Study Guide

Grendel Themes

By John Gardner

  • Identity

    As a coming-of-age story (of sorts), Grendel gives us ringside seats to an identity struggle several centuries in the making. From the moment baby Grendel steps outside his lair and encounters other beings (firesnakes, goats, Hrothgar and company), figuring out who he is and what he means to the outside world becomes an issue of survival.

    This isn't just a story about a brooding adolescent creature gone wrong—it's also about the totally frustrating process of rejecting the roles we are assigned by the universe and society. As readers, we have some growing up to do, too. Everything we thought we knew about existence, time, purpose in life, heroes and monsters, and our own sense of right and wrong has suddenly become relative. What are we going to make of it all?

    Questions About Identity

    1. The dragon urges Grendel to "know thyself." How does this ancient bit of wisdom fit in with the dragon's philosophy of individual existence?
    2. Why is Grendel so attracted by human beings? What does he see in them?
    3. What moments in the story really help or force Grendel to understand his place in the world? What conclusions does he make about his role?
    4. In this version of the Beowulf story, Grendel still eats people (some of them innocent children) and destroys things. How, then, does Gardner create "sympathy for the devil" and make us question our assumptions about what (or who) is heroic or monstrous?

    Chew on This

    The dragon's take on individual identity is the least optimistic take in the novel, but it may be the most accurate.

    The Shaper's poetry actually does make human beings better than they would be otherwise.

  • Language and Communication

    Maybe growing up in a house where no one else can talk makes Grendel value spoken language as much as he does. Or maybe he just thinks that the ability to speak indicates a higher level of intellect and consciousness. Either way, language becomes a kind of obsession for Grendel—and, later, for Beowulf, too.

    Grendel's a sucker for the characters who can manipulate language well (like the Shaper and the dragon), and he gets totally enraged when he realizes that humans, who speak a language a lot like his, can't understand a word he's saying. It's a difference that isolates him and demonizes him even more.

    Using language also literally becomes a creative process for Grendel. He completes his idea that "I alone exist" with Beowulf's observation that he "makes the world by whispers." What does that mean? Well, it means that Grendel imposes his own version of the world on us simply by speaking—and that's perfect for such an intense first-person narrative like Grendel.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. In what ways does Grendel use language to his advantage in this narrative? In what ways does language fail or harm him?
    2. How do the priests (especially Ork) use language to their benefit?
    3. Think about the characters in this novel who can't speak or communicate properly. What is their role here? Can they be defined as particularly good or evil?
    4. How does speech work in this narrative? What kinds of actions does speech inspire or achieve?

    Chew on This

    Gardner shows that language can truthfully define character—sometimes.

    The reality that we create through the use of language is authentic, valid, and reasonable.

  • Isolation

    It's tough to be a monster in a world ruled by humans.

    We mean, it's not like Grendel can join up with Hrothgar's band of brothers and go raiding and burning the neighboring meadhall. He can't even have a simple conversation with these dudes. His attempts at communication pretty often end in suffering and death.

    Let's not give Grendel the entire spotlight here, though: there are plenty of other characters who suffer from isolation in Grendel. In terms of monsters, there's Mama Grendel and the dragon (he kind of likes being alone with his gold) in addition to Grendel. On the human side, there's wretched Unferth, King Hrothgar (trapped and alone because of his power) and Wealtheow (abandoned in a strange land with a husband who is not a good match).

    Overall, Gardner seems to create a helpless, hopeless, uncaring universe for his characters to scurry around in. It's hard to understand what is truly right and good in this universe; maybe one litmus test is to see who handles isolation the best. Any guesses?

    Questions About Isolation

    1. How does isolation change characters in this novel?
    2. What is the nature of Grendel's separation from the rest of the world (human and animal)? Is he forced into loneliness by prejudice? By his lineage or appearance? Or strictly by his behavior?
    3. Why is Unferth ostracized even though he is one of Hrothgar's trusted thanes?
    4. In what ways is Beowulf isolated or separated from his fellow men? What is the nature of his isolation and how does it affect him (or not)?

    Chew on This

    Gardner uses Grendel's rejection from society to build sympathy for the monster.

    Isolation is necessary for characters in the novel to become powerful.

  • Hate

    There's a lot of hate in Grendel. By that, we also mean that there's a lot of love in Grendel.

    Confused? That's because there's no separating love and hate in this book. The universe has a way of turning everything good, beautiful and potentially uplifting in Grendel's life into a sore point. The Shaper, Good Queen Wealtheow, the love of his mother—all of these rub on the open wound of Grendel's isolation and cursedness.

    What can Grendel do? As the dragon says, he has a role to fill: he's never going to be loved. His role is to destroy.

    Grendel's knee-jerk reaction to emotion is to destroy. Feeling tenderness for something? Perhaps he should kill it. Touched by the beauty of poetry? He really should crush the Shaper's skull. Of course, who could blame him? He's an outcast with a sensitive soul. He'd rather embrace goodness, companionship, fluffy bunnies. But there's always the darkness that draws him "toward the dragon" and away from any hope for the future.

    Questions About Hate

    1. What is the origin of Grendel's hatred for Hrothgar in particular and humanity in general?
    2. How does Grendel react to the Shaper and Wealtheow, the two characters who represent beauty and goodness?
    3. What does Grendel lose or gain from his visit with the dragon? How does this visit change his outlook on life, if at all?
    4. What is the relationship between Grendel and Beowulf in this story? Are they clear enemies from the moment Grendel sees Beowulf, or is it more complicated than that?

    Chew on This

    It's not actually in Grendel's genetic code to act with rage toward humanity.

    In this novel, peacekeeping and reconciliation are generally not great ideas.

  • Fate and Free Will

    Questions about the meaning of life? Check. Dealing with the possibility of an absurd, meaningless universe? Check. Questions about the nature and limits of free will? Check.

    Although it's a slim book, Grendel's a pretty good introduction to existentialist philosophy.

    Grendel starts off with some sky-high ideas about his purpose on earth and his ability to change the way humans think about him and thus change the course of his life, but a lot of this changes during the course of the novel, partly as a result of other characters going out of their way to, ahem, help him understand the way things are.

    You're right in thinking that the dragon had a lot to do with this—twenty minutes in his lair would be enough to convince anyone that there's no point to life and that self-determination is nothing more than a game to pass the time before you die. But there's also a long parade of other characters who fire this message full force at Grendel.

    There's Mama Grendel, who constantly reminds him that they're probably cursed and there's no way out. Then there are the humans who appear to have some version of God—and a Shaper with a silver tongue on their side of history. No matter how hard Grendel tries to rage against the machine, he's swept up into a role he doesn't really want to play. In the end, he has to accept a conclusion that goes against everything he loves about the Shaper's work: all the suffering and misery of his life seems to have no purpose at all. He's just there to scare people.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Does Grendel believe he has any control over his own fate? If not, who does?
    2. How does the dragon feel about destiny?
    3. What does Beowulf believe about fate?
    4. How does the story of Cain and Abel shape the discussion of free will in this story?

    Chew on This

    Gardner wants us to see that the dragon's philosophy of human existence is probably the right one.

    Grendel ultimately believes he creates the world through his own experience.

  • Good and Evil

    You might think that Grendel would be chockfull of moments when the forces of good are pitted against the forces of evil—but think again. Gardner wants to turn what we understand about good and evil on its head on their heads (this is a novel about Grendel, after all), so prepare yourself for a lot of gray area.

    When we see things from the monster's eyes, we notice some pesky things we might not have noticed in a straight-up heroic narrative like Beowulf—like sometimes the monster is not necessarily the scariest thing in the room. If you've got any doubts about this, take a look at that moment when Beowulf smashes Grendel's face up against the wall. It's the human who's totally scary there, not the monster.

    Gardner complicates our expectations, forcing us to see that human priorities and aspirations—what we would normally judge as positive and heroic—can be downright destructive, egocentric and cruel. On top of that, sometimes the monster in the story behaves in a more admirable way than the humans, even if he knocks back a human or two in the process. It seems like Gardner has taken a magnet to our moral compasses in this story, just to see if he can shake us up a bit.

    Questions About Good and Evil

    1. Where do you think humans fall on the spectrum of good and evil in this novel? How about Grendel?
    2. What happens to Grendel whenever he hears the Shaper sing, or whenever he sees Wealtheow moving around the meadhall?
    3. What does the dragon say to Grendel about the young monster's desire to change his evil ways? How does this affect Grendel's sense of identity?
    4. What role does Beowulf play in this novel? Is he a monster or a hero?

    Chew on This

    Grendel may be the most "balanced" character in the entire novel.

    Grendel responds in the same way to both goodness and brutality.

  • Suffering

    Let's face it: Grendel's universe is a pretty miserable place. And since we're seeing it through his eyes, there are no rose-colored glasses to make it better. In this respect, Gardner is staying true to the world of Beowulf. That epic poem is a series of calamities and tragedies both personal and tribal (pretty much everybody dies, and it's certain that Beowulf's people face utter annihilation in the end). The world in this ancient work is a harsh place, with no quarter for mercy or for things of beauty.

    While much of this is echoed in Grendel, Gardner also makes the characters' suffering more intensely personal: we get to see how characters are feeling. We don't really get that in Beowulf, not because people didn't have feelings back in the day, but because the Beowulf-poet had different goals in mind when he composed the poem.

    In Gardner's novel, Grendel is massively egocentric, for sure. But all his introspection and all his obsessing about his purpose in life and his isolation and sadness have given him a super sensitive misery radar. He can read between the lines and into the minds of the other characters like no one else in the book. Grendel realizes fairly early on that suffering isn't just his thing—it motivates every person in his world.

    In the most cynical depths of his soul, Grendel believes that suffering has no higher purpose (thank you, Mr. Dragon, for that insight), but his experience of his own grief and the misery of others points to something else. Because it's from grief, indignity, pain and fear that humans like make beautiful things (like the Shaper), or think high-minded thoughts (like Ork), or show courage and hospitality (like Wealtheow).

    This conversion process mystifies Grendel and pushes him to a whole new level of misery and isolation.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why is Grendel so tormented by Wealtheow?
    2. In what ways does the suffering of the female characters differ from the suffering of the male characters?
    3. What is the greatest source of misery for Grendel in this story?
    4. Does Gardner want us to believe that suffering has no purpose? Take a look at the text to support your ideas on this one.

    Chew on This

    Grendel is addicted to human beings because his only way to experience pleasure is through suffering.

    Gardner's human beings react much differently to misery than the monsters do.

  • Life, Consciousness and Existence

    Pretty much the first time we meet the monster in Grendel, he's flipping the bird at whatever god might be watching him from the heavens. It's not too hard to figure out that Grendel has some major problems with the entire universe and his place in it.

    Out of his suffering, baby Grendel constructs a theory of the world that stays with him until he runs up against Beowulf: that he alone exists, and that everything else is merely a product of his own perception. That's heavy stuff for a little critter, but it's not enough to answer the nagging questions he has about his identity and the relationship he has with mankind. Experience and the dragon have to flesh out these things for him.

    Gardner uses Grendel and his role as evil outcast to make us think hard about all those things that we take for granted—like who we are, what our purpose in life is, and whether or not we're on the "right side." The big takeaway here? Everything seems to be relative and negotiable, depending on whose point of view you're seeing.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness and Existence

    1. What is Grendel's first encounter with humans? What are his first impressions of them?
    2. Grendel is often irritated by creatures in the natural world. Why is this?
    3. How does the visit to the dragon's lair change Grendel's ideas about his place in the universe?
    4. What happens to Grendel's philosophy of the world around him when he meets Beowulf?

    Chew on This

    The Shaper's songs help Grendel to refute the philosophies of the dragon.

    The dragon doesn't really tell Grendel anything that he doesn't already know.

  • Injustice

    Gardner bases Grendel on the desire to give the monsters in Beowulf a voice they don't have in the poem. In a sense, the whole novel is an experiment in justice: finally, Grendel will get to tell his side of the story and reveal that things aren't as cut and dried as they may have seemed.

    The novel is also a psychological experiment: what happens to our ability to judge when our understanding of what's good and evil is challenged? Gardner makes us feel "sympathy for the devil" by leading us into a mind-boggling exploration of what makes a person (or monster) evil in the first place—and by showing us how this process can or can't be controlled.

    In the end, we have to determine whether or not Grendel has been done wrong—or whether he's the perp we've always thought him to be.

    Questions About Injustice

    1. What does Grendel consider to be unjust about his situation in this novel?
    2. How does Gardner help us to reconsider our definitions of heroes and monsters in this work?
    3. In what ways does Red Horse's version of government seem more or less radical than Hrothgar's own governing style?
    4. How does Gardner complicate the death of the monster in this story?

    Chew on This

    Grendel is a victim of mankind's prejudice, and his destruction at the end of the novel truly is as "unfair" as he says.

    Grendel's view of Hrothgar and mankind in general is as inaccurate as mankind's view of him.