Study Guide

Grendel Language and Communication

By John Gardner

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.