Grendel walks around the wilderness while talking and muttering. He says that his words enclose him like a coffin. He remembers his youth and how he used to play games and explore underground, playing with invented friends. He explored all the chambers of his mother’s cave and eventually discovered a pool of firesnakes. He swam through the pool and discovered a door that led to the world above the ground.
Grendel again compares his words to a kind of barrier, emphasizing how his use of language isolates him from the world. His memories of imaginary childhood friends show that he has always been alone (save his mother). His anger and foul temperament can be seen as resulting from a lifetime of such solitude.
Grendel recalls how he would gradually play farther and farther out into the world, fleeing back underground by dawn. He remembers a group of large shapes with eyes that sat in his mother’s cave and watched him. Grendel reflects that he thought his mother loved him in some way, but was never sure. Sometimes he would feel like his mother and he were one being, but at other times he would feel intensely separate from her. He would often cry and she would hold him against her.
Grendel’s recollection of vague shapes with eyes is the only hint of his having relatives other than his mother. While Grendel could originally take comfort in his mother as a companion, he eventually outgrew her and now feels detached and distant from her.
Grendel remembers one morning when he went out hunting in the woods for a calf and got his foot trapped between two joined tree trunks. Trapped out in the world after dawn, he called out for his mother and cried loudly, but she didn’t come. The sun rose and the world seemed horrible without his mother. He continued to cry out for her, but she didn’t appear.
Grendel’s crying for his mother shows that, at least at this young age, he still felt a strong connection with her, though it is notable that he only seeks her protection, rather than any kind of intellectual companionship.
Then, a bull appeared, probably protecting the calf that Grendel was searching for. Grendel shouted at it, but it wouldn’t go away. It charged and struck the tree, impaling one of Grendel’s legs with its horn, but not doing any real harm to him. The bull mindlessly repeated its charges, and Grendel realized he could easily dodge the bull’s horns each time.
Much like the ram from the beginning of the novel, the bull shows the mindlessness of nature, as it is unable to think and change its ineffective charges at Grendel.
Grendel laughed at the stupidity of the bull and kept looking around for his mother. He wondered if the shapes staring at him in the cave were relatives of his. He began to theorize about the world and came to the conclusion that he alone truly exists.
Alone with nothing to do, Grendel ponders the universe. At this early stage in the development of his ideas, he accepts the radical conclusion that he is the only thing in the world that really exists.
The bull kept charging and Grendel kept laughing at it, not even bothering any more to dodge its horns. Grendel fell asleep and when he woke up the bull was gone. Vultures were flying overhead. He tried to imagine the world from his mother’s perspective and realized that he could never know how she perceives him. He fell asleep again.
As the bull simply gives up on Grendel, it illustrates the pointlessness of nature. It exhausted itself charging countless times at Grendel, all for nothing. Grendel’s attempt to see the world from a different point of view further characterizes him as a thinking, questioning creature.
That night, Grendel awoke to a strange smell and an eerie silence. He looked around to find men gathering around him with lit torches. The men were talking and at first seemed to be speaking in some foreign language, but then Grendel realized they were speaking his same language. He attempted to move but could barely move his hand.
Grendel’s first encounter with humans probes his ambiguous relationship to them. They seem strange and foreign to Grendel, yet they speak the same language as him.
The humans then tried to decide what Grendel was. One suggested that he was a fungus or growth. One human, identified as a king (Hrothgar), suggested that they could cut the fungus out of the tree, but another thought that Grendel might actually be a tree spirit. One of the humans, described by Grendel as hairless, moved about frantically and then suddenly agreed that Grendel was a spirit. The king asked if the spirit was friendly. The hairless one answered that Grendel was hungry and would eat pig. Some humans rode off to get pigs, while others debated whether the spirit was angry.
Grendel is as strange to the humans as they are to him. The humans’ attempt to identify Grendel provides insight into their use of reason, as different humans offer different hypotheses. The “hairless” human seems to be a kind of mystic or shaman. The fact that he misidentifies Grendel suggests that whatever magic or power he thinks he possesses has no actual power.
Grendel tried to yell “pig” to confirm that he was hungry, but his voice scared the humans. The king hurled an axe at Grendel, grazing his shoulder. Grendel tried to shout at them, but his voice came out as a moan. He cried out for his mother. The king ordered his men to surround Grendel and he realized that the humans were “thinking creatures.” He tried to scare them off by shouting at them, but they attacked him with bows and javelins.
Finally encountering other beings able to talk, Grendel tries to communicate with them. But his attempt to break out of his isolation is misinterpreted, and the humans respond with violence. Their ability to strategize marks them as significantly different from the mindless bull that could not do any real harm to Grendel.
Grendel was convinced that he was done for, when suddenly he heard a shriek even louder than his. His terrifying mother came rushing in, roaring and shattering trees in her wake. The men fled.
Grendel’s relief at his mother’s arrival and his mother’s rescuing him suggest at least some level of affection in their relationship.
The next thing Grendel remembers is waking up back in the cave. The other shapes were gone now and Grendel guesses that they had receded further underground. Alone with his mother, he attempted to explain to her what he had discovered about the world: its “meaningless objectness” and “universal bruteness.” But his mother could not understand his language.
While his mother’s rescuing Grendel points to some kind of mother-son bond, her lack of language and disinterest in large philosophical questions prevents any significant relationship between the two. His mother shows her love by keeping him alive, but can’t provide more than physical comfort.
Grendel emerges from his memory, once again in his underground cave, and keeps talking and theorizing about the world and how he is the only thing in the world that exists. He becomes upset as his mother continues to not understand him, and then his mother hurls herself on top of him to embrace him, smothering him. He keeps talking to himself. When he can’t breathe under her, he claws to get free but is alarmed when he realizes his claws have drawn blood.
Grendel’s interest in deep questions continues to separate him from his mother. She attempts on a very basic and physical level to have a close relationship with him, but Grendel feels merely smothered by her. His attempt to claw free is symbolic of the deeper self-imposed separation he feels from his mother. That he draws blood suggests that such separations are necessarily connected to violence.