We are aware from the start that Grendel is a novel whose existence depends on other, earlier texts, not the least of which is the original Beowulf epic. The opening of the novel expresses the common tendency in postmodern fiction for a work to call attention to its own literariness—that is, the fact that a novel is actually a novel, written and crafted by an author’s imagination as opposed to rising naturally out of the characters’ consciousness. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the character Grendel has no way of knowing about the Canterbury Tales, The Waste Land, or even Beowulf. In some ways, his ignorance of his source materials emphasizes the fact that he is essentially trapped and defined by these earlier works.
Grendel’s inability to communicate with the ram foreshadows many of his future interactions. Grendel is perpetually trapped in one-way communications, whether it is with his babbling mother or with the numerous mute, stupid animals he encounters during the novel. The most significant example of this scenario is Grendel’s inability to communicate with the humans, even though, ironically, they share a common language. Even Grendel’s own mother is either unable or unwilling to communicate with him. Denied any real conversation partner, Grendel is forced to live in an endless interior monologue, with most of his significant conversations taking place within his own head. Lacking any other people with whom to interact, Grendel divides himself into various personas—the sobbing baby, the cold-eyed killer, the raging beast, the charming sycophant, and so on—and thereby manages to create a facsimile of dialogue.
In many ways, Grendel’s solitary and isolated position makes him an appropriate narrator for a novel about mankind’s philosophical history. Like Shelley’s Frankenstein—whom Grendel seems to be aping when he travels down to the Danish meadhall and puts his eye against a crack in the wall—Grendel is an apt commentator on the human condition because he is not invited to be part of it, always remaining an outside observer. However, later in the novel, we may question Grendel’s aptitude for the position of commentator, as we see him become more emotionally involved in the lives and dreams of humankind.