Analysis

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.