Though the dragon is a fully realized character—indeed, the only character besides Beowulf with whom Grendel has any significant dialogue—many critics have proposed that the dragon is not a real being, but comes instead from within Grendel’s own psyche. The dragon seems to live in another dimension, one reached not by a physical journey but a mental one, as Grendel has to “make his mind a blank” in order to approach the dragon. Moreover, several characteristics of the dragon are echoes of things Grendel has previously witnessed: the dragon’s “nyeh heh heh” laugh, for example, recalls the laugh of the goldworker Grendel once watched at Hart. The dragon is a curious amalgam of dragon imagery from widely varying sources, including Asiatic mythology, Christian texts, and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which were enjoying a surge in popularity at the time of Grendel’s publication.
Despite the dragon’s claims of complete, unlimited knowledge, we should follow Grendel’s lead and regard the dragon and his teachings with some amount of skepticism. The dragon hardly bears any of the characteristics one would expect in a sage old teacher. Wheezing, greedy, and slightly effete, he spouts a torrent of philosophical chatter that seems to parody man’s own convoluted attempts at making meaning. In fact, the dragon actually quotes a human philosopher extensively in his lecture to Grendel: whole passages are lifted without attribution from Alfred North Whitehead’s Modes of Thought. The dragon’s instruction to “know thyself” is lifted from an inscription at the oracle-shrine in Delphi, Greece. The dragon is more closely linked, though, with the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, a man whose philosophy Gardner often vehemently criticized. In fact, Gardner frequently commented that, aside from Beowulf, the second “source” text for Grendel is Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.