In the original Beowulf epic, Grendel displays nothing but the most primitive human qualities. In Grendel, however, he is an intelligent and temperamental monster, capable of rational thought as well as irrational outbursts of emotion. Throughout the novel, the monster Grendel often seems as human as the people he observes. Grendel’s history supports this ambiguous characterization. As a descendant of the biblical Cain, he shares a basic lineage with human beings. However, rather than draw Grendel and humankind closer together, this shared history sets them in perpetual enmity. In this regard, Grendel recalls the nineteenth-century literary convention—used in novels such as Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—of using monsters to help us examine what it means, by contrast, to be human. Indeed, aside from Grendel’s horrible appearance and nasty eating habits, very little actually separates him from humans. Even his extreme brutality is not unique—time and again, Gardner stresses man’s inherent violence. Moreover, Grendel’s philosophical quest is a very human one, its urgency heightened by his status as an outsider.
The novel follows Grendel through three stages of his life. The first stage is his childhood, which he spends innocently exploring his confined world, untroubled by the outside universe or philosophical questions. Grendel’s discovery of the lake of firesnakes and the realm beyond it is his first introduction to the larger world, one full of danger and possibility. As such, crossing the lake is a crucial step for Grendel in his move toward adulthood. The second step—which decisively makes Grendel an adult—occurs when the bull attacks him, prompting him to realize that the world is essentially chaotic, following no pattern and governed by no discernible reason. This realization, in turn, prompts the question that shapes Grendel’s adult quest, perhaps the greatest philosophical question of the twentieth century: given a world with no inherent meaning, how should one live his or her life? In the second, adult stage of his life, Grendel tries to answer this question by observing the human community, which fascinates him because of its ability to make patterns and then impose those patterns on the world, creating a sense that the world follows a coherent, ordered system. The third and final stage of Grendel’s life encompasses his fatal battle with Beowulf and the weeks leading up to that battle. The encounter provides, ultimately, a violent resolution to Grendel’s quest.
Grendel’s encounter with the dragon is one of the most important events of the novel. Cranky and vulgar and undeniably funny, the dragon’s characterization draws from sources as diverse as traditional Christian and Asiatic mythology, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. The incredible scope of the dragon’s knowledge and vision has left him weary and cynical. The dragon perceives the entirety of time and space. Against this vision, man’s complete history seems no more than “a swirl in the stream of time.” Because nothing man creates—religion, poetry, philosophy, and so on—will survive the destruction of time, the dragon sees all such endeavors as pointless and ridiculous. Grendel senses the essential truth of this statement, but part of him still yearns for just the sort of pursuits the dragon dismisses.
After the encounter with the dragon, Grendel continues to sense the dragon’s presence as a smell in the air, particularly when the dragon’s fatalistic words are nagging him. We may interpret this lingering presence as a manifestation of the dragon’s awesome, omnipotent power; alternatively, some critics take it as a sign that the dragon only exists in Grendel’s mind. The fact that Grendel’s journey to the dragon appears to be a mental rather than physical voyage seems to support the latter hypothesis.
Throughout Grendel, the Shaper and his beautiful though fictional systems are presented as an alternative to the cynical, fatalistic outlook of the dragon. The Shaper represents the power of art and imagination to change people’s perceptions about themselves and the world in which they live. When the Shaper first arrives at Hart, he sings a version of history that depicts the Danes as inheritors of a heroic, righteous legacy, all the while downplaying the savage past that Grendel has actually witnessed. Although the Shaper’s story is largely fictitious, it enables the Danes to construct comforting, coherent value systems. The Shaper’s stories promote heroism, altruism, love, and beauty—all concepts that the Danes come to see as giving meaning to their lives. With these models, the Danes gain a sense that they are striving for something larger and more transcendent than their mundane, individual lives. Although Grendel is fully aware that the Shaper’s beautiful songs are built upon a foundation of lies and omissions, he still finds their power incredibly seductive, and he in turn wishes he had something greater to strive for and believe in.
Though the Shaper is an incredibly important and pervasive presence in the novel, Gardner gives him very little characterization. Though the Shaper is often presented as an opponent or counterpoint to a highly colorful character—the dragon—we can find very little to say about the personality of the Shaper himself. We know that he has a mutual though unconsummated affection for a married Danish woman. Furthermore, we receive scattered hints that his attachment to the Danes is built less on a selfless devotion to the community than on personal pride and a promise of monetary gratification. This almost negligible amount of characterization makes us consider the Shaper less a fully realized character than an abstract figure, less an individual poet than a representation of the idea of poetry.
In making the transition from the original Beowulf epic to the novel Grendel, the Geatish hero Beowulf undergoes as radical a transformation as Grendel does. The Beowulf of Grendel is uncannily superhuman. He is not only supremely strong, but also a cold, mechanical being who is often described as a walking dead man. This association of Beowulf with death paints him as a kind of resurrected Christ figure. As such, Gardner invites us to read Beowulf’s battle with Grendel as potentially an act of bloody salvation. Beowulf is the only being who can inflict pain or physical harm on Grendel, and his horrifically violent treatment of Grendel shocks the latter into a state that is equal parts ecstasy and terror. During the battle, Grendel has a vision of Beowulf sprouting wings and breathing fire. This imagery follows a medieval tradition of depicting both Satan and Christ as dragons. Beowulf arrives as a second kind of dragon at the end of the novel, offering an alternative, total vision of the world and the end of time. However, while the dragon emphasizes the eventual death and decay of all things, Beowulf stresses the rebirth that must always follow. The dragon and Beowulf are further linked because they are the only characters in the novel who actually have dialogues with Grendel.
Spent a lot of years working on 'Beowulf' and I reckon that the monsters represent human characters. In my view: Grendel represents Agnar, son of Ingeld; Grendel's Mum represents the daughter of Earl Swerting of Sweden (and the first wife of Ingeld); and the Dragon represents Onela, king of the Swedes. I think that there has been a scribal error right at the beginning of the poem, which has made Scyld's 'bearn' (Modern English, 'bairn') into Beowulf the First. Thus the real parallels of the poem have been lost.
As far as the first tw
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