At home in the mere, his underground realm, the monster Grendel watches an old ram stand stupid and inert at the edge of a cliff. Grendel yells at the creature, stamps his feet, and throws stones at it, but the ram refuses to so much as acknowledge Grendel’s presence. Grendel lets out a howl so terrible that it freezes the water at his feet, but the ram remains unmoved. The ram’s stubborn stolidity reminds Grendel that spring has arrived in a similarly undeniable fashion.
The commencement of the growing season marks the beginning of the twelfth year of Grendel’s war with the humans, a conflict he derides as stupid and pointless. Grendel is further disgusted by the fact that the arrival of warm weather has awakened the ram’s mindless, animalistic sexual urges. He rhetorically asks the sky why the idiotic animal cannot discover any dignity, but the sky, like the ram, refuses to respond. Grendel responds with an upturned middle finger and a defiant kick. He admits, however, that he himself is no nobler than any of the brainless animals, calling himself a pointless, ridiculous monster who stinks of death. As Grendel walks through his realm, he notices the signs of spring all around him and also notes places where he has committed various acts of violence. Grendel’s presence frightens a doe, and he claims the reaction is unfair—he has never done anything to harm a deer.
Passing the sleeping body of his fat, foul mother, Grendel swims through firesnake-infested waters up to the surface of the earth. His seasonal journey up to the world of men is just as mechanical and mindless as the ram’s springtime lust, and Grendel laments the necessary repetition. When he reaches the edge of his territory, he stands at the edge of a cliff and stares down into an abyss. He yells into the chasm and is surprised by the volume of his own voice. Grendel continues down the cliffs and through the fens and moors on his way to the meadhall of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. As he makes his way to the meadhall, Grendel thinks of his mother, who continues to sleep in their underground haunt. She is wracked by guilt for some unnamed, secret crime. She has lost the ability to speak, and so is unable—or unwilling—to answer Grendel’s questions about the nature of their existence.
Grendel arrives at Hrothgar’s meadhall and coldheartedly ravages the human community. This is the twelfth year of Grendel’s raids, and he calmly, laughingly anticipates the reactions of the men. They turn off the lights in an attempt to confuse Grendel, but Grendel can see in the dark, and he easily bests the humans. In the chaos that ensues, Grendel sacks up several dead bodies and retreats to the woods, where he eats them and laughs maniacally. When dawn comes, however, the sour meat of the humans sits heavy in his stomach and he is filled with gloom once again.
Grendel listens as the Danes attribute the attack to the whims of an angry god, and he watches as the slow process of rebuilding the meadhall begins. A funeral pyre is erected, and as the corpses burn, the Danes throw golden rings, swords, and helmets onto the fire. The crowd sings a song together, and to Grendel’s ears the song seems to be one of triumph. Nauseated and filled with rage, Grendel flees for home.
The first few pages of Grendel echo the beginning of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a work that features one of the most famous openings in the English canon. In that fourteenth-century work, the arrival of spring and its fresh, sexual vigor prompts a group of English pilgrims to undertake a long journey to visit the martyr of Canterbury. The presence of the ram is a direct link to Chaucer’s poem, for Chaucer’s pilgrims are said to set off when the sun is halfway through the cycle of the Ram, or Aries. The poet T.S. Eliot, like Gardner in Grendel, parodies Chaucer in the first stanzas of his poem The Waste Land (1922). In the poem, Eliot transforms Chaucer’s optimistic imagery into a sad and brutal scene, describing spring rising over a desolate, mechanized modern world. Here, in Grendel, Gardner appears to be drawing from Eliot’s imagery when he has Grendel describe the grasses poking through the ground as “the children of the dead.”
We are aware from the start that Grendel is a novel whose existence depends on other, earlier texts, not the least of which is the original Beowulf epic. The opening of the novel expresses the common tendency in postmodern fiction for a work to call attention to its own literariness—that is, the fact that a novel is actually a novel, written and crafted by an author’s imagination as opposed to rising naturally out of the characters’ consciousness. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the character Grendel has no way of knowing about the Canterbury Tales, The Waste Land, or even Beowulf. In some ways, his ignorance of his source materials emphasizes the fact that he is essentially trapped and defined by these earlier works.
Grendel’s inability to communicate with the ram foreshadows many of his future interactions. Grendel is perpetually trapped in one-way communications, whether it is with his babbling mother or with the numerous mute, stupid animals he encounters during the novel. The most significant example of this scenario is Grendel’s inability to communicate with the humans, even though, ironically, they share a common language. Even Grendel’s own mother is either unable or unwilling to communicate with him. Denied any real conversation partner, Grendel is forced to live in an endless interior monologue, with most of his significant conversations taking place within his own head. Lacking any other people with whom to interact, Grendel divides himself into various personas—the sobbing baby, the cold-eyed killer, the raging beast, the charming sycophant, and so on—and thereby manages to create a facsimile of dialogue.
In many ways, Grendel’s solitary and isolated position makes him an appropriate narrator for a novel about mankind’s philosophical history. Like Shelley’s Frankenstein—whom Grendel seems to be aping when he travels down to the Danish meadhall and puts his eye against a crack in the wall—Grendel is an apt commentator on the human condition because he is not invited to be part of it, always remaining an outside observer. However, later in the novel, we may question Grendel’s aptitude for the position of commentator, as we see him become more emotionally involved in the lives and dreams of humankind.
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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