It’s coming, my brother. . . . Though you murder the world, transmogrify life into I and it, strong searching roots will crack your cave and rain will cleanse it: The world will burn green, sperm build again.
That night, filled with excitement, lust, joy, and fear, Grendel raids the meadhall. He bursts through the heavy front door to discover all the men asleep. Madly prankish, he ties a tablecloth around his neck like a napkin and proceeds to eat one sleeping man. Grendel grabs another man by the wrist, only to discover that it is Beowulf, who has been silently watching him in order to see how he operates. With a stare as intense as his grip, Beowulf twists Grendel’s arm around in the socket, causing him pain unlike any he has ever felt. Grendel has a surreal, fantastic vision of the meadhall coming to life, and he sees a pair of wings sprouting from Beowulf’s back. Reminding himself that Beowulf is only a man, Grendel tries to regain his senses and plan a logical attack. But just then Grendel slips on a puddle of blood, and the accident allows Beowulf to take the upper hand.
Beowulf starts whispering madly in Grendel’s ear. Though Grendel tries to avoid listening, he is helpless. Beowulf begins by quoting the dragon’s description of the world as a meaningless swirl of dust. Laughing and spitting flames, Beowulf speaks of an approaching period of regeneration in the world. Grendel refuses to be taken in by Beowulf’s words, which remind him of all the talk he has already heard. Slipping in and out of his visions, Grendel whimpers and bawls for his mother. He claims that Beowulf has gained the upper hand merely by taking advantage of an accident: if Grendel had not slipped on the blood, he would be winning. Beowulf hurls Grendel against a table and then a wall, demanding that Grendel observe the hardness of the wall. He continues to smash Grendel against the walls, breaking his forehead open. Then Beowulf demands that Grendel “sing of walls.” After some resistance, Grendel sings a short verse about man’s walls crumbling with the passage of time, leaving nothing but the shining memory of the town.
Grendel continues to insist that Beowulf is insane, and that his victory is only an accident and no proof of the truth of his words. Grendel is amazed when Beowulf manages to rip his arm off at the shoulder. Suddenly realizing that he will die, Grendel stumbles out of the hall and into the darkness of the night. The outlines of everything around him appear remarkably distinct. Grendel calls for his mother one last time. He finds himself standing at the edge of the same cliff where he stood in Chapter 1, staring down into its bottomless depths. Something inside Grendel moves him to tumble down into the abyss voluntarily. His sight clears for a moment, and no longer in pain, he notices that his old enemies, the animals, have gathered around him to watch him die. Overcome by both terror and joy, Grendel whispers to them, “Poor Grendel’s had an accident. . . . So may you all.”
In the midst of the climactic battle, Grendel has a hallucination of Beowulf sprouting wings and spitting flames like a dragon. Indeed, Grendel’s encounter with Beowulf in many ways parallels his earlier encounter with the dragon. Grendel senses the dragon several chapters before he actually meets him or even apprehends his nature. Similarly, Grendel feels Beowulf’s imminent presence long before the warrior actually arrives in Denmark. Furthermore, just as it is unclear whether the dragon is a separate, distinct creature or a creation of Grendel’s own mind, Beowulf’s appearance shifts and mutates drastically throughout his battle with Grendel, leaving us to wonder if these changes are actually occurring or are merely a function of Grendel’s imagination and perception. As there is no logical reason why Beowulf would have such uncanny insight into Grendel’s thoughts and psychology, there is a sense that this vision of a dragon-like Beowulf is a private revelation intended only for Grendel.
Beowulf and the dragon are the only characters who speak directly to Grendel and pierce through his isolation, and their messages are closely related, though essentially opposed. Beowulf begins his lecture to Grendel by quoting the dragon, describing the present moment as a “temporary gathering of bits, a few random specks, a cloud.” Beowulf accepts the dragon’s explanation of the world as a place where everything eventually dies. However, while the dragon emphasizes death and decay, Beowulf looks beyond the moment of death and emphasizes the rebirth that always follows. Beowulf’s promise of a burning, avenging spring season echoes the song sung at the Shaper’s funeral, which also describes a violent seasonal shift that paradoxically holds the promise of both life and death. Gardner claimed that he based the dragon imagery in Grendel on a medieval tradition in which both Christ and the devil were portrayed as dragons. Beowulf, in his association with the dead and risen Christ, also represents the coexistence of life and death in one figure.
This notion of paradox resurfaces in the final moments of the novel, when the one-armed Grendel stands at the edge of the cliff and cannot discern whether it is joy or terror he feels. Grendel’s death is clearly gruesome and violent, and we may find his plight pathetic and heart-wrenching. His final words appear to be a curse directed at the mindless, stupid animals that have gathered to watch him die. However, some critics have also interpreted Grendel’s final words as a strange sort of blessing. Although in intense pain, Grendel is now free from the mindless, mechanical cycle in which he earlier found himself trapped. Importantly, the impetus for Grendel’s sudden freedom from this cycle is a mere accident, his slipping on a pool of blood during the battle with Beowulf. As this twist implies that machines have no place for the accidental or unexpected, perhaps Grendel is wishing an “accident” on the animals as a means of freeing them from their blindly predetermined paths.