Thursday, February 10, 2011

Gardner’s Changes to Grendel

In Beowulf, Grendel is depicted as vicious, bloodthirsty monster that is attacking the Danes for no reason other than, “Some god is angry, the people of Scyld and Herogar and Hrothgar are mired in sin!”(Gardner 13) In Grendel, Gardner attempts to give some motivation to one of the most well known monsters in literature. The reader sees that it is not just Grendel’s nature that leads him to kill people. They also see Grendel as a character with a mind, something that he is devoid of in Beowulf, having no lines, only an extended battle scene.

The way that Gardner fleshed out Grendel’s mind was very interesting. There was nothing he could work with in Beowulf since there was no dialogue between Grendel and Beowulf. Therefore, Gardner was at liberty to do with this character whatever he pleased. Gardner changed Grendel, giving him justifications, to a certain extent, for his hate of men and for the reason that he has decided to terrorize Hrothgar’s hall every night.

Gardner depicts Grendel as a creature that is highly intelligent and observant about the world. This depiction gives him justification for his actions in Beowulf. Grendel observes Hrothgar’s men for years before he decides to whole-heartedly terrorize them. The overwhelming themes present during his observations are excess, disloyalty and falsity. Grendel does not understand how these men can constantly wage war against each other and then tell stories of their greatness. This frustrates him. If it weren’t for the Shaper, I think that he attacks would have started earlier. The Shaper makes all the things the Danes do seem rational, even though Grendel knows in his head this is false. In his heart, he wants the things the Shaper says to be true. He hopes for a better future, thinking that if he is removed, the men will stop their behavior. If I observed the cruelty and falsity of men for as many years as Grendel did, I would probably want to terrorize them as well. Those evil men would not deserve to live lives absent of fear. They terrorize each other, why not give them something real to fear?

Grendel as an observer is interesting as well. He is akin to a social commentary, pointing out every little thing about his subjects and calling it into question. Through Grendel’s eyes, I see him as the moral one and men as evil and false. They lay waste to everything. Grendel might not care about the deaths these men bring, but he recognizes how senseless it is. He is the more evolved being, I think.

I think that giving Grendel justifications allows the reader to be on his side. The poet in Beowulf is attempting to glorify men and make Grendel the devil. I respect Grendel more because he understands that he is monster. That he tries not to give into his nature is respectable. To be self-aware is one of the most difficult battles that humans face. That he realizes how ugly and scary he is so early leads me to respect him much more than the men even thought they are technically my ancestors. After reading the first part of Grendel I grew to hate the men as they are depicted. They deserve to die.

I believe that Gardner was motivated to change Grendel’s character from bloodthirsty monster to intelligent, misunderstood creature because Beowulf leaves so many unanswered questions. Why did Grendel decide to terrorize Heorot and no where else? This question might not have been relevant to the poet because he believed in fate, sin and hell but a contemporary audience would need to know Grendel’s justification. Our generation has made millions by fleshing out the historic bad guy (Vampires, Werewolves…). Oftentimes, these historic bad guys start to seem sympathetic. The same thing happens in Grendel. Grendel was written as so honest that I could not help but feel sorry for him. Gardner wanted to give a new dimension to Grendel and in doing that made the character more sympathetic and easier to understand. No longer a monster of darkness, Grendel through Gardner comes into the light.


  1. In the poem, isn't there strong evidence that Grendel attacks the hall out of jealousy (of the hall, of the community it represents, and of the divine/utopian aspirations of that community? It's curious that you take a line from Grendel to describe what drives Grendel in *Beowulf*....

    Your discussion of Grendel over the next couple paragraphs has merit, but I do have a question, which I'll pose in response to one of your lines: "The poet in Beowulf is attempting to glorify men and make Grendel the devil." Is it so obvious as that? Remember the ways in which we move effortlessly from human violence to Grendel's violence - the treacherous burning of the hall juxtaposed with Grendel's depredations, for instance? That's not to say that you're wrong, exactly - but you're oversimplifying the poem. Grendel might be a brute - but he is used not only to be *himself*, but to show something about *human* nature. When Gardner uses Grendel as social commentary, he's actually doing something which is already in the poem (although by no means is it the same commentary!)

    Then, of course, you shift into a nice discussion of Grendel's self-awareness in the novel. That's a good topic, but perhaps not exactly the same as the one you started with.

    Although I tend to be cautious about generalization, maybe a revision could begin to use Grendel to think about why we flesh out "historic" bad guys, and what it means that we do so. You're right that we do that a lot. Why? What for?

    This is a fine, slightly unfocused reading of Grendel - but is weaker as a reading of *Beowulf*.

  2. I think that Grendel was meant to have some sort of heart and conscience in Gardner's rendition of Grendel, but to say that he is not a monster and killing out of jealousy and hatred is false. There are specific parts in Grendel where there is mention of Grendel hating the Shaper's music and being jealous of these people's lives.

    We must remember that he kills with no remorse. He is not like the men in Heorot nor is he better than them. We may feel a little more sympathetic for Grendel in Gardner's story because we can actually get an insight into his mind, but above all else, Grendel is a monster and attacks the hall just to hurt people and get a good laugh.