He is crooked, a terror, and devoid of all emotions. For many, their description of the character Grendel from the epic poem Beowulf would fall along those same lines. While reading the epic poem, many grow to hate this beast and all of the calamities he administered to the occupants of Heorot. In this poem, he is the true definition of an antagonist. However, in the novel Grendel, the blood thirsty monster that I had grown to hate was gone and had been replaced with a creature that was calculating, insightful, and even worthy of sympathy. Gardner’s Grendel experienced many emotions that his one dimensional counterpart in Beowulf never had the chance to feel. Doubt, fear, and self contemplation about his role in this world are three things that Grendel experienced or did throughout the first six chapters of Gardner’s novel. All three are traits seen in humans, something one would presume Grendel is not. It can be argued that in the first six chapters of Grendel, Gardner’s main objective concerning character development of his Grendel is to humanize the tortured beast, and illicit sympathy for his wrongdoings.
The addition of thoughts, emotions, and essentially a voice, work to humanize Grendel in the eyes of the readers. Rather than just dismissing Grendel off as a terror, as many would do while reading Beowulf, the reader is forced to look into Grendel’s soul and also at the effects caused by the introduction of humans into Grendel’s forlorn world. And while moments at the beginning of the novel make one think that Grendel is childlike in his thought process, it presumed that he is to be many, many years old. Before his introduction to humans, Grendel spent much of his time exploring his woody environment and pondering his existence and purpose in the world. In his youth, he would constantly pester his mother, wondering and asking “Why are we here?” (Grendel, Page 11). In Grendel, Gardner works to show that Grendel is aware of his existence and is constantly trying to figure out why he is present. This is in direct contrast to his character in Beowulf. In the epic poem, Grendel’s purpose was to cause havoc and to serve as an opponent to all things good.
In Grendel’s mind, he was the sole non-mechanical entity. His mother, the bull in the woods, they all had a stationary purpose in the world that could not be changed. While he initially identified himself as a mechanical being, his introduction to Hrothgar and his band of men changed that assumption. This meeting was transformational as it introduced Grendel to individuals that were like him. Gardner’s admission of similarities between the language of the Danes and Grendel’s own works to show that Grendel was in fact similar to that of the humans he killed. This changes the implication found in the epic poem that Grendel was a completely separate creature. It discredits the idea of Cain’s descendents, and also the imbedded idea of predestined good or evil beings. Instead, Grendel is given the opportunity to choose his own identity. This idea is challenged though with the introduction of the shaper. It is this instance where Grendel’s transition from a beggar of mercy to a merciless killer is seen. While Grendel tries his best to deny the word’s of the dragon, he is informed that his fate is already set in stone. Gardner includes the stories of Grendel’s run in with humans to show how these interactions created a blood hungry monster. This goes against the argument in Beowulf that Grendel’s torments against Heorot were unwarranted, and based on the sins of the Danes. Gardner eliminates the religious significance of the cursed hall and instead, it can be said that Gardner is entertaining the thought that the onslaught of terror on Heorot was caused by The Danes ill treatment of Grendel. When Grendel entered Heorot in Gardner’s novel, it was not with the intent to slaughter. Instead it was to seek pity and forgiveness. Grendel clamored into the hall yelling “Mercy! Peace!” (Grendel, Page 51) which is in direct opposition to the killings he handed down in Beowulf. This is just another instance that works towards solidifying Grendel’s humanity. It is also at this point where Grendel’s switch from antagonist to protagonist is observable. Grendel is not a monster; he is merely a product of his environment.