How is Grendel structured? How does this structure relate to the themes of the novel as a whole?
Grendel traces the final year of Grendel’s life, beginning in the spring and ending with Grendel’s death in the winter. As a motif in art, the cycle of the seasons—a natural and inevitable journey—traditionally represents a well-patterned cycle of life, moving from birth to death and repeating in an endless loop that is natural and good. Grendel, however, does not accept this understanding of the seasons. At the beginning of the novel, we see a ram frolicking in the spring weather, ready to capitalize on the season’s promise of new growth and sexual abandon. Grendel opposes this instinctual obedience to nature’s design, because to him it represents a thoughtless, mechanical adherence to a pattern that has no real meaning. He is most upset, however, because he sees the season having a similar effect on him—he cannot help but swim up through the lake and begin attacking humans, simply because his instincts tell him to do so. The endless repetition of the seasons, every year looking much the same as every year before, also frustrates Grendel, who feels trapped by the static and unchanging pattern.
Grendel views the seasons as static because they endlessly repeat themselves in a fashion he sees as mechanical. Other characters in the novel, however, focus on the seasonal cycle’s ability to renew itself constantly, thereby continually providing liberation, release, and the possibility of rebirth. Throughout Grendel, images of spring cracking through the hardened shell of winter represent just such a phenomenon. Grendel’s death falls at just this moment, when the year is ending its period of winter and is about to return to spring. We may read this ending cynically: as winter is a time of death, we may feel that the conventions of literature require Grendel to die in just as mechanical a fashion as anything else. Or we may read this ending more positively, focusing on the season’s ability to “crack” Grendel and provide him with a possible salvation. As Grendel dies, he feels joy and terror equally, leaving us with an ambiguous notion that both readings may, in fact, be correct.
Grendel is a work of fiction based on another work of fiction. What is the nature of this relationship, and how does it affect the meaning of Grendel?
Grendel is based on the sixth-century Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, a work in which Grendel is a grotesque, violent monster who terrorizes a small community of Danish warriors. After twelve years of continued aggression, the great Geatish warrior Beowulf comes across the ocean to rid the Danes of the beast. After killing Grendel, Beowulf goes on to defeat both Grendel’s mother and, many years later, a great dragon that kills Beowulf as it dies. Grendel focuses on Beowulf’s battle with Grendel, and in doing so flips the protagonist and antagonist. Gardner greatly expands Grendel’s history and alters the monster’s characterization to an equal degree. In Gardner’s novel, very little separates Grendel from his human counterparts: he has a high level of intelligence, as well as a human capacity for both emotion and philosophy.
Grendel is an example of what is termed metafiction—that is, a piece of fiction about another piece of fiction. In the novel, Grendel, the villain of the original poem, spends more time observing and attempting to understand the humans than actually attacking them. In his observations, Grendel questions the value systems set forth in Beowulf, a work that takes place in a world governed by a very knowable, unshakable moral code. In Grendel, heroism, beauty, patriotism, and political eloquence ultimately provide little solace in a violent, chaotic world. Indeed, Grendel portrays a world philosophically opposed to the world of Beowulf. Grendel’s world is characterized by equal parts futility and helplessness. The fact that the plot of Beowulf predetermines all the events of Grendel reinforces Grendel’s feeling of being trapped. Even though Grendel himself is technically unaware of the Beowulf poem, Gardner does prefigure upcoming events in the novel through significant foreshadowing. This foreshadowing is used most prominently to hint at Grendel’s imminent encounter with Beowulf. The arrival of the Geats fulfills a vague, unfocused waiting from which Grendel has been suffering for several chapters. When Beowulf eventually manages to kill Grendel, the latter feels a mix of terror and joy, suggesting that part of Grendel has wanted to accept his role in the Beowulf epic, even though that role has required him to play the part of the villain.
Why is Grendel attracted to the words of the Shaper? Why is he attracted to the words of the dragon?
The dragon and the Shaper represent two opposing elements of Grendel’s personality. The dragon speaks to Grendel’s rational, intellectual side. Though the dragon has, by virtue of his incredible power, a rare insight into the true nature of the world, the basic premise he relays to Grendel is inarguable and understandable even to a “creature of the Dark Ages” such as Grendel. The dragon shows how, against the awesome scope of the entire universe, man and his little world have as much overall impact as a swirl of dust. This assertion supports the vague feelings of futility and helplessness that Grendel has already been experiencing. Moreover, this eminently rational outlook also helps Grendel feel superior to the humans, who make him feel excluded and monstrous. Despite the dragon’s teachings, Grendel cannot shake the feeling that something meaningful will come of all his questioning and seemingly pointless suffering. The dragon, meanwhile, keeps trying to get Grendel to resist those feelings, to accept that they are irrational.
The Shaper, on the other hand, feeds these emotional, spiritual yearnings. The Shaper provides Grendel—and the Danes—with models of the world where things happen for definite reasons, and where people ultimately get what they deserve. This concept of a highly ordered, morally coherent world is incredibly seductive to Grendel, because believing in such a world would help alleviate his feelings of isolation and emptiness. However, Grendel’s rational side, as fostered by the dragon, prevents Grendel from being able to wholeheartedly accept the Shaper’s beautiful words. Grendel has seen enough of the Danes’ true history to realize that the Shaper’s moral systems are specious. Grendel’s emotional and rational sides appear irreconcilable, and indeed, he remains precariously poised between the two positions for most of the novel.