The basic plot derives from Beowulf, a heroic poem of unknown authorship written in Old English and preserved in a manuscript dating from around AD 1000. The poem deals with the heroic exploits of the Geat warrior Beowulf, who battles three antagonists: Grendel, Grendel's mother, and, later in life, an unnamed dragon. Gardner's retelling, however, presents the story from the existentialist view of Grendel, exploring the history of the characters before Beowulf arrives. Beowulf himself plays a relatively small role in the novel, but he is still the only human hero that can match and kill Grendel. The dragon plays a minor part as an omniscient and bored character, whose wisdom is limited to telling Grendel "to seek out gold and sit on it";[3] his one action in the novel is to endow Grendel with the magic ability to withstand attacks by sword (a quality Gardner found in the original).[4]

Gardner himself explained that his Grendel character is modeled on Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom Gardner claimed to have a love-hate relationship: "he's a horror intellectually, figuratively, and morally, but he's a wonderful writer and anything he says you believe, at least for the moment, because of the way he says it....What happened in Grendel was that I got the idea of presenting the Beowulf monster as Jean-Paul Sartre, and everything that Grendel says Sartre in one mood or another has said".[5]

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