Thus I fled, ridiculous hairy creature torn apart by poetry . . . like a two-headed beast, like mixed-up lamb and kid at the tail of a baffled, indifferent ewe.
As a preface to telling the story of his war with the Danes, Grendel recalls the growth and social development of men. In the beginning, nomadic tribes of men roam the forest. Occasionally, two bands of men meet in the woods and battle each other, and when they are finished they crawl back to their separate huts and caves and tell wild stories about what happened. When the bands grow larger, they settle in particular areas and set up large communal halls. The insides of these buildings are beautifully painted and decorated with tapestries and woodcarvings. The humans plant crops and domesticate animals; women stay at the camp to tend to home and field while the men go out each day to hunt. At night, the humans drink and tell stories about what they plan to do to neighboring halls. Each band follows a similar pattern of development, and Grendel watches them all. He is amused by their drunken boasts about conquest, and believes that they are only partially serious.
One night, however, Grendel finds a hall in ruins, burned to the ground and sacked of treasure. Grendel watches a change come over the humans. They enter an age of conflict and warfare. With the advent of war come war songs that glorify battle heroes and military events. Goldworkers, who craft exquisite handles for battle-axes, gain an esteemed place in society. Grendel remembers one such worker with a cool, superior laugh—“Nyeh heh heh.” Confused, Grendel watches as human warfare escalates and battles gain a kind of nauseating repetitiveness. He is safe and secluded in his tree, but he and the humans share a common language. He is somehow related to these creatures who are capable of such pointless waste.
Grendel watches as King Hrothgar—the same king whose men attacked him when was hanging in the tree—begins to grow more powerful than other leaders. Hrothgar is a capable strategist who understands the principles of organization. Soon, he has neighboring meadhalls swearing allegiance to him and paying him monetary tributes. Hrothgar and his men begin to build a system of roads, with Hrothgar’s meadhall lying squarely in the middle. The Danes’ military prowess and prestige grows along with their hoard of treasure, which soon overtakes the meadhall and forces the Danes to sleep in the outbuildings. Hrothgar’s influence becomes widespread, and Grendel is filled with a murderous unrest.
One night, Grendel watches as a blind old man and his young assistant gain admittance to Hrothgar’s meadhall. The man is a Shaper, an Anglo-Saxon court bard. To the music of a harp, the Shaper tells the story of Scyld Shefing, an illustrious ancestor of Hrothgar and the founder of the Scylding (Danish) line. The Shaper sings a generously fabricated version of Danish history. When he finishes, the Danes go wild with glee, infected and uplifted by the Shaper’s glorious account of their society and heritage.
Grendel slinks away from the meadhall, strangely affected by the Shaper’s magnificent lies. Although he has himself witnessed the true, savage history of the Danes firsthand, the Shaper’s account has the feeling of truth merely through the power of its artistic technique. Crying and whimpering, Grendel runs to the top of the cliff wall, where he can see the lights of all the human realms. He screams into the wind, and the sound comes rushing back at him. Grendel screams again and then runs back to the mere on all fours.
In this chapter, Grendel begins to examine its source material critically. The feudal system and warrior culture—the genesis of which this chapter describes—is, of course, the same Scandinavian society that Beowulf takes as its setting. Grendel, however, as an impartial observer, provides a view of this civilization very different from the Beowulf poet’s. Although Beowulf was written by a Christian, English poet some two hundred years after the events it records, the poem still glorifies many of the morals and values its Anglo-Saxon protagonists hold dear. In the poem, the great warrior Beowulf exemplifies the heroic code, which stressed the importance of strength, pride, and valor in battle. In Grendel, Gardner parodies that code by showing us its crude, primitive beginnings: two hunters fighting bare-handed in the snow like animals. When these men go back to their camps and tell “wild tales” about their bloody encounters, we see the less than noble foundations of the heroic code, the tendency to record military events in exaggeratedly celebrated song. This chapter parodies the very idea of history that the Anglo-Saxon meadhall culture, with its bards and songs and epics, reveres. Grendel, as a character, is the perfect conduit for such a parody. Like Shelley’s Frankenstein before him, Grendel is an outsider. He is a monster , but his resemblance to humanity affords him an objective though distant access to the nature of mankind. Grendel’s ability to remain objective is tested as he moves from feelings of detached fascination to empathy and obsession.
When the Shaper arrives, Grendel relinquishes his position in the narrative as the Danes’ historian and recorder. Unlike Grendel, who was merely trying to understand humans and make some sense of their culture, the Shaper has a political and social agenda in telling his version of history. His tales of the magnificent Scyld Shefing—lifted straight from the opening of Beowulf itself—legitimize Hrothgar’s rule, making it appear as if his reign is ordained by heaven itself. The song transforms vulgar soldiers into proud inheritors of a heroic tradition by changing the soldiers’ perceptions of themselves.
We can understand why the Danes would be thrilled by such a song, but why do the words also move Grendel so fiercely? Indeed, Grendel has a great deal of knowledge about the true nature of the history of the Danes that should undercut the power of the Shaper’s song. The poem offers little by way of factual truth; Grendel’s account of Danish history is probably much closer to the mark. Furthermore, Grendel cynically implies that the Shaper does not sing out of any inherent love for the Danes, but merely because he knows that Hrothgar’s growing prominence in the area will guarantee him a larger salary. We have seen Grendel begin to develop a capacity for rational, philosophical thought in the previous chapter; the first half of this chapter, with its emphasis on Grendel’s detached, almost scientific observation of the humans, seems to continue along that path. The beauty of the Shaper’s art, however, completely derails Grendel, sending him back to an animalistic, primal state. Torn between the lures of rational thought and beautiful poetry, Grendel grows confused and panicky. This chapter occurs under the sign of Gemini, the Twins; indeed, the bleating, two-headed beast to which Grendel alludes at the end of the chapter is a fitting symbol of his inner dilemma.
by beowulfgeek, December 19, 2012
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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