In John Gardner’s Grendel there is a massive transformation of the title character from the one dimensional embodiment of evil to a being which is able to rationalize and interpret its position within the universe. In its most basic form, Grendel serves to humanize the character of Grendel. In the end he accepts the role which he has carved out for him; that of the nemesis of man. The way in which he does this, however, proves him to be an intelligent entity capable of very real and very human emotions and logic. This evidence of perspective is very relatable to the reader, and the tragic situation which Grendel finds himself grappling with is also highly relatable. By making Grendel a more human character, Gardner allows the audience to take a second look at a creature it once wrote off as completely and instinctually evil.
When we first meet Grendel we realize that he is very intelligent. Unlike his mother he is capable of speech. This is one of the many things which separate Grendel from his mother. Grendel’s intelligence in his addition to his freewill and his awareness of that freewill separate him from his mother and the mating rams, and the bull which attacks him in the first chapter as well. In the earliest part of the novel all Grendel knows are creatures which work like a machine. He comments: “I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly—as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back” (21). It was not until he encounters the human race that he beings to question this philosophy. At first he sees them as brutish animals much like the ones he is familiar with, but over time he realizes they are at least intelligent creatures.
Grendel is not invited to be part of the human experience however. When they first see him they too misinterpret Grendel’s words and attack him. From then on he becomes an observer of the human race. As partially human (a descendant from “Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts.”) while at the same time an outcast he is the perfect spectator to man’s development (Beowulf 106). When he stumbles upon a town with courting lovers and a murdered corpse he is able to see the duel nature of man. The shapers song in this chapter begins to infect Grendel. He begins to believe truly that there is a divide between himself and man that cannot be overcome. When he tries to return the corpse he is again misunderstood and chased away from civilization.
Grendel is indeed, alone in this world. His mother is no intellectual equal and man refuse to embrace him. The shaper’s song, with its encouraging words, only makes Grendel more upset over being separated from the things mentioned in this song. He, unlike man, does not have God, yet he wishes he could. His darker side refuses to allow Grendel to experience this hopeful thinking. "Some evil inside myself pushed out into the tress. I knew what I knew, the mindless, mechanical bruteness of things, and when the harper's lure drew my mind away to hopeful dreams, the dark of what was and always was reached out and snatched my feet." (54). Grendel reveals himself to be perpetually pessimistic.
The philosophical conversation with the dragon clearly outlines Grendel’s human and amiable characteristics. The dragon explains that Grendel is a model of evil for humankind to compare itself with. This could be his purpose that he is searching for. The dragon also explains that all of man’s systems will one day end and so to try and better one’s self is pointless. This conversation changed Grendel. He proclaims: “I had become something, as if born again. I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings! But also as never before, I was alone” (80). By embracing the Dragon’s nihilistic approach to life Grendel seals his fate to be forever alone in this world.
This transformation from being alone and wishing to better himself and embracing his evil side is one which an audience can easily understand and relate to. In Beowulf we only see Grendel as his fully embraced evil self. The perspective is from that of mankind and so the picture painted of Grendel is, naturally, not a pretty one. By showing the story from Grendels perspective John Gardner allows his audience to enter the mind of the beast and understand why it is he acts the way he does.