Quotes and Analysis
I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings!
But also, as never before, I was alone.
Grendel, p. 80
Grendel makes this miserable statement when he discovers the dragon's enchantment has left him invulnerable to harm from the Scylding's weapons. He glories in his power, but realizes that his impervious hide now separates him even more from the world of mortal men. In a flash of insight, Grendel recognizes that his condition has not improved, but has instead become much more hopeless as he seeks a place in this world.
I was sure, going back to my cave (it was nearly dawn), that he wouldn't follow. They never did. But I was wrong; he was a new kind of Scylding.
Grendel, p. 86
Unferth proves to be a man among men--a hero. He espouses and lives out the heroic ideal. Grendel has never met a "hero" in the flesh, so he is surprised at Unferth's determination. Unfortunately for Unferth, his epic struggle to reach Grendel leaves him weakened beyond the ability to fight. Grendel's superior power renders Unferth impotent, and there is no witness to declare Unferth's heroic words as he faced Grendel in the monster's underground lair. This new kind of Scylding is merely different rather than better. In fact, he may be more pitiful in his seemingly delusional views of the world.
"Why can't I have someone to talk to?" I said. The stars said nothing, but I pretended to ignore the rudeness. "The Shaper has people to talk to," I said. I wrung my fingers. "Hrothgar has people to talk to."
Grendel, p. 53
Grendel's isolation drives him to petulance. He asks the cosmos for someone to talk to, but of course receives no answer. Despite his aspirations to philosophical introspection, Grendel is essentially a lonely child looking for a friend. He envies both the Shaper and Hrothgar their companionship, even though he is constantly complaining about their self-deception and futility. Grendel sees the companionship of another as something higher (at least at the moment) than some abstract set of principles by which to live his life.
"That's where the Shaper serves them. Provides an illusion of reality--puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me. Mere sleight-of-wits. He knows no more than they do about total reality--less, if anything..."
Grendel, p. 65
The dragon despises the Shaper and the Scyldings' reliance upon him. He sees the Shaper's songs and ideals as an illusory placebo designed to help the human race take its mind off its very real despair and desolation. The Shaper is a magician using words to do his tricks, and like stage magic, the success of the Shaper's efforts depends upon an audience ready to listen with credulity to the fantasies he sings.
So much for heroism. So much for the harvest-virgin. So much, also, for the alternative visions of blind old poets and dragons.
Grendel, p. 90
Unferth's failure to prove his heroic ideal a reality puts Grendel in an even more cynical mood than before. He considers the Scyldings' tales of amazing feats and superhuman bravery to be little more than fables, barely fit for little children. However, Grendel is not ready to embrace the dragon's philosophy either. He sees the Shaper's fantasies and the dragon's pragmatic existentialism as opposing views, but embraces neither one. Grendel is looking for something between the two, which will allow him his dark realism but will also give him free will in an admittedly mechanistic universe.
I have not committed the ultimate act of nihilism: I have not killed the queen.
Grendel, p. 93
In Grendel's ongoing search for meaning, he fixates on yet another external factor: Queen Wealtheow. In her, he sees the human virtues of charity, compassion, and selflessness. His own cynical outlook cannot comprehend a world in which someone such as Wealtheow exists. Her every act contradicts Grendel's self-centered philosophy, but to destroy her would be to admit that she has some meaning independent of his own. Grendel's existentialism is trapped between a desire to eliminate this confusion and the knowledge that eliminating it will also destroy his own ideology.
"I offer you my sister," the young king said. "Let her name from now on be Wealtheow, or holy servant of common good."
Grendel, p. 100
We never learn the former name of Wealtheow; she is forever known by her actions, serving the common good. Wealtheow has offered herself as a guarantee of peace between her people, the Helmings, and Hrothgar's Scyldings. She names no pretense at a happy future. She merely does that which seems right and good to do. This selflessness amazes both Hrothgar and the watching Grendel, neither of whom can understand the sacrifice of oneself for the greater good.
How, if I know all this, you may ask, could I hound him--shatter him again and again. dive him deeper and deeper into woe? I have no answer, except perhaps this: why should I not? Has he made any move to deserve my kindness?
Grendel, p. 122
Grendel ponders the question of his own motives. If he can understand Hrothgar (in a way Grendel himself wishes to be understood) and can even see the pity the ancient warrior deserves, why can he not stop his raids and leave Hrothgar in peace? Grendel's answer is no answer at all: he states that Hrothgar has done nothing to deserve his kindness. However, it is not kindness, but inaction, for which Hrothgar's miserable state calls. Grendel must act, and act violently, not of his own free will, but because that is simply what he does.
Something is coming, strange as spring.
I am afraid.
Standing on an open hill, I imagine muffled footsteps overhead.
Grendel, p. 126
Grendel experiences a portent of Beowulf's arrival. That the hero's arrival in the future should be as "strange as spring" suggests Grendel's inability to comprehend the life-giving aspect of nature. The gloom of autumn and death of winter are within Grendel's scope of understanding; spring, with its verdant vibrancy poses unanswerable questions. For the first time since his encounter with the bull and Hrothgar, Grendel is afraid of something--the unknown.
Tedium is the worst pain.
Grendel, p. 138
Although his life is filled with violence, Grendel’s boredom torments him more. Being long-lived and invulnerable to weapons has made him jaded. Life holds no surprises or thrills for him any longer. The cyclical nature of the world and of Scylding society traps him in an unending, repetitive "war" against Hrothgar--a war he fights as much out of habit as to achieve any real goal.
Grendel Essays and Related Content
- Grendel: Major Themes
- Grendel: Essays
- Grendel: Questions
- Grendel: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- John Gardner: Biography
- Grendel Summary
- About Grendel
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1 and 2
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3 and 4
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5 and 6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7 and 8
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 9 and 10
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11 and 12
- Astrology in Grendel
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- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
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