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
- Does Grendel believe he has any control over his own fate? If not, who does?
- How does the dragon feel about destiny?
- What does Beowulf believe about fate?
- 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.