Chapter 1 Summary
The novel begins with Grendel staring down a wild ram on the mountainside. Eventually the ram, like all other fauna Grendel encounters, shakes off its fear and flees. Grendel reflects that this day begins the twelfth year of his “stupid war.” He considers his hunting and eating habits, eventually arriving at his regular visit to Hrothgar’s mead-hall, Herot. Grendel bursts through the doors and kills several men so easily that he is amused at the situation. In the meantime, Grendel flashes back to one of his typical “discussions” with his mother, wherein he asks why they live where and how they do, and Grendel’s inarticulate mother fails to answer. Grendel hints that the old dragon has given him answers to his questions.
Chapter 1 Analysis
Among Grendel’s first words in the novel are these: “…I let out a howl so unspeakable that the water at my feet turns to sudden ice and even I myself am left uneasy.” These words set the tone for later revelations of Grendel’s character. He is full of undirected rage, a rage that has an effect on the natural world around him and that even disconcerts himself. The reader gains the impression of an adolescent looking for his place in the world and frustrated by the lack of answers forthcoming. His mother is an imbecilic creature, completely incapable of intelligent speech and therefore unable to guide him. His experiences with human beings (detailed in later chapters) have left him their enemy. Even the local sheep, against which he has just howled, offends him by crossing into the area Grendel perceives as his own personal space.
Grendel also declares that he has been pursuing an “idiotic war” for twelve years, presaging the twelve-chapter structure of the novel as well as emphasizing that he is in fact recording this beginning while near the end of his chronological lifespan. This idea of circularity and cosmic repetition later reiterates, particularly in the end of the novel, which includes, as does this first chapter, a ram and a sheep. The philosophy of chapter 1 ponders the cyclical nature of reality and the (often despairing) belief that everything that happens has already happened and will happen yet again in the future.
Chapter 2 Summary
Grendel reflects on his childhood. He used to play games in the subterranean home he shared with his mother. He would attack and hide from shadows as he explored the myriad caves. He discovers the pool of the fire snakes, which he learns cannot hurt him despite their green flame. Through the pool, he discovers a doorway leading to the surface world—his first emergence is at night under a bright moon. He begins ranging everywhere on the surface, always careful not to stray for too long or to be seen, but one day he accidentally catches his ankle between the boles of two strong oak trees. Trapped, he wails for his mother but receives no reply.
A nearby bull, defending a calf, attacks Grendel, but Grendel learns how to avoid its charging horns after the first, painful encounter. Once eluding the bull’s attacks becomes routine, Grendel experiences an epiphany: he is alone in the world and creates his own reality. Eventually Grendel falls asleep from exhaustion and blood loss and awakens to find the bull has moved on. Later, a group of men—the first Grendel has ever seen—arrives. The men cannot initially tell Grendel from the tree branches, thinking him some strange growth upon the dying tree. One among the men, a bald man with deep black eyes, declares Grendel a tree spirit and seeks to feed him. Grendel attempts to communicate with the men (whose speech he understands), but his words come out as howls and frighten the men. One among them, the leader (Hrothgar) throws an axe at Grendel, but Grendel evades it. They are considering doing harm to Grendel when his mother arrives, frightening the men away. She rips the trees apart, freeing Grendel, and takes him back to their underwater home.
Grendel attempts to communicate his feelings and experiences to his mother, but she either cannot understand him, cannot communicate with him, or does not care. Grendel returns to his earlier epiphany: he is the sole being in the universe and creates his own reality.
Chapter 2 Analysis
Grendel’s statements that he alone exists plant this chapter firmly in solipsistic philosophy. Grendel claims to create his own reality, yet finds himself trapped by a misstep in an oak tree and tortured by both a bull and a group of human warriors. His reminiscence about leaving his dark cave end entering the twilight of the world of men echoes Plato’s Parable of the Cave, in which a lone prisoner escapes a world of shadows to find the reality casting the shadows; the man returns to his fellow prisoners only to be ostracized for his seeming insanity. Grendel, too, finds his cave-born views of the world challenged when his solipsism collapses into a desperate cry for his mother.
The scene in which Hrothgar and the other warriors cannot discern Grendel as a separate part of the tree highlights both human blindness to things other than themselves—they attempt to classify Grendel as an immobile nature spirit rather than as a self-motivated, independent entity—and Grendel’s own reluctant connection to the natural world.