Grendel tells the story of Grendel and Hrothgar's intertwined fates leading up to the arrival of Beowulf. The novel reflects upon Grendel's twelve years at war with Hrothgar and his people, with each chapter focusing on a different philosophical school of thought under consideration by Grendel. The overarching plot is Grendel's search for meaning and identity in what appears to be a meaningless cosmos. Through his quest, Grendel meets a variety of characters, from Hrothgar, his human foil, to the dragon, a would-be mentor whose highest thought is the meaningless of all existence. Grendel passes the seasons paradoxically avoiding and seeking out the company of the local humans, the Scyldings, and observes their development as a civilization and as individuals with great interest.
Grendel begins his journey of discovery when he accidentally finds a passageway leading out of his subterranean home. His first encounters with the world outside are both marvelous and disheartening, particularly as his first moment of weakness leads to an attack by a bull, followed by torment at the hands of the first humans with which Grendel interacts. From that point on, Grendel's search for personal meaning intertwines with his desire to torment the humans and Hrothgar in particular. Grendel's encounters with the dragon and with various human agents only result in further frustration for the monster. The people he wishes to join ostracize him, so he practices further self-isolation by making his presence among them terrifying.
Nonetheless, Grendel feels haunted by the beauty and creativity of the human mind, particularly as embodied in the words and song of the Shaper. Grendel's frustration is not simply a matter of loneliness; he also cannot choose between his hatred of humanity on the one hand, and his admiration of man's accomplishments on the other.
The novel ends where its inspiration, the epic Beowulf, begins--with the arrival of the mighty Geat soon after one of Grendel's bloodier rampages. Grendel, we know, is doomed to die by Beowulf's hand. In Grendel, Gardner makes that death a matter of great philosophical import.