I had become something, as if born again. . . . I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings! But also, as never before, I was alone.
After his encounter with the dragon, Grendel begins to see the world as a meaningless place. Despite this new outlook, he still has no intention of systematically terrifying the Danes. One night, Grendel finds himself watching the meadhall and listening to the Shaper’s song. The song has a different effect on Grendel now: rather than feeling doubt, distress, loneliness, or shame, he feels anger at the listeners’ ignorance and self-satisfaction. Suddenly, Grendel hears a stick snap, and he turns to find a guard behind him. The guard strikes at Grendel, but is mysteriously unable to hurt him. Other Danes rush up to attack and are similarly thwarted. Grendel slowly realizes that the dragon has put a charm on him that renders him impervious to weapons. Laughing grimly, Grendel backs towards the woods, holding a guard whose head he bites off gleefully.
A few nights later, Grendel launches his first raid on the humans, thus beginning the twelve-year war. He is filled with joy but, strangely, also feels more alone than ever before. A few raids later, Hrothgar’s thanes meet Grendel’s attack on the meadhall with much poetic boasting, retaliating with whoops and howls in the name of Hrothgar. Grendel has a vision of these attacks continuing mechanically until the end of time, and in his rage he begins to smash the hall.
From across the hall, a thane named Unferth approaches Grendel. Unferth challenges Grendel very lyrically, and Grendel responds sarcastically, surprising Unferth with his capacity for language. Grendel goes on to taunt Unferth about the difficulty of being a hero. He tells Unferth that he pities the hero’s terrible burden—always having to watch what he says or does, never being allowed to slip up. But on second thought, Grendel figures, the burdens of heroism are probably all worth it for the feelings of superiority and comfort of self-knowledge that come with being a hero. Unferth withers under Grendel’s verbal attack; then, to add insult to injury, Grendel begins pelting him with apples. Unferth begins to cry, and Grendel leaves the meadhall with mixed feelings of disgust and satisfaction.
Three days later, Grendel awakes in his cave to find that Unferth has followed him. Though exhausted and battered by his journey through the pool of firesnakes, Unferth nevertheless launches into an impassioned argument that his journey to Grendel’s cave will be the subject of Danish songs for generations. Before Unferth finishes, however, he abandons his poetic tone and confronts Grendel about his condemnation of heroism. Unferth claims that heroism is about more than simply fairy tales and poetry. He claims that, as no human will know whether he actually came to Grendel’s mere or simply fled like a coward to the hills, his decision to challenge Grendel shows he has inner heroism.
Grendel, however, feels that Unferth has just contradicted his earlier assertion that he will live on in the Scyldings’ poetry. Unferth becomes enraged at Grendel’s apparent indifference. Unferth claims that heroism gives the world meaning, for a hero sees “value beyond what’s possible,” thereby fueling the struggle of humanity. Grendel retorts that heroism also breaks up the boredom of life. Further angered, Unferth declares that either he or Grendel will die that night in the cave. Grendel, however, says that he plans to carry Unferth back to the meadhall unscathed. Unferth swears he would rather kill himself, but Grendel points out that such an action would appear rather cowardly. Beaten and spent, Unferth falls asleep on the cave floor, and Grendel carries him back to Hrothgar’s hall. Unferth lives throughout the twelve-year war, crazy with frustration at the fact that Grendel taunts him by sparing his life during every raid.
Grendel, as he mulls over his meeting with the dragon, begins to display some of the dragon’s characteristics: his confusion and frustration with mankind blossom into full-fledged disdain. In light of the dragon’s nihilistic views on the essential meaninglessness of all actions and the fatalistic nature of the world, the hope the Danes display enrages Grendel. Whereas the dragon used to manifest himself as a dark, intangible presence in the woods, now he haunts Grendel as a smell in the air, leading him on and goading him into more intense nihilism.
Grendel’s engagement with the thanes in outright war marks a new stage in his relationship with humans. The guard who sneaks up on the spying Grendel echoes the dead thane whom Grendel finds behind the meadhall in Chapter 4. In that chapter, when Grendel tries to join the Danes as a friend, he carries the body of the dead thane as a kind of peace offering. The Danes, of course, misconstrue this gesture as a savage display of aggression. Denied a role as friend, Grendel decides to accept the assigned role as enemy. When the Danes approach Grendel this time, he is once again carrying one of their compatriots. In an inversion of the earlier gesture of peace, Grendel bites off the head of the guard—a clear act of war. The experience greatly satisfies Grendel, who calls it a rebirth. Having spent so much time yearning for a place in the world, he feels he has finally become something.
We may wonder, though, what exactly Grendel has become, aside from the embodiment of evil that humans have always wanted him to be. When Grendel becomes the “Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings,” he accepts the role of villain and “brute existent” that man requires. When Grendel returns to the meadhall for his first full raid, his presence rouses the Danes. His attacks inspire brave bursts of poetry and zealous attempts to embody the heroic code. Gardner implies that man needs evil or darkness to throw its own virtuous light into higher relief. For now, at least, Grendel is only too happy to be Cain to man’s Abel. Even the glorious titles Grendel bestows on himself fail to represent any new identity: they are nothing more than traditional kennings found in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Once again, Grendel must resort to man’s terms in order to define himself.
The dragon’s charm, which renders Grendel physically invulnerable, is both a blessing and a curse. At first, Grendel rejoices in the feelings of superiority this new power affords him. He enjoys feeling strong and superhuman in front of the creatures who once made him feel confused and ashamed. At the same time, however, Grendel also feels lonelier than ever before. By accepting his role as man’s “brute existent,” he has finally found a way to engage face-to-face with human beings. Even though Grendel considers man’s moral and religious systems hogwash at this point, he nevertheless has—perhaps subconsciously—found a way to experience the kind of connectedness such systems provide their believers. The dragon’s charm, however, destroys that sense of connectedness, preventing Grendel from ever fully engaging in his battles with the humans, and ensuring his separation and disconnection from them.
In a shift from the original Beowulf poem, the thane Unferth—not Beowulf—represents the traditional Anglo-Saxon heroic code. Unferth begins his first battle with Grendel like an epic hero, making poetic speeches that exalt his moral code and highlight his bravery in battle. Grendel surprises Unferth and disrupts his performance by speaking right back to him. Grendel undercuts Unferth’s attempt at traditional heroism by pelting him with apples and turning the serious battle into a grotesque clown show of sorts. However, though Grendel destroys the trappings of heroism, Unferth later returns to argue for a deeper understanding of heroism. According to Unferth, the allure of heroism is not the fame it ensures or the poetry that it can inspire. Unferth believes in heroism because it gives him something greater for which to strive. Unferth encounters the same problem Grendel does: a vision of the world as essentially meaningless. But while Grendel has decided to deny the possibility of imposing his own meaning on the world, Unferth chooses to use the ideals of heroism to create meaning for himself and all of mankind. For Unferth, the romantic ideal of heroism is a vision, encouraged by the Shaper, that holds existentialism and nihilism at bay.
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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