Beowulf, an epic poem translated by Seamus Heaney, has little psychological depth compared to its successor, Grendel. John Gardner deepens the psychological aspects of the Beowulf story by creating thought and dialogue for its famous creature. In doing so themes of hope, nihilism, and violence are surfaced. Gardner condemns these aspects of human nature through Grendel by humanizing him, which is done all throughout the novel, but specifically perpetuated through his speech with the Dragon. The dialogue with the Dragon then catalyzes Grendel into his atrocious role which thus exposes the monstrosity of human nature since Grendel, according to Gardner, is human.
Gardner portrays Grendel with thought and speech as to humanize him from the beginning. The opening scene in Grendel is him yelling at a ram, an animal. He distinguishes himself from this animal by describing the ram in inferior terms humans might use: “flanks atremble, eyes like stones, he stares at as much of the world he can see and feels it surging in him…and charging his brains with the same unrest that made him suffer last year at this time, and the year before, and the year before that. (He’s forgotten them all.) His hindparts shiver with the usual, mindless joyful ache to mount whatever happens near…” (Gardner 6). From the beginning Grendel establishes the difference between animals and himself. However, when Grendel encounters humans for the first time, he recognizes the similarities between these men and himself (Gardner 24). Gardner makes this differentiation to equate Grendel alongside his human brethren and polarize him from his animal counterparts.
Another way in which Grendel is akin to human is illustrated through his descendance from Cain. In both Beowulf and Grendel, the bible story of Cain and Abel is implied in the differentiation of Cain’s clan of “banished monsters…whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts” (Heaney 9). In killing Abel, all the descendants of Cain were cursed forevermore. While the aforementioned beings are labeled monsters, Cain and Abel were twin humans. The descendents of Cain, therefore, have human bloodlines, regardless of outward appearance at the current time in each text. Grendel, being of Cain ancestry, is included in this, and thus is also part human. Gardner, compared to Heaney, humanizes Grendel to the extent of speech and thought, separating him from the other descendants of Cain and even his own mother who had lost these human characteristics. Grendel, being of human descent, sharing similar recognizable qualities as men, and possessing cognitions above those of animals, is therefore human.
In his human state—before speaking with the dragon—Grendel tries to befriend the banished members of Hrothgar’s community and listens to the Shaper’s songs. He tries continuously to be accepted among the human society, but is ill-accepted because of the differences yet between Grendel and the thanes; he must live along the edges. During this time Grendel watches successions of men grow, have families, murder, and prosper. It is only through Grendel’s age—an age no actual human could reach—that he realizes the meaninglessness in all of the finite actions in the time of the universe. Even the Shaper’s stories of wonderment cannot pull Grendel from his increasingly nihilistic views: “He’s seen them at their worse, generation after generation. Grendel is no longer to be seduced by such tales of sweetness” (Nutter).
Another descendent of Cain, the Dragon, introduced in chapter five, displays similar characteristics to humans in thought and speech. His mystical senses to see into the future and grant powers of enchantment are the only attributes that separate him from Grendel and humanity. His role is crucial to Grendel, and Gardner, since his nihilistic views further force Grendel to reject the Shaper’s stories. 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. Gardner establishes this connection because Grendel has no other creature to communicate with. The Dragon has two functions: to further enlighten Grendel to the philosophy of the meaningless universe and to force him to dehumanize, to become the monster. The Dragon explains how infinite and yet finite the universe is, how meaningless and yet constant. However on 73 he then explains to Grendel why he must still attack the Danes; because he is “mankind, or man’s condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain” (Gardner). Instead of equating Grendel with the human society, he is merely a part of the outside function of it. This split begins Grendel’s journey to completely pulverize Hrothgar’s kingdom, being more a grotesque animal than human.
Before Grendel visits the dragon, there were a few acts of violence, but afterwards his raids of the meadhall occur frequently. The Dragon denies Grendel his humanity and pushes him to be more of the monster Dragon envisions. During and after their conversation Grendel falls prey to the Dragon’s ideals and does become the monster the Dragon believes he is. According to a literary criticism by Ellis:
“What [Grendel] cannot realize, caught by the dragon’s spell, is that his ‘nature’ is more than that of a bloodthirsty animal; the Grendel that Gardner creates is a thinker, a passionate metaphysician constantly exploring his place in the universe, a monster infinitely more capable of appreciating music, beauty, harmony and poetry than the men he devours…Grendel’s fundamental error is that, half-human, he allows another monster to advise him how to live, and thus ignores his human capacities.”
After speaking with the Dragon Grendel feels as disconnected as ever from the universe, much less his human brothers. Not only does he really feel the meaninglessness of it all, but under the Dragon’s enchantment, when the blades of swords do not cut, Grendel feels isolated in a literal sense as well (Nutter). He has the advantage over the men he preys on, but now without equal fight he is terribly alone, which only causes more range behind the violence of his raids.
Gardner chooses to illustrate the evil in mankind through Grendel by first equating him to humans and then having him participate in many acts of violence. Grendel is left no other choice, just as Hrothgar was left no choice in the beginning times; desperate times call for desperate measures such violence. In illustrating this violence, Gardner condemns it. The cyclical pattern emerging from the constant battles has no end but to more violence when the next creature is not welcomed into society (or betrayed like the dragon in Beowulf). Not quite propaganda, Gardner emphasizes monstrosity as being a consistent theme that some act of nonviolence should end.
Ellis, Helen B. and Warren U. Ober. “Grendel and Blake: The Contraries of Existence.” In John Gardner: Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren, pp. 46-61. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.
Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Random House, 1971.
Heaney, Seamus. Trans. Beowulf. New York: University of Exeter, 2000.
Nutter, Ronald G. “Of Pattern-Making and Art.” In A Dream of Peace: Art and Death in the Fiction of John Gardner, pp. 59-75. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.