I understood that the world was nothing. . . . I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist.See Important Quotations Explained
After establishing the novel’s linear plotline in Chapter
In his youth, Grendel explores his vast underground world with childlike abandon. He is always alone, as the only other creatures in the caverns, aside from his mother, are strange, unspeaking beings that watch Grendel’s every move but never interact with him. One night, Grendel arrives at a pool of firesnakes. He senses that the snakes are guarding something, and after a moment of hesitation he dives into the pool. When he breaks the surface of the water he finds himself, for the first time, in moonlight. Grendel goes no further the first night, but as time passes he ventures farther and farther out into this strange new world.
Grendel’s exploration of the world of humans changes the way he perceives the creatures in his underground world. He realizes that the unspeaking strangers seem to look past him or through him; only his mother truly looks at him. She looks at Grendel as if to consume him, and he has an inexplicable understanding that they are connected, possibly even a single entity. At times, however, the intensity of his mother’s gaze causes Grendel to suddenly feel separate from her, and at those times he bawls and hurls himself at her. His mother responds by smashing him to her breast as if to make him part of her flesh again. Comforted by this gesture, Grendel can then go back to his exploratory games.
One day, lured out to the upper world by the smell of a newborn calf, Grendel finds himself painfully trapped in a tree. He bellows for his mother, but she does not come. In his pain and desperation, he imagines he sees her shape in a black rock, in a shadow, and in a cave entrance, but each vision turns out to be a cruel tease. A bull appears and, despite Grendel’s screams, comes charging at him, its horns ripping Grendel’s leg up to the knee. Grendel realizes that the bull has struck too low and will always strike too low; the bull is a creature of blind instinct. Grendel knows that if he can twist his body away, he will be able to avoid the bull’s thrusts. This event causes Grendel to experience a revelation that the world is nothing but a chaotic mess of casual, brute violence. Grendel understands that he alone exists, that everything else in the world is merely what he pushes against or what pushes back against him. The bull continues to attack Grendel, but Grendel ceases to pay attention. Nothing seems to matter anymore, and eventually Grendel falls asleep.
Grendel wakes in the darkness to catch his first glimpse of men. Surprisingly, they speak Grendel’s own language, though it sounds strange. The men are baffled as to what this strange creature in the oak tree might be. At first they think Grendel is a kind of fungus, but then they decide he must be a tree spirit. They further resolve that the spirit is hungry, that it eats pig, and that they must feed it. Grendel is overjoyed at the prospect of food, and he laughs out loud. The humans take this laugh as a sign that the spirit is angry, and they try to attack Grendel. Grendel tries to communicate with the humans, but they do not understand his words. As Grendel watches them plan their attack, he realizes that the humans are no dull-witted animals, but thinking, pattern-making beings, and therefore more dangerous than any creatures he has thus far encountered. Just as Grendel feels he will fall to the humans, his mother arrives to save him.
Grendel wakes up in his mother’s cave. He tries to share his revelation about the nature of existence with her, but she only stares blankly at him. Grendel becomes more and more agitated at his mother’s unresponsiveness, and she reacts by rushing to embrace her son. Grendel is sickened with fear, and feels he is suffocating in his mother’s mass.
When Grendel crosses the physical boundary between the mere and the human world, the movement represents more than a simple geographical change: it also represents Grendel’s abandonment of an innocent childhood and the beginning of his new career as a student of human philosophy. Leaving the family home is a rite of passage that we can recognize and understand, an important and necessary step a child makes toward establishing an individual identity. Grendel and his mother also understand this change in a very physical way. As a child, Grendel sees no difference between himself and his mother; they appear to be one entity. When Grendel begins inching out of his home, however, he realizes that he and his mother are, in fact, separate beings. This newly discovered disconnection from his mother frightens Grendel, and his mother soothes him by smashing him into her body, as if to join the two of them back together physically. This gesture reassures Grendel that he and his mother are indeed still connected, and that he is not alone. Afterward, Grendel is comforted and can return to his games again like a little child. The stares of the wordless underground creatures, however, disturb Grendel’s simple games and make Grendel highly self-conscious, which in turn reminds him that he is a separate, solitary being.
Grendel’s understanding of himself as a disconnected individual is heightened during his encounter with the bull. On one level, Grendel feels alone because no one comes to his aid. His anxiety increases when he looks around and sees nothing but a crazed jumble of images. He thinks that his mother, perhaps, could help him understand what is happening around him. Grendel is no longer a child, though, as he has grown up and separated from his mother, leaving her unable to save him from the confusing mess in which he finds himself. When the bull arrives, however, the world “snap[s] into position” around Grendel. The bull’s violent act causes Grendel to understand that his mother can no longer provide meaning in his world—only he can.
This moment of sudden awareness marks the beginning of Grendel’s career as a solipsist. Solipsism is often defined as the idea that “I am the only mind that exists”—a close echo of Grendel’s declaration “I alone exist.” We must remember, however, that Grendel is making this assertion while he is under attack by a very real bull—one that shows no sign of being an illusion or a figment of Grendel’s imagination. We might, then, come to understand solipsism instead as the premise that “I alone exist as a producer of meaning.” Just as meaning earlier emanates from Grendel’s mother, now it centers on and is created by Grendel himself. Now he sees the bull not as a thing in and of itself, but merely understands it in its capacity to act against Grendel. This change in perception effectively ends Grendel’s childhood and sets him off on his own, adult quest. Now, when he visualizes the eyes of his mother, he knows that he is an “alien” to her, a rock broken free from the wall.