Study Guide

Grendel Identity

By John Gardner


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.