I had become something, as if born again. . . . I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings! But also, as never before, I was alone.
After his encounter with the dragon, Grendel begins to see the world as a meaningless place. Despite this new outlook, he still has no intention of systematically terrifying the Danes. One night, Grendel finds himself watching the meadhall and listening to the Shaper’s song. The song has a different effect on Grendel now: rather than feeling doubt, distress, loneliness, or shame, he feels anger at the listeners’ ignorance and self-satisfaction. Suddenly, Grendel hears a stick snap, and he turns to find a guard behind him. The guard strikes at Grendel, but is mysteriously unable to hurt him. Other Danes rush up to attack and are similarly thwarted. Grendel slowly realizes that the dragon has put a charm on him that renders him impervious to weapons. Laughing grimly, Grendel backs towards the woods, holding a guard whose head he bites off gleefully.
A few nights later, Grendel launches his first raid on the humans, thus beginning the twelve-year war. He is filled with joy but, strangely, also feels more alone than ever before. A few raids later, Hrothgar’s thanes meet Grendel’s attack on the meadhall with much poetic boasting, retaliating with whoops and howls in the name of Hrothgar. Grendel has a vision of these attacks continuing mechanically until the end of time, and in his rage he begins to smash the hall.
From across the hall, a thane named Unferth approaches Grendel. Unferth challenges Grendel very lyrically, and Grendel responds sarcastically, surprising Unferth with his capacity for language. Grendel goes on to taunt Unferth about the difficulty of being a hero. He tells Unferth that he pities the hero’s terrible burden—always having to watch what he says or does, never being allowed to slip up. But on second thought, Grendel figures, the burdens of heroism are probably all worth it for the feelings of superiority and comfort of self-knowledge that come with being a hero. Unferth withers under Grendel’s verbal attack; then, to add insult to injury, Grendel begins pelting him with apples. Unferth begins to cry, and Grendel leaves the meadhall with mixed feelings of disgust and satisfaction.
Three days later, Grendel awakes in his cave to find that Unferth has followed him. Though exhausted and battered by his journey through the pool of firesnakes, Unferth nevertheless launches into an impassioned argument that his journey to Grendel’s cave will be the subject of Danish songs for generations. Before Unferth finishes, however, he abandons his poetic tone and confronts Grendel about his condemnation of heroism. Unferth claims that heroism is about more than simply fairy tales and poetry. He claims that, as no human will know whether he actually came to Grendel’s mere or simply fled like a coward to the hills, his decision to challenge Grendel shows he has inner heroism.
Grendel, however, feels that Unferth has just contradicted his earlier assertion that he will live on in the Scyldings’ poetry. Unferth becomes enraged at Grendel’s apparent indifference. Unferth claims that heroism gives the world meaning, for a hero sees “value beyond what’s possible,” thereby fueling the struggle of humanity. Grendel retorts that heroism also breaks up the boredom of life. Further angered, Unferth declares that either he or Grendel will die that night in the cave. Grendel, however, says that he plans to carry Unferth back to the meadhall unscathed. Unferth swears he would rather kill himself, but Grendel points out that such an action would appear rather cowardly. Beaten and spent, Unferth falls asleep on the cave floor, and Grendel carries him back to Hrothgar’s hall. Unferth lives throughout the twelve-year war, crazy with frustration at the fact that Grendel taunts him by sparing his life during every raid.
Grendel, as he mulls over his meeting with the dragon, begins to display some of the dragon’s characteristics: his confusion and frustration with mankind blossom into full-fledged disdain. In light of the dragon’s nihilistic views on the essential meaninglessness of all actions and the fatalistic nature of the world, the hope the Danes display enrages Grendel. Whereas the dragon used to manifest himself as a dark, intangible presence in the woods, now he haunts Grendel as a smell in the air, leading him on and goading him into more intense nihilism.