Not, of course, that I fool myself with thoughts that I’m more noble. Pointless, ridiculous monster crouched in the shadows, stinking of dead men, murdered children, martyred cows.
As Grendel observes a ram standing at the edge of a cliff at the beginning of the story, he rages at the animal and reflects on the ram’s stupidity as well as how much he hates the ram and everything around him. Grendel then acknowledges that he does not see himself as being better than any of these creatures. Before he even encounters humans and sees how they fear him, he embraces his identity as a hideous monster.
I’ve never seen a live hero before. I thought they were only in poetry. Ah, ah, it must be a terrible burden, though, being a hero—glory reaper, harvester of monsters! Everybody always watching you, weighing you, seeing if you’re still heroic.
Here, Grendel taunts Unferth after Unferth declares that he will kill Grendel to protect the others in their kingdom. Unferth clearly sees himself as a heroic figure, and Grendel mocks the burden Unferth must feel as a hero. While Unferth likely felt proud to stand up to the creature who had been murdering his fellow men, Grendel turns Unferth’s sense of identity on his head by showing how selfish he appears to be in wanting to be a hero. Later, when Unferth fails to kill Grendel, he is proven to not be as heroic as he feels.
I knew, for one, that the brother-killer had put on the Shaper’s idea of the hero like a merry mask, had seen it torn away, and was now reduced to what he was: a thinking animal stripped naked of former illusions, stubbornly living on, ashamed and meaningless, because killing himself would be, like his life, unheroic.
Grendel notes that after Unferth fails to kill him, Unferth can no longer act like a hero as he did before. Stripped of this identity, he seems almost as inhuman as Grendel. This instance shows that humans need to assume some sort of identity to make them humans, while Grendel acts by his instinct alone. The one remnant of his former heroic identity that Unferth clings to is his refusal to kill himself.
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