Grendel’s engagement with the thanes in outright war marks a new stage in his relationship with humans. The guard who sneaks up on the spying Grendel echoes the dead thane whom Grendel finds behind the meadhall in Chapter 4. In that chapter, when Grendel tries to join the Danes as a friend, he carries the body of the dead thane as a kind of peace offering. The Danes, of course, misconstrue this gesture as a savage display of aggression. Denied a role as friend, Grendel decides to accept the assigned role as enemy. When the Danes approach Grendel this time, he is once again carrying one of their compatriots. In an inversion of the earlier gesture of peace, Grendel bites off the head of the guard—a clear act of war. The experience greatly satisfies Grendel, who calls it a rebirth. Having spent so much time yearning for a place in the world, he feels he has finally become something.
We may wonder, though, what exactly Grendel has become, aside from the embodiment of evil that humans have always wanted him to be. When Grendel becomes the “Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings,” he accepts the role of villain and “brute existent” that man requires. When Grendel returns to the meadhall for his first full raid, his presence rouses the Danes. His attacks inspire brave bursts of poetry and zealous attempts to embody the heroic code. Gardner implies that man needs evil or darkness to throw its own virtuous light into higher relief. For now, at least, Grendel is only too happy to be Cain to man’s Abel. Even the glorious titles Grendel bestows on himself fail to represent any new identity: they are nothing more than traditional kennings found in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Once again, Grendel must resort to man’s terms in order to define himself.
The dragon’s charm, which renders Grendel physically invulnerable, is both a blessing and a curse. At first, Grendel rejoices in the feelings of superiority this new power affords him. He enjoys feeling strong and superhuman in front of the creatures who once made him feel confused and ashamed. At the same time, however, Grendel also feels lonelier than ever before. By accepting his role as man’s “brute existent,” he has finally found a way to engage face-to-face with human beings. Even though Grendel considers man’s moral and religious systems hogwash at this point, he nevertheless has—perhaps subconsciously—found a way to experience the kind of connectedness such systems provide their believers. The dragon’s charm, however, destroys that sense of connectedness, preventing Grendel from ever fully engaging in his battles with the humans, and ensuring his separation and disconnection from them.
In a shift from the original Beowulf poem, the thane Unferth—not Beowulf—represents the traditional Anglo-Saxon heroic code. Unferth begins his first battle with Grendel like an epic hero, making poetic speeches that exalt his moral code and highlight his bravery in battle. Grendel surprises Unferth and disrupts his performance by speaking right back to him. Grendel undercuts Unferth’s attempt at traditional heroism by pelting him with apples and turning the serious battle into a grotesque clown show of sorts. However, though Grendel destroys the trappings of heroism, Unferth later returns to argue for a deeper understanding of heroism. According to Unferth, the allure of heroism is not the fame it ensures or the poetry that it can inspire. Unferth believes in heroism because it gives him something greater for which to strive. Unferth encounters the same problem Grendel does: a vision of the world as essentially meaningless. But while Grendel has decided to deny the possibility of imposing his own meaning on the world, Unferth chooses to use the ideals of heroism to create meaning for himself and all of mankind. For Unferth, the romantic ideal of heroism is a vision, encouraged by the Shaper, that holds existentialism and nihilism at bay.