Analysis

The humans’ second significant encounter with Grendel links them with him in a new way, scripting a role for the outsider within the humans’ burgeoning religious system. The first time the humans see Grendel, they have no idea what to make of him. They run through a list of absurd options before finally deciding that Grendel is some kind of tree spirit. The subsequent battle is marked by a similar state of ridiculous confusion and chaos. However, Grendel senses that these humans are more dangerous creatures than their silly helmets and tiny bodies suggest. They are patternmakers, and therefore far more difficult to defeat than any of the dumb, instinctual animals that Grendel has confronted thus far. Now the Shaper—the most powerful patternmaker of all—has woven a story that not only gives the humans a religious framework within which to live, but also includes a preassigned role for Grendel, who up to this point has been merely an observer.

The Shaper’s song about the creation of the world expresses a Judeo-Christian view of the universe, which is appropriate given that the Beowulf poet was writing from a similar standpoint. The Shaper’s tale—the story of an ancient feud between brothers that results in a world divided between darkness and light—is an allusion to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The story, found in the book of Genesis, concerns the two sons of Adam and Eve, each of whom brings God a sacrificial offering. When God prefers Abel’s gift of lamb meat to Cain’s gift of crops, Cain murders Abel in a jealous rage. When God angrily questions Cain as to the whereabouts of his brother, Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God curses Cain to wander the earth as a fugitive, but also puts a mark on Cain so that anyone who tries to kill him will be visited with vengeance sevenfold. The idea that Grendel is a descendant of Cain can be traced back to the original Beowulf text, which makes the same claim. Furthermore, Gardner’s characterization of Grendel’s mother early in the novel foreshadows this notion, as Grendel imagines his mother to be haunted by some “unremembered, perhaps ancestral crime.”

The role the Shaper assigns to Grendel both pleases and upsets him. On one hand, Grendel takes most of the Shaper’s songs with a grain of salt, as he is aware of the songs’ fictional quality. Grendel knows that man cannot be as holy as the Shaper suggests, because he himself has seen evidence of humankind’s brutality on numerous occasions—if Grendel is cursed, so is man. It takes effort for Grendel to remember these considerations, and finally he breaks down, weeps, and experiences a “conversion”—a word that suggests that Grendel accepts the Shaper’s religious vision. To Grendel, the story of God may be a lie, but it is a beautiful one. In this Judeo-Christian system, the outsider Grendel finds a place and a purpose, even though that position is a savage, unsavory one. Grendel is not allowed to join the humans as a brother or a friend, but he can join them, paradoxically, by fighting them.

In this chapter, Grendel becomes more aware of his own use of language, the ways in which it both connects him to humans and separates him from them. Grendel grudgingly depends on man’s language as he narrates his story. We see that exposure to the Shaper’s song affects Grendel’s own narrative style. Furthermore, throughout the novel, Grendel utilizes traditional elements of Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as alliterative verse and kenning (short, metaphorical descriptions of a person or object: for example, “whale-road” for “sea”). When Grendel tearfully flees Hart after the Danes reject him, he sputters a series of curse words and then laments the fact that even these curses must be borrowed from human language. The great tragic irony, of course, is that Grendel and the humans speak the same language, though the humans are too scared and repulsed to try to understand Grendel when he attempts to communicate with them. Grendel can do many things with language, as his increasing experiments with form and style show; however, he cannot use language for its most basic human purpose—to communicate.