Grendel Summary and Analysis

Chapters 3 and 4

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Chapter 3 Summary

Grendel observes the development of man’s society. He criticizes human wastefulness in slaying animals they do not eat, and wonders at man’s ability to wage war against his fellow humans. Grendel himself is disturbed that he is in some way related to human beings (a fact he ascertains from their common language). He watches the rise of Hrothgar, as the Dane puts an end to fighting his neighbors and instead consolidates the nearby villages into a collection of vassals who pay tribute to him. He offers them protection from their more distant enemies in exchange for riches and possessions. After eventually tiring of the inefficiency inherent in transporting tributes across such unwelcoming terrain, Hrothgar calls for a tribute of labor to build roads throughout the land, thereby unifying the territories even more.

A blind singer (or Shaper) arrives at Hrothgar’s mead hall. Hrothgar allows him entry and is entertained by the Shaper’s story of Scyld Sceffing and his son, whom he alleges rebuilt the Danish empire from dust. The Shaper includes Hrothgar in their legacy of wise kings, suggesting Hrothgar is on the cusp of even greater deeds. The Shaper’s words confuse Grendel, for the poet is so skilled that everyone (including Grendel) believes his story, even though they know it does not match the facts of history. Grendel flees the scene seeking solace, but finds none.

Chapter 3 Analysis

The Shaper’s act of creation with words challenges Grendel’s solipsism and continues to haunt Grendel throughout the novel. Grendel hears a history of the village separate from his own personal history, and thus must face a reality external to his own self-created world. That the Shaper’s words touch his heart disturbs Grendel, who would rather remain self-sufficient and unmoved by this external world.

The Shaper embodies the philosophical practices of the Sophists (Socrates’ old targets and enemies), who used philosophical banter as a means of turning any argument around to match the views of whoever paid the most money. The Shaper, too, works for money; thus his beautiful act of creation is cheapened in Grendel’s eyes. The monster sees how the people believe the Shaper’s account, even though they have the witness of both their memories and their own eyes that it is false. This leads Grendel to reject the Shaper’s philosophy as deceit, even as he struggles against its pull.

Chapter 4 Summary

Grendel spends his nights listening in to the Shaper’s songs in Hrothgar’s mead hall. The Shaper inspires Hrothgar to deeds of magnificence, culminating in the building of the most expansive and sumptuous of mead halls ever constructed. Grendel listens as the Shaper distorts the facts to make the stories better. He hears the story of “two brothers” (Cain and Abel) whose first feud spilt the world into two races: the light and the dark. Seeing himself as one of the darkness, Grendel is moved to beg for mercy from the men, even as he tells himself that both humans and monsters are equally accursed (as evidenced from the murdered man’s body Grendel has just found in the woods). The men of Hrothgar’s hall attack Grendel, who protects himself with the corpse. He discovers that their weapons are envenomed against him and flees for his life.

Grendel rages in the woods, looking for an answer to his loneliness and confusion, but finds none. Finally he returns to his underwater cave where his monstrous, imbecilic mother lies awaiting him. She attempts to communicate with him, but Grendel can find no sense to her noises. Then Grendel apprehends another presence, drawing him near a cliff wall and the moors. He relaxes and falls to where the dragon dwells.

Chapter 4 Analysis

The Shaper’s song has led to a religious philosophy among the Scyldings. He tells of the creation of the world by a good God, whose goodness is challenged by a second god who divides the world into good and evil. The villagers, of course, are encouraged toward good, while Grendel is characterized as an agent of evil. Grendel rejects the Shaper’s theology on one level, but simultaneously enters the village to beg forgiveness for his part in causing evil. The dichotomy present in Grendel’s very being is again highlighted. He seeks a place in the world, and he will take the position of villain as long as it gives him a role to play. At the same time, he rejects the Shaper’s concepts of good and evil and sees himself not as a creature born of sin, but as a fellow creature of this world created by some unknown God. Sadly (but predictably), the villagers react in terror and anger at Grendel’s apparent invasion of their village; they cannot understand his speech, and so interpret him in keeping with the Shaper’s tales. While confirming the villager’s Old Testament-style philosophy, Grendel himself is rejected and cannot accept his role in it.

Grendel's inability to communicate with the villagers, despite his own ability to understand their speech, serves to connect Grendel to the human world while at the same time placing blame for Grendel's "monstrosity" more squarely on the shoulders of the culture that rejects him. Grendel cannot help that his words come out as guttural howls, but the people connect this miscommunication with his appearance and form a judgment upon Grendel on the spot. Even later, when certain warriors and a priest demonstrate that they can in fact understand Grendel, it is too late. Grendel has been branded a monster, and a monster he will continue to be.