John Gardner’s Grendel follows its titular character Grendel—a creature who possesses the intelligence of humans but the appearance of a beast—as he struggles to understand his purpose in the universe and eventually takes his place as the villain in the mythology of humanity. The novel is in direct conversation with the epic poem Beowulf, an Old English narrative that tells the glorious tale of a warrior named Beowulf who kills a terrible creature named Grendel, an enemy of the Danes who has caused much bloodshed. Grendel gives Grendel a voice to tell his version of the story, which is one of isolation, unfair ostracization, and a yearning to connect with humanity, even if it means connecting with them through becoming their enemy. The novel explores the idea of whether humanity’s existence is meaningless, and questions if humans cope with the randomness of the universe by creating stories and myths that give them purpose and exaggerate their importance in the grand scheme of things.

Grendel begins toward the end of Grendel’s 12-year war with the Danes, but quickly skips back in time to explain Grendel’s past. In his youth, Grendel learns that he and his mother are alone in the world—there are animals and humans, but he is neither. As he continues to grow, he feels increasingly separated from his mother as well. Grendel is piercingly intelligent while his mother has lost her ability to use language, and she generally operates as an animal. Deeply lonely and seeking connection, Grendel attempts to communicate with humanity, but humans are terrified by his monstrous appearance and assume that he is villainous. Grendel watches humans from afar, yearning to be a part of their community while simultaneously resenting them for misjudging him. The novel’s inciting incident occurs when The Shaper arrives at Hart, the mead hall at the center of King Hrothgar’s kingdom. The Shaper is a bard who spins stories that romanticize humanity’s past. These narratives convince the Danes that they are heroes who are fulfilling a great divine purpose. Grendel is both moved and confused by The Shaper. Like the Danes, Grendel is attracted to the idea of a life of destiny and meaning, but as a centuries-old being, he has seen firsthand how violent and immoral humanity often is, so he knows that The Shaper’s stories are not entirely truthful. Grendel begins to seriously ponder these contradictions, and he meets a dragon who has the opposite philosophy from the Danes—the dragon tells Grendel that the universe is random, and that everything humanity does will eventually be lost to time. Fluctuating between a yearning for the Danes’ world of purpose and destiny, and a logical acceptance of the dragon’s world of chaos and meaninglessness, Grendel decides that he can at least stave off the boredom of existence by playing the role of the villain in humanity’s timeline.

In the novel’s rising action, Grendel begins the 12-year war with the Danes, attacking Hart and killing some of the guards. Throughout the war, Grendel comes into contact with Unferth, a warrior who hopes to be remembered as a hero. Grendel refuses to kill Unferth so that he never achieves hero status, which is often marked by death in battle. Grendel also witnesses several other events that are important to humanity’s timeline, including the arrival of Wealtheow, a beautiful and kind queen, and the aging of Hrothgar, who is losing the respect of his people due to Grendel’s terrorizing of the kingdom. While Grendel is consistently drawn to humans and is fascinated by the intimate moments of their lives, he also suspects that their societies and goals are entirely a coping mechanism—everything they do is a desperate attempt to manufacture meaning in an ultimately meaningless existence.

The novel reaches its climax when Beowulf, a Geat warrior, arrives at Hart. Beowulf is a famous warrior, and Hrothgar has invited him to Hart to destroy Grendel and end the war. Grendel attacks Hart once again and engages in direct combat with Beowulf. To Grendel’s surprise, Beowulf gains the upper hand, and battles so ferociously that Grendel begins to see visions of Beowulf as a great, fire-breathing dragon. Beowulf speaks awe-inspiring, divine prophecies to Grendel as they fight, telling Grendel that once Grendel is killed, humanity will grow and flourish again. Almost in a trance, Grendel responds with a song about how the walls that humanity has built will crumble over time. Beowulf and Grendel’s battle is not just physical but also philosophical: Beowulf’s Judeo-Christian philosophy battles Grendel’s nihilist philosophy. Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off, creating a fatal wound. In the novel’s falling action, Grendel reflects on his impending death. He feels both terror at the oblivion awaiting him and joy for having finally been released from the monotony and awful loneliness of his existence. When he tells the animals surrounding him, “Grendel’s had an accident…so may you all,” it’s also an address to the reader. Grendel’s words are both a curse on the humans who have ostracized him as well as a tragic blessing, reminding us that we will all eventually be released from the painful confusion that arises from existing in a seemingly random universe.