As winter arrives, an uneasy feeling of dread settles over Grendel. He watches one of Hrothgar’s bowmen shoot a deer, and the image sticks with him. Grendel senses that there is a riddle in the image, but he cannot puzzle it out.
Grendel then observes a Scylding religious ceremony spoken in an ancient language closer to Grendel’s than to the common Scylding dialect. Images of the Scylding gods are carved in wood and stone and set around the perimeter of a circle. The priests ask their god, whom they call the great Destroyer, to rid them of their enemy, Grendel. Grendel knows, however, that the priests’ ceremony is merely a performance, as no one seems to hold much faith in the Destroyer anymore. Once, years ago, Grendel destroyed the religious statues on a whim. He watched the Danes rebuild them painstakingly, and saw that the work, though dull, was somehow necessary to them.
At midnight, Grendel sits in the middle of the ring of statues, thinking of all the Scyldings who are tossing and turning in their agitated attempts to sleep. A blind old priest approaches the ring, and Grendel tricks him into believing that he is the Destroyer. Though Grendel has every intention of murdering the priest, he bides his time and asks the old priest, who is named Ork, what he knows about the Destroyer. Shaken at first, Ork gives Grendel a synopsis of a metaphysical theory he has been working out for years. The Destroyer, the Chief God, sets limitations on mankind, and he is the measure by which the value of all objects is judged. He is the source of man’s desire to establish purpose in his life and meaning in his world; God takes care that nothing in the universe is in vain.
The true evil in the world, Ork claims, is nothing as specific or limited as hatred, suffering, or death. The true nature of evil is twofold: first, it is time itself, which causes everything to fade and perish; second, it is the mere fact that one, in being a certain thing, cannot be anything else—thus automatically excluding a host of alternatives. Both of these limitations keep man from understanding the universe as a place where nothing is lost or wasted, which Ork defines as ultimate wisdom.
Ork is so moved by his theories that he begins to cry, and Grendel is so baffled that he cannot decide what to do with the priest. At that moment, three younger priests approach the circle. Grendel hides and watches as they chastise Ork for being up so late and carrying on in such a strange manner. The priests scoff at Ork’s idea that the Destroyer has visited him. A fourth priest runs out to join them. This fourth priest is ecstatic at the news of Ork’s “vision.” Up until this point, the fourth had worried about Ork: he had felt that Ork’s tendency towards cold, rational logic was confining his thoughts within a closed system. To the fourth priest, the fantastic vision represents a huge leap in Ork’s thought process. The strange vision has caused Ork to believe in something messy, illogical, and ultimately transcendent. Ork is not sure he believes the fourth priest’s assertion, though. As the priests carry on, Grendel slinks away.
Grendel stalks the woods, conscious that everyone who was awake at midnight is now sleeping soundly. His senses have grown less acute, and he has a brief vision of the sun as a black revolving sphere covered with spiders. The vision clears instantly, but Grendel is still left with an overwhelming sense of dread.
The Danish religious system described in this chapter is poised between a polytheistic system, in which multiple gods are worshipped, and a monotheistic one, in which a single, supreme being is revered. The Danes have a pantheon of gods who are specific and nature-based—a wolf-god, a bull-god, and so on—but they also elevate one deity, the Destroyer, above all others. The tension between these two systems hearkens back to the original Beowulf poem, in which a Christian poet wrote about a pagan civilization.
In Grendel, religion is losing currency in the Danish kingdom, which provides the old priest Ork an opportunity to come up with a new system. Ork represents a new kind of priest, the only one who has “thought [all the mysteries] out.” He is a theologian, one for whom faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. Ork, like the dragon, knows that time will erase everything eventually. In fact, both Ork and the dragon quote from the same philosopher—Alfred North Whitehead (Ork quotes Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World and Process and Reality for his purposes). For Ork, faith in God leads man past a feeling of hopelessness and toward a holy vision of the world as entirely connected, meaningful place. The three younger priests scoff at Ork’s radical thinking because they think he is an old, silly man. The fourth priest, however, understands Ork’s theology, but he disapproves as well. To the fourth priest, Ork’s marriage of faith and reason effectively traps religion within a closed, dead system that holds no place for the absurd, the transcendental, or the truly alive. Though Grendel dismisses the fourth priest’s words as the ravings of a drunken man, Beowulf later echoes the priest’s words in his deadly battle with Grendel at the end of the novel.
Although Grendel jumps back and forth in history, the narrative remains consistently patterned on the passage of the seasons. The novel begins in springtime, a time of rebirth and new possibilities; now, as we move into the final section of the novel, we approach winter, a time of death. This seasonal change foreshadows Grendel’s own death, which we know must occur at the end of the novel. The priests, by worshiping a god called the Destroyer, whose sole purpose is to annihilate Grendel, appear to be summoning Beowulf himself. Indeed, the Christian imagery attached to Beowulf in the final chapters supports this association. Grendel can sense death’s approach—he imagines he hears footsteps and he is afraid. The whole world, in fact, seems primed for some kind of cataclysmic event. The Danes are restless and apprehensive, unable to fall asleep in their beds. Grendel’s glimpse of a bowman shooting a hart—a male deer—is a seemingly ordinary event that nonetheless holds great portent, if only Grendel were able to puzzle out what it meant. The world has always been a mysterious place for Grendel, but now we see those mysteries gaining urgency.
Grendel’s encounter with Ork and the other priests can be seen as the ending of the second major section of Grendel. The first part can loosely be defined as the establishment of Grendel’s history and his quest—his endeavor to discover how he should live his life in a meaningless world. In the second part of the novel Grendel finds two very different ways of answering that question. The Shaper, on one hand, proposes that one should make his own meaning in the world, and he uses the power of his imagination to create systems like heroism, altruism, and nobility. The dragon, on the other hand, claims that such system-making is pointless and irrelevant, as everything will turn to dust eventually. Characters such as Wealtheow, Unferth, Hrothulf, Red Horse, and Ork provide Grendel with slightly different views on this essential debate. The chapters that feature these characters deepen our understanding of Grendel’s dilemma, but they do not do much to advance the plot. The strange stirrings in the winter air in this chapter, however, suggest that we are moving into a new phase of the novel.
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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