the weak promise that he may yet do it. When Wealtheow appears at a peace treaty between two warring groups of men. Grendel sees how she has a calming influence everywhere she goes, and the potential for men and women to rise above their base instincts is raised again. Her status as a peace offering seems to bother only Grendel, not the people most directly affected by it. Grendel sees into their hearts and knows her loneliness. When the chapter reaches its climax, with Grendel holding the queen upside down, readers know that he will not kill her. This makes the scene all the more tragic, as Grendel himself seems convinced that he could do it but truly does not have the heart. He claims to be "cured" of his love for Wealtheow by his adventure, but he is love-sick to the end, wanting to take his own life after losing his hold on hers. He returns to the idea of balance with the next to last line of the chapter, but he is clearly not in balance.
Grendel, the outsider, gives true insight into the kingdom in this chapter. He sees it torn apart internally and externally by the battle over succession brought on by Hrothulf's entrance and the war with Grendel. He does not acknowledge his role in the decline of Hrothgar's kingdom until the very end, when he claims that it is simply in his nature to be violent toward men. Yet his nature does not stop him from observing and analyzing Hrothgar's society.
Hrothulf represents the radical element of a society at war, opposing the ruling class and willing to use its own violence to express that opposition. Red Horse, like the "Communist Reds" of the Cold War, sees revolution as inevitable and violence as necessary to end the current government. This theorizing is advanced political thinking in this context and thus ironic. Hrothulf is a king's nephew who wants the throne for himself, but he justifies those desires by witnessing the injustices around him. Like Grendel, he sees himself as an outsider to the society, and he imagines himself taking up violence to end those injustices. He is actually an insider seeing himself as an outsider, mirroring Grendel's desires to be both a part of and outside of human society.
This chapter reads like a small play in the middle of the novel. Grendel attributes lines of poetry to each character in the small family drama of inviting Hrothulf into the meadhall, shifting the style of the novel to fit a changing perspective. At the end of the chapter, Grendel returns to poetry to make predictions about Hrothgar. Hrothgar is Grendel's enemy, so the dream Grendel gives Hrothgar is not a good one. Still, the use of poetry makes it more suggestive of high art and some empathy toward Hrothgar.
CHAPTER NINE NOTES:
Grendel's ironic take on religion is presented in this chapter. He is a skeptic, but he cannot bring himself to kill the priests, as he ordinarily might. He does not view killing them as wrong because of their sacred duties; instead, he is simply disgusted by their way of thinking. Grendel to some extent represents an atheistic "will to power." He has just called himself a killing "machine" in the previous chapter, and despite all his self-awareness, he is essentially that. He wants to dominate the life of human beings and deny their hopes. In that sense, it makes sense that he would look down on the priests and their religion. But Grendel is a monster torn by love, hope, and the songs of the Shaper. Whereas he is enraged by human beings in previous chapters, in this chapter he believes he is simply making fun of them.
In fact, Grendel does not attack anyone in this chapter, does not humiliate anyone or deny them their beliefs. Even Unferth, the would-be hero, appears at the end of the chapter, and Grendel makes no attempt to humiliate him. In fact, Grendel goes a long way toward confirming two of the priests' belief in the nature of God and existence, despite his original intent to make fun of the religion. Grendel alone knows that he is the one that the blind priest saw, not the Great Destroyer. He takes ironic pleasure in filling that role, but does not reveal himself and destroy the illusion he has created. He is content to let the humans sort it out for themselves. This ironic twist, when Grendel confirms the religion he intended to mock, shows the flexibility and fragility of the priest's religion.
The dialogue between the three priests comically represents the lowest form of religion possible, while Ork's philosophical ruminations represent the highest realm of thought associated with religion. Ork's thoughts do not necessarily add up, but they are at least an attempt at explaining the nature of God, whereas the other priests dwell on rules, traditions, and mindless quotation from some ancient source. The fourth priest who comes later and accepts Ork's "vision" represents an approach to religion based on emotion that is contrary to Ork's rationalism. The varieties of religion conflict and reinforce one another in turn. Ultimately, however, all are based on either trickery or tradition and thereby add up to very little.
Life and death are contrasted in this chapter. Grendel's vicious side is seen in the attack on the goat. Grendel views the goat as a part of mindless nature, to which he is constantly opposed. Grendel, a thinking creature unlike the goat, faces the same fate as the goat. All human beings, monsters, and animals face death, so Grendel's killing of the goat is symbolic of both the relentless march of nature toward death and the futile struggle even thinking creatures put up against death. Grendel wants to stop time. He rages against the changing seasons. But he knows he cannot stop time from moving forward. The attack on the goat is an attempt to stop nature. However, the goat stubbornly persists and will not die. Grendel keeps throwing rocks at the goat, and the last line of the paragraph describes Grendel picking up another rock to throw, as if he and the goat are locked in a never-ending battle. The goat does die, but offstage, so to speak, because Grendel does not describe its final moment. Therefore, the goat represents life struggling to forever avoid death.
The goat's death is contrasted with the Shaper's. Grendel presents the Shaper's death in full detail, even recording his final words. Grendel has no role in the Shaper's death except as an onlooker, and he mourns the Shaper, lamenting that the Shaper's death marks the end of an epoch. The Shaper's life is, however, an unfinished story. We learn after his death that he sang certain songs especially for a married woman, but nothing came of the relationship. That this interesting detail of the Shaper's life is buried until after he dies reveals that Grendel knows the Shaper well and preserves his memory in his own way. The Shaper's life continues beyond death as the young assistant takes up his song at the funeral pyre, but more importantly, as Grendel confronts the "pastness" of the past and includes the Shaper in his web of words. Grendel does not acknowledge the Shaper's influence, but it is there in his narration. Grendel wishes only that he had killed the Shaper mid-song.
Two other items of note are glossed over in Grendel's account. First, Grendel kills children in this chapter, proving he is still a monster. He mentions it as if it is a normal part of life, and for him, it still is. Grendel is the bogeyman that children ought to be afraid of, so he fulfills his role. His only remark on this is "So it goes." Secondly, the old woman makes the sole mention of a hero who will come to save the Danes from afar. This is a foreshadowing of the end of the story, where Grendel faces this hero with the strength of 30 men.
Chapter Eleven Notes:
Grendel is excited because, finally, something has come to change the rhythm of his war against the humans. There is something "inexorable" about the way this new person comes to challenge Grendel, but at least it is different. The mysterious hints that the leader of the Geats is holding something in reserve are important foreshadowing of the next chapter, in which the climax of the novel will occur. Grendel is sucked in by this mysterious power, so much so that he observes even the boasting that he dismissed earlier in the novel. The boasting seems ordinary enough, but the "murderous tongue" of the stranger is revealed through it, in addition to his strength. Unferth's shame is an important contrast to the glory the new "hero" enjoys. The leader of the Geats brings real power with him, not just a desire to prove his reputation. The memory of the dragon is distant to Grendel, but this Geat leader resurrects that memory.
Grendel's philosophizes about the nature of human beings and the heart's desire for revenge, which both he and humans share. He says, "All order, I've come to understand, is theoretical, unreal - a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world - two snakepits." He still cannot achieve balance and define himself against the world without violence. He kills because it is in his nature to kill, without attaching any false meaning to it. He kills because of a desire for revenge which his mind can only defend against for so long.
Chapter Twelve Notes:
If Grendel embodied the Destroyer while all the time creating this narrative account of his war, the man who destroys Grendel is a Creator, even as he destroys Grendel. The leader of the Geats is unnamed in Grendel's account, but he is recognizable as Beowulf, the hero of the epic poem on which the novel is based. Beowulf tells Grendel in his final whispers, "Time is the mind, the hand that makes (fingers on harpstrings, hero-swords, the acts, the eyes of queens). By that I kill you." Beowulf believes it is possible to create a new world to replace the old, and by killing Grendel, he stakes a claim to that belief. Beowulf's superhuman strength is described by Grendel as if he is part-man, part-dragon. It is unclear whether it is simply Grendel's imagination or real magic that he is seeing. The references to time strongly echo the discussion with the dragon in Chapter 5, and the descriptions suggest either that Beowulf has encountered the dragon himself or that he is a dragon in disguise. Beowulf is a powerful foe who aims to recreate the world - a force on the side of order or fate in contrast to Grendel's emphasis on random chance.
This time, it is Grendel's turn to play the comic dunce. Instead of holding back, as Grendel does when confronting foolishness, Beowulf forces Grendel to wallow in his undoing. The bit of poetry Grendel composes in the midst of the struggle is actually quite ironic, and it surprises even Beowulf with its quality. But it is only one in a series of comic bits that Grendel performs, beginning by tucking in a napkin under his chin, followed by his slipping in blood. Grendel is unable to escape his fate, but his moment-by-moment account of his final battle is touching. He talks throughout his final moments. Readers may feel sympathy for this monster, who feels love, rage, fear, and revenge, and who worries about time, fate, and meaning throughout the novel. His final plunge, taken of his own free will, is a defiant action that says, "I will resist the universe that is not me to the very end."
Grendel's fate is ultimately neither comic, meaning a good end, nor tragic, meaning a bad end that ultimately shows the heroic quality of human nature. Grendel does not believe human beings are heroic, and his accounts of how people respond to his attacks convinces on that point. On the other hand, Grendel does take on some human characteristics and play the role of the tragic hero. Grendel seeks to defy his own fate, even as he feels himself "inexorably" drawn toward his final confrontation with Beowulf. In the midst of that battle, Grendel resorts to the explanation that it is all an accident, even as he confronts the terrifying reality that Beowulf has superior force and the power of fate, or the dragon, behind him. Ultimately, though, Grendel is an anti-hero who does the opposite of what a tragic hero would do. He neither confronts death heroically nor accepts responsibility for his mistakes. Nor does he maintain an ideal to the very end. Instead, his final words are a curse and a final explanation of the world as randomness. He is fighting for meaninglessness, fighting against his own heroism, even as he chooses his own fate.
In the end, human beings are spared a terrible fate at Grendel's hands, a good outcome for human society. But at the same time, humans face the terrifying prospect that any monster can be overcome by the power of fate and superior strength of arms (literally). Beowulf's power is more frightening than Grendel's self-absorbed, monstrous ways because Beowulf believes that he can recreate the world by sheer force of will. Beowulf is the true "will to power" in the novel. A thinking, feeling creature is destroyed on the other end of his battle. Grendel's attempt to tell his side of the story forces readers to confront the possibilities of a life lived without the comfortable truths humans tell themselves.
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