I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly—as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back.
Grendel has this revelation while the bull attaks him in Chapter 2. The bull assails Grendel mindlessly, never changing its tactics even though it is getting nowhere with its assault. Grendel suddenly realizes that the world is just like the bull—mindless and destructive without any discernible plan or reason. Any attempt to determine such a plan or pattern in the world is a misguided effort, reflecting more the desire of the seeker to find such a pattern than the actual existence of such a pattern. Grendel’s revelation has a second component as well, which he phrases as “I alone exist.” Clearly, as Grendel is undergoing a brutal attack as he makes this assertion, he does not literally mean that everything else in the world is just an airy figment of his imagination. Rather, it is, for Grendel, a means to organize the way he perceives the world. While he once saw the world as a frightening mass of images, now he can separate the world into categories—namely, Grendel and not-Grendel.
This revelation marks the transition between Grendel’s innocent, ignorant childhood and his adulthood as a student of philosophy. Having come to understand the world as a pitiless chaos that fails to provide a moral code or ethical system to guide his actions, he begins to question how he should live his life. This moment also marks a transition into adulthood in the sense that it causes a split between Grendel and his mother. Earlier, Grendel has understood himself as part of his mother, not as an individual being in his own right. When he is stuck in the tree, he looks for his mother to emerge from the shadows around him. If he sees her, then he believes the madness and confusion he sees will return to a sense of order. Grendel’s mother never arrives, however, forcing Grendel to accept the responsibility of creating order himself.
Thus I fled, ridiculous hairy creature torn apart by poetry—crawling, whimpering, streaming tears, across the world like a two-headed beast, like mixed-up lamb and kid at the tail of a baffled, indifferent ewe—and I gnashed my teeth and clutched the sides of my head as if to heal the split, but I couldn’t.
Here, at the end of Chapter 3, Grendel reacts to hearing the Shaper’s song for the first time. The lines—directly quoted from the opening of Beowulf—divide Grendel into two halves. This split Grendel, clutching his head in mental agony, foreshadows the division he later feels when he attempts to reconcile the opposing views of the Shaper and the dragon. The Shaper and the dragon inspire very different reactions in Grendel: the Shaper inspires incredible emotion, while the dragon appeals to Grendel’s rational mind and logical reasoning. The portrayal in this passage of Grendel as a beastlike, barely verbal fiend comes straight out of Beowulf, and it contrasts with the articulate, self-aware creature we have seen thus far. The Shaper’s ability to immediately transform Grendel suggests the power that the Beowulf story, as told by the humans, will have over Grendel’s life in the future. Grendel, before even hearing what part he will play in these human stories, has internalized the role the humans ascribe to him, turning into the crazed, instinctual beast they expect him to be. By comparing himself to several bleating, dumb animals, Grendel applies to himself the same criticism that he has previously directed at the mindless animals of the forest.
“Nevertheless, something will come of all this,” I said.
“Nothing,” he said. “A brief pulsation in the black hole of eternity. My advice to you—”
“Wait and see,” I said.
He shook his head. “My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.”
These lines are the final exchange between Grendel and the dragon at the end of Chapter 5. Though this is the end of the direct encounter between Grendel and the dragon, the dragon continues loom over Grendel’s life throughout the rest of the novel. The dragon provides Grendel with a glimpse of the true nature of time, which the dragon is able to see stretching out toward both its beginning and its end. The dragon claims that time is like a black hole, eventually destroying everything in the universe. In the vast span of time, the entirety of mankind’s history registers little more than a brief flash. The dragon, with this immense, cosmic vision, can see little point in religion, poetry, or any of the other things that humankind invents in order to make its short stay in the universe more meaningful and significant. Grendel understands the dragon’s point on an intellectual level—it is, after all, a philosophy he has been more or less moving towards since his encounter with the bull—but he nonetheless continues to hope and push for a meaningful result once his questioning reaches a resolution. The dragon rebuff’s each of Grendel’s questions with a cold, empirical retort. The dragon refuses to let Grendel slip into what he feels are naïve emotions. That Gardner made the dragon a money-hoarding miser is more than a mere nod to a traditional staple of dragon lore: the dragon values money because its presence is tangible, knowable, and rational. While the Shaper lures Grendel’s mind away to more abstract thoughts of love, beauty, and art, the dragon incessantly pushes Grendel toward a clear-eyed, cold-blooded intellectualism.
I had become something, as if born again. I had hung between possibilities before, between the cold truths I knew and the heart-sucking conjuring tricks of the Shaper; now that was passed: I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings!
But also, as never before, I was alone.
This passage occurs in Chapter 6, just after Grendel has bitten off the head of a Scylding guard, thus marking the beginning of his twelve-year war with Hrothgar’s Danes. For Grendel, taking this decisive step in creating his own identity is a liberating, empowering event. However, it is unclear exactly what Grendel has decided. On one hand, we might say that he has finally chosen the side of the “truths” that the dragon has passed down to him. In part, Grendel has decided to punish humans for their infuriatingly naïve belief in the righteousness of their moral systems—systems that Grendel knows have no foundation in any kind of universal moral law. On the other hand, Grendel has also chosen to accept the role the Shaper has set for him, as the humans’ ultimate nemesis. When Grendel refers to himself as “Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings,” he replicates the Beowulf poet’s tendency to use a cluster of titles for a single character. Grendel once wished for the Shaper’s vision of an ordered, morally coherent world to be true, even if it meant he had to be the villain. It is difficult to tell, then, whether Grendel is taking the intellectual path the dragon has set out for him or the emotional road the Shaper wants him to follow. Perhaps it is because Grendel has reached only a nominal kind of resolution that he feels so unfulfilled. Furthermore, Grendel feels more alone than before because, with his act of symbolic aggression, he has severed the possibility of ever joining the humans in anything but an antagonistic relationship. He has accepted his role as the son of Cain, which brings him into the world of men while forever keeping him at a distance.
As you see it it is, while the seeing lasts, dark nightmare-history, time-as-coffin; but where the water was rigid there will be fish, and men will survive on their flesh till spring. It’s coming, my brother. . . . Though you murder the world, transmogrify life into I and it, strong searching roots will crack your cave and rain will cleanse it: The world will burn green, sperm build again.
These are among the first words Beowulf says to Grendel as they engage in their fatal battle in Chapter 12. Beowulf denounces the nihilism the dragon espouses while accepting the dragon’s basic premise that time is essentially a “coffin,” containing the promise of death and destruction for all. However, Beowulf also paints an image of spring emerging from winter, stressing the equal importance of rebirth in the grand scheme of life. This imagery echoes the song sung at the Shaper’s funeral, which also sees the surfacing of spring as a time for violence and death as well as a new beginning. This conception of the seasons as a natural cycle full of meaning and import directly contradicts Grendel’s earliest thoughts about the seasons, which regarded their effect on the dumb ram’s instincts as pointless and mechanical routine.
The imagery in this passage describes several rigid, hard objects being burst open with violent but cleansing force. This image is soon replicated rather gruesomely with Grendel’s own head, which Beowulf is about to smash against the walls of the meadhall. The forces that break through barriers in this passage are natural and life-giving in their violence—supporting the idea that Beowulf’s merciless treatment of Grendel is, in a sense, a project of salvation. Beowulf calls Grendel “brother,” which not only refers to the Cain and Abel story, but also manages to bring Grendel much closer to humankind than his history of enmity has ever allowed for. Furthermore, Beowulf’s reference to the fish in the frozen river remind us of the Christian elements of Beowulf’s character, and the fact that we may see him as a kind of avenging Christ figure.
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