Grendel

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The Dragon Character Analysis

Though he is dismissive of Grendel, the dragon is the closest thing Grendel has to a mentor or intellectual companion. Able to see the past, present, and future, the dragon attempts to teach Grendel about the humans, time, space, and the universe. He gives Grendel the idea that the humans actually need him in order to better define and improve themselves, and tells Grendel that all things perish and that when considered in relation to all of eternity, all life is essentially meaningless. The dragon presents the most coherent and persuasive philosophical system in the novel, but can also be seen as selfish and greedy: all he does is stay in his cave and count his hoard of treasure. The dragon also grants Grendel invulnerability against the humans’ weapons, which allows Grendel to terrorize the humans easily but also takes some of the joy out of it for Grendel.

The Dragon Quotes in Grendel

The Grendel quotes below are all either spoken by The Dragon or refer to The Dragon. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Grendel published in 1989.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The king has lofty theories of his own. “Theories,” I whisper to the bloodstained ground. So the dragon once spoke. (“They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories!” I recall his laugh.)

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Hrothgar, The Dragon
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Grendel talks about the prevalence of "theories" among human beings. Grendel notes that most of the humans with whom he's fighting believe that he is a punishment sent from god. Grendel also notes that the king of the humans, Hrothgar, has different theories about the Grendel--theories which are no more accurate than his subjects'.

There's a lot to unpack here. First, it's clear that Grendel rejects humans' theories--indeed, much of human culture--as nonsense. The belief in god, for instance, is just a superstition to Grendel. Grendel is dismissive of human beliefs, but he's also insightful enough to tell the difference between Hrothgar's beliefs (the belief in heroism, it's implied) and his subjects' beliefs (a more religious belief in god and divinity).

The passage also mentions the Dragon--an almost omniscient yet somewhat unreliable character who embraces chaos and sneers at anyone who tries to make sense of it. The Dragon believes that all religions and beliefs are attempts to make sense of pain and suffering--attempts that do nothing to alleviate this suffering. (Hell burns, whether you have a theory about it or not.)

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Chapter 5 Quotes

They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories, their here-to-the-moon-and-back lists of paltry facts.

Related Characters: The Dragon (speaker)
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Grendel goes to visit the Dragon, and the Dragon here gives Grendel the advice he'd passed on to us in an earlier chapter: humans are so obsessed with order and theory that they'll even map out "roads through Hell." The Dragon's point is that humans have the challenge of making sense of utter chaos, a process that the Dragon compares to making maps and road. Humans need to believe that the world is something more than a swirl of meaningless chaos. The Shaper is crucial in fostering optimism and belief among human beings; by singing his songs, the Shaper creates the illusion that the world really is beautiful and sensible--not, as the Dragon believes, chaotic, eternal, and nihilistic.

“A swirl in the stream of time. A temporary gathering of bits, a few random dust specks, so to speak—pure metaphor, you understand—then by chance a vast floating cloud of dustspecks, an expanding universe—” He shrugged. “Complexities: green dust as well as the regular kind. Purple dust. Gold. Additional refinements: sensitive dust, copulating dust, worshipful dust!

Related Characters: The Dragon (speaker)
Page Number: 70-71
Explanation and Analysis:

The dragon continues to offer Grendel a complicated theory of the world. According to the Dragon, all of life is nonsense. Humans like to think that they're special, but in fact, they're not. Humans are just conglomerates of "dust." In the course of a lifetime, humans move all over--a process that amounts to the "swirling" of dust across the planet. In short, the Dragon sees humanity in the basest terms possible: humans' plans, hopes, and culture doesn't matter in the slightest in the larger scheme of thing.

The passage is an elaborate allusion to the Bible, in which God tells humans that they are formed from dust, and will one day return to dust. The Dragon goes above and beyond God's statements, however, by claiming that humans will only ever be dust--no amount of religion or culture can save them from the fundamental meaninglessness of their lives.

“Ah, Grendel!” he said. He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity. “You improve them, my boy! Can’t 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.”

Related Characters: The Dragon (speaker), Grendel
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial passage, the Dragon argues for what Albert Murray called "antagonistic cooperation." The idea here is that two opponents have an uneasy alliance: they need one another to make sense of their selves. So humans, in spite of their hostility toward Grendel, actually need Grendel in order to maintain their own identities. As we've already seen, humans are hopelessly violent and chaotic if left to themselves. But with Grendel to attack and define themselves against, humans have an excuse to band together and cooperate with one another. If Grendel were to vanish overnight, humanity would plunge into civil war and existential despair.

The Dragon's observation is remarkably perceptive, if paradoxical; it's a little strange to think that we need our enemies in any meaningful way. (It's worth noting that Gardner may have been slightly alluding to the Cold War here, during which Americans defined themselves according to their opposition to Communism and the Soviet Union.)

Chapter 6 Quotes

I discovered that the dragon had put a charm on me: no weapon could cut me. I could walk up to the meadhall whenever I pleased, and they were powerless. My heart became darker because of that. Though I scorned them, sometimes hated them, there had been something between myself and men when we could fight. Now, invulnerable, I was as solitary as one live tree in a vast landscape of coal.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), The Dragon
Page Number: 75-76
Explanation and Analysis:

After his conversation with the Dragon, Grendel discovers that no weapon can cut him because the Dragon has cast a spell of invulnerability upon him. But why does the Dragon cast such a charm on Grendel?

To begin with, the Dragon's charm proves his point: Grendel needs humans, and humans need Grendel. By rendering Grendel indestructible, the Dragon ensures that humans will always have to fight Grendel off. Therefore, humans will always have a rallying point: they'll always be able to band together against their common foe, ironically ensuring the survival of their civilization.

After the charm sets in, however, Grendel seems to have lost even this antagonistic bond between himself and humanity. Previously, Grendel felt a common connection with people--a connection rooted in language and mortality, as well as fighting and antagonism. Now, Grendel is forced to isolate himself from his opponents, existentially alone again and stubbornly denying the "antagonistic cooperation" that the Dragon argued for.

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The Dragon Character Timeline in Grendel

The timeline below shows where the character The Dragon appears in Grendel. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Loneliness and Isolation Theme Icon
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
...underground den but she would never respond. But this was before Grendel met the old dragon, who Grendel says told him the truth. (full context)
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
...that the king does not pray, because he has his own theories. He recalls the dragon saying of the humans, “They’d map out roads through hell with their crackpot theories!” (full context)
Chapter 4
Nature and Time Theme Icon
...above-ground, where he cleared his mind and “sank away through earth and sea, toward the dragon.” (full context)
Chapter 5
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Grendel recalls his meeting with the dragon, a humongous creature who lay on top of his treasure hoard in his cave. The... (full context)
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Irritated, Grendel picked up an emerald to throw at the dragon. The dragon got immediately stern and told Grendel never to touch the treasure. Grendel thought... (full context)
Language Theme Icon
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
The dragon gave Grendel the advice to find some gold and watch over it. Grendel attempted to... (full context)
Language Theme Icon
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
The dragon referred to the humans as “counters, measurers, theory-makers,” saying that “they’d map out roads through... (full context)
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
The dragon decided to tell Grendel about time and space, emphasizing the importance of scale and perspective... (full context)
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
The dragon tried to explain further, saying that “the essence of life is to be found in... (full context)
Loneliness and Isolation Theme Icon
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
Continuing to try to educate Grendel, the dragon explained the difference between animals and vegetables. Grendel pondered whether the dragon was intentionally telling... (full context)
Nature and Time Theme Icon
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The dragon then attempted to give a general summary of his ideas for Grendel: “things come and... (full context)
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
Grendel asked the dragon why he shouldn’t stop terrifying the humans. The dragon answered that Grendel improved the humans,... (full context)
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
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Nature and Time Theme Icon
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
The dragon explained his own personal ambition: to count all of his treasure. He advises Grendel, “know... (full context)
Chapter 6
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Loneliness and Isolation Theme Icon
After his meeting with the dragon, Grendel felt an air of futility and doom around himself. Also, the dragon had put... (full context)
Chapter 7
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
...the humans. Grendel thinks that his enemies do define themselves against him, just as the dragon said. He could kill all of Hrothgar’s men in one night, but he restrains himself,... (full context)
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Loneliness and Isolation Theme Icon
...in his cave, Grendel was frustrated by the humans’ merriment. Although he had met the dragon and knew that the world was meaningless, he was tempted by the humans’ arrogant self-importance... (full context)
Chapter 10
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Nature and Time Theme Icon
Grendel is profoundly bored and sick of the scent of the dragon that is around him, accompanying his protective charm. He watches a goat climb the rock... (full context)