Dr. Adam Johns
February 24, 2011
Grendel’s Unfound Identity
Throughout the story Beowulf, the character Grendel is a very stable character. He is described as the demon descended from Cain. Grendel is envious, resentful, and angry toward mankind. Grendel preys on Hrothgar’s warriors in the king’s mead-hall, Heorot. Because of Grendel’s ruthless and miserable existence, he seeks to avenge against the humans. In Grendel, John Gardner portrays Grendel as more of a changing character. Gardner is showing how Grendel has a different side to him by portraying him as a more sensitive and intellectually curious character. Gardner, in a sense, describes Grendel as the character he came to be in Beowulf. Grendel is an outsider and a monster battling for the meaning of life. His strong fascination with the mechanical world he lives in leaves him to be curious as to what his sole purpose in life is. Grendel’s strong ambition leaves him to be lost in what he really sees in himself and the world around him. He is confused about which person to be, whether it is the sobbing one, the cold-hearted killer, or just the raging beast.
Gardner describes Grendel as a lonely monster that is on a constant exploration to understand the seemingly meaningless world around him. As an outsider, Grendel observes and provides commentary on the human civilization that he battles with. Grendel is confused, and he states: “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” (Grendel 21-22). Grendel is in search for meaning behind his role in life, and he finds no purpose in the changing world. The toughest task for Grendel to overcome is his inability to communicate with humans, even though they share a common language. Grendel is constantly being trapped in one-way communications, whether it’s with his babbling mother or with the numerous animals that don’t communicate that he encounters. Grendel is denied any real conversation partner, so he is forced to live in endless inner conversations.
Grendel’s mechanical hatred is fueled by the inability to integrate himself into human society. Throughout the novel, Grendel is found lurking around human society, observing and listening. Society, in turn, relates the fear Grendel’s persona carries to the fear that burdens him by the dislocation and rejection. His fear of isolation causes him to be a whimpering beast: “what I see I inspire with usefulness, I think, trying to suck in breath, and all that I do not see is useless, void” (29). The humans just view Grendel as an ugly and evil beast that moans back at their remarks. His continuous misportrayal and isolation begins to spark hatred within Grendel. He faces the fact that he will never be able to integrate himself into human culture. So, in turn, hatred begins to grow inside of him, which is the image that he is depicted in Beowulf the whole time, the cold-hearted killer. In a sense, he becomes relentless: “the next night-it was dark as pitch-I burst the meadhall door, killed men, and stormed directly to the door behind which lay the sleeping queen” (109). Grendel accepts his prescribed role in the epic, and he now realizes that by fulfilling his goal of destroying the Danes, he will no longer have a purpose in life, and destroys himself.
In Beowulf, Grendel is depicted as a grotesque monster: “though in the shape of man, [this] being is a man eating demon that either gobbles down [his] prey immediately or drags them back to [his] watery liar” (Grigsby 110). Gardner shows that there is more to Grendel than being a monster and having an evil demeanor. The encounter with the dragon put things in context for Grendel and his purpose. The dragon helps Grendel discover his identity in a world that he describes as a chaotic and a meaningless place. In the dragon’s perspective, the world consists of meaningless patterns and systems that man creates that are proved to be unfounded. The dragon states that, “as a matter of fact, it’s extremely rash to extend conclusions derived from observation far beyond the scale of magnitude to which the observation was confined”(66). The dragon proposes that there are no morals or values within the world, and everyone is left to have complete freedom to assert meaning or no meaning to things as they please. Anything of value and meaning between things are impossible and eventually amount to nothing, because the passage of time will erase all evidence of mankind. The dragon insists that Grendel should stay the way he is. “‘You improve them, my boy! Cant you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves’” (73). Grendel’s place on earth should not be changed; it is what it is; he is always going to be the monster, and there is no sense in making changes to his beastly character.
Another novel that can be directly related to Grendel and his ongoing search for his identity is the novel Frankenstein written by Mary Shelley. The monster in Frankenstein and Grendel may have different situations, but both share very similar qualities in that they are monstrous and harmful. The monster is abandoned by Victor Frankenstein and becomes confused, so he tries to integrate himself into society, only to be neglected entirely. Victor has caused the monster so much suffering and sadness, because Victor is the only person with whom he has had any sort of relationship. The monster wants Victor to realize “the failure of human beings to parent their offspring in such a way that they will be able to take part in society rather than retreat into themselves” (Claridge). Frankenstein left the monster to figure out everything else about life and its interactions. The monster takes responsibility for his evil actions upon Victor, scolding him for his neglectful failure to provide a nourishing environment. The lack of interaction with others has caused the monster to become alone and frustrated about his self-identity. By destroying those people dear to Victor, the monster becomes aware of the meaningfulness of social interaction and brings Victor closer and closer to the state of isolation that he himself has experienced since being left. Victor experiences the same feeling and finds himself to be alone in the world with nothing but hatred running through him. The monster picking off Frankenstein’s lifelines one by one is teaching him a lesson for the loneliness he has caused him. The monster and Grendel have a similar feeling of misery, as the monster states, “‘I was alone. I remembered Adam’s supplication to his creator; but where was mine? He abandoned me, and in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him’”(Frankenstein 88). Both are monstrous figures with the intent to kill for the pain of isolation and rejection they have endured their whole life.
Grendel begins to understand that he is an angry machine that is caught up in the lifestyle he already lives in. Grendel’s constantly shifting and perpetually divided mental state causes him to fear for what he is really is. Grendel's quest for meaning in life is in fact the quest of anyone trying to find a fitting for his or her experiences. Grendel feels that he is invisible and that he doesn’t have a place within the society due to the rejection the humans have given him. Although Grendel has visited the dragon and continues to be influenced by the creature, he begins to accept the dragon’s teachings. As depicted in Beowulf, Grendel is going to be the beastly monster he has always been. Gardner’s depiction of a struggling Grendel to find his identity shows how Grendel became the cold-hearted monster he is.
Claridge, Laura P. “Presentation of Criticism of Frankenstein.” The Poets’ Forum.
William Ames, Spring 1985. Web. 15 February 2011. <http://www.poetsforum.com/papers/200_4.html>
Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Random House Inc., 1971. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.,
Stanley, E.G. Studies in English Language and Literature.
London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.