Study Guide

Grendel Good and Evil

By John Gardner

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.