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Grendel Themes

by John Gardner

Major Themes

A Cyclical View of Life

Grendel is a cyclical novel. It takes place in twelve chapters, respectively representing the twelve months of the year or the twelve signs of the zodiac. Seasons pass in the novel, and return the same time the following year. Even at the outset, Grendel notices that his “twelve year war” against Hrothgar is the same this year as it was the last. The imagery of the novel is likewise cyclical: the ram at the beginning of the novel appears again at the end. Finally, Grendel’s own quest for identity runs full circle as he begins the novel thinking himself the sole denizen of a self-created universe, and ends the novel forced to create the very reality (a wall) that does him harm.

The Importance of Art

Art plays a major role in Grendel. The Shaper's art creates a false history for Hrothgar, but leads to the very real creation of Hrothgar's city-state and the founding of the mead hall Herot. The priests carve their own gods from wood and stone, offering a religion to the Scyldings that they themselves do not believe. However, these same graven images allow Grendel to pose as one of their gods and inspire the old priest Ork into true devotion and a renewed commitment to monotheism. Ultimately, art trumps philosophy when the stranger (Beowulf) forces Grendel to create a poem that will bring the monster’s virtual wall into reality.

The Conflict between Traditional Heroic Ideals and Existentialist Philosophy

Unferth represents the heroic ideals of the Scyldings (and humanity in general). He believes in a higher good and the triumph of honor over evil and treachery. His ideals are tested by Grendel, whom he cannot harm and who refuses to attack the warrior in turn. Unferth is driven to the brink of suicide by Grendel's rejection of the heroic ideals and the monster's assertion of his own meaning for reality: Grendel takes Unferth's unconscious body back to Herot unharmed, leaving the Scyldings to make their own meaning in this action.

Isolation

Grendel is a novel driven by the main character's sense of isolation. Grendel cannot relate to his mother, whom he considers little more than a brute beast, nor can he make himself understood by the humans he encounters, even though he understands their speech. Grendel is a perpetual outsider, looking for a place to belong. His high-handed search for philosophical meaning is ultimately one more attempt to know who he is and where he belongs.

Hrothgar, too, is isolated by his own power. He marries a woman too young for him and finds a potential threat among his own household. While his warriors sing and drink, Hrothgar broods. His own quest for identity has led him to a place as lonely as Grendel's forced exile from humanity.

Self-knowledge and Self-deception

Grendel's quest is to know who and what he is. His ever-changing answer to these questions suggests that he will never be satisfied with an end to his quest. Even when he is told his position in the cosmos by beings far wiser than he is (such as the dragon), Grendel attempts to alter this position in favor of something different. Ironically, his very attempts to reject his ordained place in the universe lead him to fulfill the role of Hrothgar's (and humanity's) helpful nemesis more completely than he desires.

Nature vs. Nurture

What makes Grendel a monster? The novel suggests that Grendel partakes of the nature of his brutish and grotesque mother through the accident of birth. However, Grendel has a keen mind and is capable of making his own choices; it is only when the bull, and later Hrothgar and the other warriors, take advantage of his immobility that Grendel is forced to retaliate with violence. Does Grendel kill because that is what he was born to do, or because his abusers have taught him the ways of violence? The novel intertwines this psychological question with the greater philosophical themes of identity, the nature of existence, and the lack of confirmation of reality.

Fate vs. Free Will

The dragon denies that there is such a thing as destiny, yet at the same time states that it knows Grendel's role in the universe. The dragon circumvents this seeming contradiction by claiming to see past, present, and future simultaneously: knowledge is not cause, nor is it evidence of some higher purpose. Grendel attempts to thwart the dragon's prophesied role for himself, but only ends up doing exactly what the dragon said he would. This would seem to place the novel firmly in the "fate" camp.

However, when Grendel attacks the Scyldings and targets Wealtheow, he chooses not to kill her. He claims that to kill her would be his "ultimate act of nihilism," a self-destructive decision that would at least end Grendel's boredom, but he refuses to end the tedious cycle, leaving the reader to ponder whether Grendel freely chose to spare the queen, or if he cannot help but perpetuate the cycle of violence and despair.

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