The Danish religious system described in this chapter is poised between a polytheistic system, in which multiple gods are worshipped, and a monotheistic one, in which a single, supreme being is revered. The Danes have a pantheon of gods who are specific and nature-based—a wolf-god, a bull-god, and so on—but they also elevate one deity, the Destroyer, above all others. The tension between these two systems hearkens back to the original Beowulf poem, in which a Christian poet wrote about a pagan civilization.
In Grendel, religion is losing currency in the Danish kingdom, which provides the old priest Ork an opportunity to come up with a new system. Ork represents a new kind of priest, the only one who has “thought [all the mysteries] out.” He is a theologian, one for whom faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. Ork, like the dragon, knows that time will erase everything eventually. In fact, both Ork and the dragon quote from the same philosopher—Alfred North Whitehead (Ork quotes Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World and Process and Reality for his purposes). For Ork, faith in God leads man past a feeling of hopelessness and toward a holy vision of the world as entirely connected, meaningful place. The three younger priests scoff at Ork’s radical thinking because they think he is an old, silly man. The fourth priest, however, understands Ork’s theology, but he disapproves as well. To the fourth priest, Ork’s marriage of faith and reason effectively traps religion within a closed, dead system that holds no place for the absurd, the transcendental, or the truly alive. Though Grendel dismisses the fourth priest’s words as the ravings of a drunken man, Beowulf later echoes the priest’s words in his deadly battle with Grendel at the end of the novel.
Although Grendel jumps back and forth in history, the narrative remains consistently patterned on the passage of the seasons. The novel begins in springtime, a time of rebirth and new possibilities; now, as we move into the final section of the novel, we approach winter, a time of death. This seasonal change foreshadows Grendel’s own death, which we know must occur at the end of the novel. The priests, by worshiping a god called the Destroyer, whose sole purpose is to annihilate Grendel, appear to be summoning Beowulf himself. Indeed, the Christian imagery attached to Beowulf in the final chapters supports this association. Grendel can sense death’s approach—he imagines he hears footsteps and he is afraid. The whole world, in fact, seems primed for some kind of cataclysmic event. The Danes are restless and apprehensive, unable to fall asleep in their beds. Grendel’s glimpse of a bowman shooting a hart—a male deer—is a seemingly ordinary event that nonetheless holds great portent, if only Grendel were able to puzzle out what it meant. The world has always been a mysterious place for Grendel, but now we see those mysteries gaining urgency.
Grendel’s encounter with Ork and the other priests can be seen as the ending of the second major section of Grendel. The first part can loosely be defined as the establishment of Grendel’s history and his quest—his endeavor to discover how he should live his life in a meaningless world. In the second part of the novel Grendel finds two very different ways of answering that question. The Shaper, on one hand, proposes that one should make his own meaning in the world, and he uses the power of his imagination to create systems like heroism, altruism, and nobility. The dragon, on the other hand, claims that such system-making is pointless and irrelevant, as everything will turn to dust eventually. Characters such as Wealtheow, Unferth, Hrothulf, Red Horse, and Ork provide Grendel with slightly different views on this essential debate. The chapters that feature these characters deepen our understanding of Grendel’s dilemma, but they do not do much to advance the plot. The strange stirrings in the winter air in this chapter, however, suggest that we are moving into a new phase of the novel.