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Grendel Summary and Analysis

by John Gardner

Chapters 11 and 12

Chapter 11 Summary

Strangers arrive, which fills Grendel with something he thinks is joy. The Geats come ashore and are challenged by the coastguard. The confrontation amuses Grendel, as the coastguard attempts to accost the fifteen warriors, although they could clearly crush him instantly if they wished. Their leader fascinates Grendel. He seems to be a stranger to every land, speaks with a strange, quiet voice, and is built more powerfully than any man Grendel has ever seen. Grendel senses the man’s desire to challenge the monster in his words to the coastguard, and welcomes the challenge. For the first time in many months, Grendel feels alive and excited.

Grendel ponders whether he is afraid of this stranger. He senses something different about him, something that becomes only slightly clearer as he observes the stranger in Hrothgar’s mead hall. Unferth, drunk on mead, insults the stranger by telling the story of the stranger’s lost swimming contest with Breca. The stranger responds that he did in fact win the contest, and did so while fighting off sea-monsters. The stranger then turns the conversation around to Unferth, claiming to have heard nothing about the warrior save that he had once slain his own brothers. Thus, the stranger proves himself not just a physical power to contend with, but an intellectual one as well. Hrothgar decides he can trust the stranger and calls Wealtheow forth to meet him. The mead hall fills with her warmth, but the stranger is still immune to the moods of those around him. Grendel senses an aura of death and ancient darkness around the stranger, similar to that of the dragon.

Chapter 11 Analysis

Grendel himself adopts existentialism and asserts, “I alone exist.” He has rejected the philosophies of the Shaper, the dragon, and the priests; he returns to a world in which he is the center and the decider of meaning. His reality divides into “things to be murdered, and things that would hinder the murder of things.”

Grendel’s existentialism is a violent one, which allows him to succumb to the urges that have boiled in his heart from the first moment humans mistreated him. In a world without the Shaper, Grendel’s only choice is to kill wherever and whatever he can.

Chapter 12 Summary

Grendel attacks Hrothgar’s mead hall and kills one of the Geats in his sleep. As he moves to the second sleeping warrior, his hand is seized and a terrible realization dawns upon him: it was a trap. The warrior, the stranger who leads the Geats, grabs Grendel’s wrist and will not let him go. Grendel attempts to kick the warrior away, but slips on blood from the previous victim and twists into an even more vulnerable position. The stranger laughs at Grendel and whispers words of despair in his ear. Grendel refuses to listen but cannot block out the stranger’s words. The warrior slams Grendel into a wall, and then forces Grendel to sing the wall into existence in mockery of the Shaper’s power to create with words. Grendel protests that trickery and accident led to his impending defeat, and that no honor exists in this kind of victory. The stranger does not care.

The stranger rips Grendel’s arm from its socket. Grendel flees, trailing blood and calling for his mother. He finds himself at the precipice of the hole leading down to his cave. Local animals have gathered to watch Grendel’s suffering. Grendel spites them all with the words “Poor Grendel’s had an accident…So may you all.”

Chapter 12 Analysis

The stranger is, of course, Beowulf. His presence excites Grendel: for the first time in his life, the monster may find himself challenged by an enemy. Beowulf also frightens Grendel. He is no mere hanger-on to the heroic ideal. He is incredibly strong, built in a way Grendel struggles to comprehend, but he is also clever in his response to Unferth’s challenge.

Through their battle, Beowulf introduces Grendel to the philosophy of empiricism. By forcing Grendel to accept the reality of the wall, he leads the monster to admit a reality external to himself. By cracking the monster’s head against the wall, Beowulf forces Grendel to face something he did not create in his own solipsistic existence.

Of note is the fact that Grendel’s painful lesson in empiricism leads him to create his first poem. Grendel has become a kind of Shaper himself, creating the reality of the wall for himself as he is pushed into admitting its existence. In one sense, Grendel has come full circle: his universe began as a solipsistic fancy of his own mind, and now is reduced to only that which he can experience firsthand. Conversely, Grendel now believes in a world outside himself, which does not so much create as recognize. Gone still is the Shaper’s false overlay on reality; Grendel is back where he started, for even now that he has recognized his experiences as valid input about the universe, he is about to end all experience as he bleeds to death in his dark cavern home.

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