Grendel, the wicked stomper-on-the-mere from the Old English epic poem Beowulf, makes his first-person debut in the opening lines of this novel. He's at the end of a twelve-year cycle of using King Hrothgar's meadhall as a personal smorgasbord, and he's just plain tired of it.
From the beginning, it's pretty clear that we're going to hear a much more complicated version of the story than the one told in the old epic poem.
Grendel lets us see how unjust and pointless everything is: God, humans, existence, nature. As he moves through the landscape and confronts everything and everyone, Grendel tries to show us that he is the thinking, sensitive creature and they—those nasty humans—are brutal and driven by base desires.
Sure, Grendel's got an insatiable appetite for man-flesh, but there's one thing he really wants you to know about that: mankind totally deserves it.
Once Grendel has his run-in with Hrothgar, he develops an obsession for all things human—and we don't mean in a cute, Ariel kind of way. Grendel's a pretty lonely guy—Mom doesn't speak at all, and his freaky relatives—whatever they are—just stare at him all day with beady eyes.
You can imagine our fair monster's wonder and delight when he finds a whole tribe of creatures who speak a language fairly close to his own. He watches them from the fringes and finds himself in a complex, one-sided relationship. He wants to reach out to these creatures, but he sees that they destroy nature and each other in a bloodthirsty quest for power. He sees that they are wasteful (they kill each other but don't eat each other? what's up with that?) and abusive to animals and other humans.
Also, they don't take much of a shine to him.
But there's something Grendel doesn't count on: the Shaper. This old, blind man takes the bitter reality of human behavior and twists it into beautiful poetry that honors the goodness and nobility of mankind... while dissing creatures like Grendel. The Shaper's songs really mess with Grendel's head: is the Shaper's version of humanity the right one? Or is the Shaper just full of it?
Grendel is tormented.
If he believes the Shaper, then he is cursed, miserable and doomed to loneliness and damnation. If he believes in his own observations, then he also has no hope that things could be different. He's addicted to humanity and wants to hang with the in-crowd, but he's either too evil to be with them... or too good.
In his confusion and need for instruction, Grendel experiences a kind of "metaphysical" fall toward another monster: the dragon. This rancid reptile is nothing like Pete's Dragon or Puff—he's a classic Scandinavian myth come to life, the embodiment of materialism and cynicism. He scares the stuffing (and something else) out of Grendel and talks philosophical smack that the poor guy can't really understand.
In the end, their jam session comes down to this: nothing really matters. Choose your own identity and embrace it. Be the monster, or be the hero—it doesn't change anything, because you'll die in the end, anyway, and so will everybody else.
So says the dragon, anyway.
Sadly, this confirms Grendel's first-hand experience. So he embraces his inner (and outer) monster, attacking Hrothgar's meadhall and swallowing humans at every opportunity.
But there are still some bumps on the road to true monsterdom. The biggest one is the arrival of Queen Wealtheow, a young, beautiful, and gracious lady who gets bartered to old King Hrothgar to save her people from destruction. The monster's pretty sweet on the good queen because she's both inwardly and outwardly beautiful to him—though it's also kind of tough for him to see her by the side of his archenemy Hrothgar.
Wealtheow's reaction to Grendel, however, is not great (screaming is involved). Grendel also has to deal with the treacherous Unferth, the "best" of Hrothgar's thanes. Since making the itsy bitsy error of killing his own brothers, Unferth has been casting about for some glorious deeds he can do to wipe the slate clean. Guess what project he picks?
Ironically, Unferth is the first person who understands Grendel's language and can chat with him. Grendel's encounters with the tainted thane give us a pretty original view of heroism (apparently, it's a bunch of hogwash), and this all leads Unferth down darker paths.
Things begin to unravel. Hrothgar is getting older and weaker, though his sons are still babies. His teenaged nephew Hrothulf has been orphaned and now lives side by side with the king's sons, threatening their inheritance. The warring tribes constantly threaten Hrothgar's prosperity. And then the Shaper dies. Grendel can no longer stand the tedium of breaking down the meadhall door and eating Hrothgar's people. He needs fresh meat, from a different source.
So imagine Grendel's excitement when he first sees a mysterious stranger and his crew of Geats. (Spoiler alert: this stranger is totally Beowulf.) Beowulf is all huge and muscly, and he seems to be possessed by a higher power.
Grendel feels driven to meet the stranger in the meadhall, but when he does, he gets a nasty surprise: Beowulf just might be more monstrous than he is. The "hero" gets Grendel's arm in a death lock and then begins taunting him as the two thrash around the room.
In the end, Grendel gets away, but he leaves a piece of himself behind. That would be his arm. He has a startling death-revelation: the dragon was right. He really is going to die, and it doesn't really matter. His importance, if ever he had any, is in the past, and he is the only one who will mourn for himself.
As he hovers on the edge of death, Grendel curses the indifferent forest creatures that have gathered to watch him die.