Hrothgar, inspired by the Shaper’s song of a glorious meadhall emanating a light that would “shine to the ends of the ragged world,” decides to build a magnificent meadhall high on a hill to stand as an eternal testament to the mighty justice of his Danes. Hrothgar plans to achieve glory by dispensing treasure from his new meadhall, and he hopes for his descendants to do the same. He sends to far-off kingdoms for artisans and builders to create the marvelous building. When it is finished, Hrothgar names the hall Hart and invites all the races of men to witness it. Grendel scoffs at the pomposity of it all, but he still manages to get caught up in the joyful celebration and the endlessly optimistic display of Hrothgar’s supposed goodness. Overcome with grief and shame at his own nasty, bloodthirsty ways, Grendel slinks away from Hart.
Grendel wanders through the forest, puzzling aloud over the Shaper’s mysterious power. The forest whispers back at him, but he feels as if a darker, more sinister force were speaking to him as well. The chilly, invisible presence grows in intensity and continues to unnerve Grendel. He grabs at a fat, slick vine, thinking it is a snake, only to discover it is harmless after all. The presence follows Grendel to the edge of town before mysteriously disappearing.
At the outskirts of town, Grendel observes young couples courting. While circling the clearing, he steps on a man whose throat has been cut and whose clothes have been stolen. Grendel is baffled by the contrast between the innocent picture of the pairs of lovers and the violently murdered corpse. Just as Grendel lifts the corpse over his shoulder, the Shaper begins to play his harp. The Shaper sings of the creation of the world by the greatest of gods, and of an ancient feud between two brothers that split the world between darkness and light. The Shaper claims that Grendel is on the side cursed by God. The Shaper’s words are so powerful that Grendel almost believes them, although he takes the corpse—a man murdered by his fellow men—as proof that the notion of a clear divide between man and monster is flawed. Nonetheless, overcome by the power of the Shaper’s song, Grendel staggers toward the hall with the body in his hands, crying for mercy and declaring himself a friend. The men do not understand Grendel’s cries, and they chase him out of the town with battle-axes and poison-tipped spears.
Grendel throws himself down on the forest floor, causing a twelve-foot crack to appear in the ground. He swears at Hrothgar’s Danes with curses he has picked up from human conversations he has overheard. When Grendel regains his calm, he looks up through the treetops, half expecting to see the god whom the Shaper described. Grendel asks the sky why he cannot have someone to talk to, as Hrothgar and the Shaper do. Grendel comforts himself with the knowledge that the Danes are doomed: he knows enough about human nature to realize that Hrothgar’s descendants are very unlikely to follow Hrothgar’s glorious ideas of philanthropy.
Two nights later, however, Grendel returns to hear more of the Shaper’s song. Though he is increasingly addicted, he nonetheless is enraged by the Shaper’s hopeful words, convinced of the mechanical brutishness of reality. Though Grendel dismisses the Shaper’s proposed religious system as a crackpot theory, he admits that he desperately wants to believe in it himself. Once again, Grendel hears sinister whisperings in the darkness, and he can feel the mysterious force pulling at him. He grabs a vine to reassure himself, only to discover this time that the vine really is a snake.
Back in the cave, Grendel’s mother whimpers at him, straining for language, but the only sound she manages to produce is the gibberish sound “Dool-dool! Dool-dool!” Grendel sleeps, only to wake up to the darkness pulling at him even more inexorably than before. He leaves the cave and walks to the cliff side. Grendel makes his mind a blank and sinks like a stone, down through the earth and sea.
The humans’ second significant encounter with Grendel links them with him in a new way, scripting a role for the outsider within the humans’ burgeoning religious system. The first time the humans see Grendel, they have no idea what to make of him. They run through a list of absurd options before finally deciding that Grendel is some kind of tree spirit. The subsequent battle is marked by a similar state of ridiculous confusion and chaos. However, Grendel senses that these humans are more dangerous creatures than their silly helmets and tiny bodies suggest. They are patternmakers, and therefore far more difficult to defeat than any of the dumb, instinctual animals that Grendel has confronted thus far. Now the Shaper—the most powerful patternmaker of all—has woven a story that not only gives the humans a religious framework within which to live, but also includes a preassigned role for Grendel, who up to this point has been merely an observer.
The Shaper’s song about the creation of the world expresses a Judeo-Christian view of the universe, which is appropriate given that the Beowulf poet was writing from a similar standpoint. The Shaper’s tale—the story of an ancient feud between brothers that results in a world divided between darkness and light—is an allusion to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The story, found in the book of Genesis, concerns the two sons of Adam and Eve, each of whom brings God a sacrificial offering. When God prefers Abel’s gift of lamb meat to Cain’s gift of crops, Cain murders Abel in a jealous rage. When God angrily questions Cain as to the whereabouts of his brother, Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God curses Cain to wander the earth as a fugitive, but also puts a mark on Cain so that anyone who tries to kill him will be visited with vengeance sevenfold. The idea that Grendel is a descendant of Cain can be traced back to the original Beowulf text, which makes the same claim. Furthermore, Gardner’s characterization of Grendel’s mother early in the novel foreshadows this notion, as Grendel imagines his mother to be haunted by some “unremembered, perhaps ancestral crime.”
The role the Shaper assigns to Grendel both pleases and upsets him. On one hand, Grendel takes most of the Shaper’s songs with a grain of salt, as he is aware of the songs’ fictional quality. Grendel knows that man cannot be as holy as the Shaper suggests, because he himself has seen evidence of humankind’s brutality on numerous occasions—if Grendel is cursed, so is man. It takes effort for Grendel to remember these considerations, and finally he breaks down, weeps, and experiences a “conversion”—a word that suggests that Grendel accepts the Shaper’s religious vision. To Grendel, the story of God may be a lie, but it is a beautiful one. In this Judeo-Christian system, the outsider Grendel finds a place and a purpose, even though that position is a savage, unsavory one. Grendel is not allowed to join the humans as a brother or a friend, but he can join them, paradoxically, by fighting them.
In this chapter, Grendel becomes more aware of his own use of language, the ways in which it both connects him to humans and separates him from them. Grendel grudgingly depends on man’s language as he narrates his story. We see that exposure to the Shaper’s song affects Grendel’s own narrative style. Furthermore, throughout the novel, Grendel utilizes traditional elements of Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as alliterative verse and kenning (short, metaphorical descriptions of a person or object: for example, “whale-road” for “sea”). When Grendel tearfully flees Hart after the Danes reject him, he sputters a series of curse words and then laments the fact that even these curses must be borrowed from human language. The great tragic irony, of course, is that Grendel and the humans speak the same language, though the humans are too scared and repulsed to try to understand Grendel when he attempts to communicate with them. Grendel can do many things with language, as his increasing experiments with form and style show; however, he cannot use language for its most basic human purpose—to communicate.
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
2 out of 3 people found this helpful0