Beowulf, an epic poem translated by Seamus Heaney, has little psychological depth compared to its spin-off, Grendel. John Gardner deepens the psychological aspects of the Beowulf story by creating thought and dialogue for its famous creature. In doing so many topics such as the purpose of life and reasons for living, as well as perspective differences are brought to light. Gardner than furthers these claims made by Grendel’s thought and speech by the dialogue he holds with the Dragon.
In Beowulf readers are under the assumption that Grendel and the Dragon never had met; each of the creatures was of a different land separated by a vast ocean. Neither of the creatures had made any effort to talk or communicate (outside of direct physical confrontation) with the human characters, let alone at all in any point in time within the epic. However in Grendel Gardner places the two creatures in dialogue not only briefly, but holding intensely intricate conversations.
Contrasting having absolutely no dialogue with humans in Beowulf, Grendel embarks on establishing a connection with the humans when he first hears the harper tell the tale of two splitting brothers. This tale enlicits a “Waaa!” from Grendel (51). When he finds the response distasteful, he yearns for a companion to speak with: “‘why can’t I have someone to talk to?’ [he] said. The stars said nothing, but [he] pretend to ignore the rudeness” (53). In the following chapter Grendel then meets Dragon. Gardner purposefully places the Dragon within the conversing level of Grendel to illuminate further areas for Grendel to analyze. In deepening the questioning mind of Grendel, audiences are introduced to the concepts of mortality and even humanity.
Dragon proceeds to explain to Grendel that which Grendel could not have known, nor acted upon previously. His words, I predict, catalyst the murders of Grendel that otherwise had no reason to begin. In the beginning Grendel is introduced as a lost and confused creature, more to be pitied than feared. Through speeking with Dragon, Grendel was enlightened and even challenged. At the end of their conversation on 74 when Grendel tries to convince Dragon of the Shaper’s words, he begins to realize the folly: “In some way that I couldn’t explain, I knew that his scorn of my childish credulity was right.”
In addition to this realization Dragon is able to share his own perceptions of the human world, both in human terms and in dragon terms. Readers begin to establish hesitancy towards Grendel because we see the differentiation between the talk we can recognize and understand, and the talk that Grendel understands. In talking about the harpist, Dragon states, “He knows no more than they do about total reality—less if anything?: works with the same old clutter of atoms, the givens of his time and place and tongue. But he spins it all together with harp and runs and hoots, and they think what they think is alike. Think Heaven loves them (65). Alone in this one statement we humans can understand the confusion of understanding earth, of living and surviving, of believing in Christian beliefs, and of listening to someone spin the web of hope for us. Grendel could never hold knowledge such as this, and Gardner could not have placed such ideals in his head without disrupting this character. Most of Dragon’s speech is the same in relation to human ideals on Grendel terms. Gardner is now allowing Grendel the knowledge his audience can relate to in order to humanize Grendel even further.
Grendel had begun his journey of humanization from the first pages when he has thought, and then later when he has speech similar to humans. This new knowledge can put him within grasp of human understanding so that his next choices reflect human interests as well. No longer will he have any traces of the gruesome monster that tore through the village in Beowulf, but through this humanization, Grendel has become the misunderstood creature that may have followed different paths. This can then be even taken a step further and in the implicit blame on human society has just become explicit. Humans were the ones that caused Grendel to be this terrible murderer towards them, so then are we the more terrible creatures?