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The Oak Overlooking the Abyss Symbol Analysis

The Oak Overlooking the Abyss Symbol Icon
Several times toward the end of the novel, Grendel has a strange vision of himself holding onto the roots of an oak, hanging over a dark abyss. As Grendel’s death approaches, this foreboding vision symbolizes Grendel’s life in relation to the grand conception of eternity offered by the dragon. As the dragon speaks of Grendel’s life as merely a brief swirl in the huge stream of time, so this vision presents Grendel’s life as a brief, futile struggle to hold onto some stability in the face of a much larger void, into which he will surely fall. Thus, this vision encapsulates the dragon’s idea of the insignificance of individual life. While Grendel accepts this idea, he still struggles to stay alive, fighting with Beowulf. The void beneath the oak tree may be inevitable, but as Grendel illustrates, the role of the individual in the universe is to hold on to the oak for as long as possible.

The Oak Overlooking the Abyss Quotes in Grendel

The Grendel quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Oak Overlooking the Abyss. 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 9 Quotes

I recall something. A void boundless as a nether sky. I hang by the twisted roots of an oak, looking down into immensity. Vastly far away I see the sun, black but shining, and slowly revolving around it there are spiders. I pause in my tracks, puzzled—though not stirred—by what I see. But then I am in the woods again, and the snow is falling, and everything alive is fast asleep. It is just some dream. I move on, uneasy; waiting.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Oak Overlooking the Abyss
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Grendel recalls a vision or dream he had of an oak tree dangling over a deep chasm. The oak tree seems poised to fall into the abyss, never to be seen again. And yet it's tied to the ground by its strong, firm roots--and Grendel is hanging from the roots, dangling over the abyss.

One could argue that this dream symbolizes Grendel's existential dilemma. For the time being, Grendel's security is complete: thanks to the Dragon, he can't be harmed in battle. And yet Grendel seems to sense that his days are numbered--sooner or later, he's going to be swallowed up by the "abyss" of death. Likewise, Grendel is constantly fighting off the existential despair of acknowledging his own smallness and meaninglessness in the face of the abyss of the universe and time. Grendel's uneasiness in this passage suggests that on some level, he knows what the vision means, and recognizes that one day he'll be defeated.


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The Oak Overlooking the Abyss Symbol Timeline in Grendel

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Oak Overlooking the Abyss appears in Grendel. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 9
Nature and Time Theme Icon
...back to his home. He has a vision of himself hanging by the roots of an oak, looking down into an abyss , but then he is in the woods again and reasons that it was only... (full context)
Chapter 11
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Nature and Time Theme Icon he speaks and by his muscular shoulders. He has a momentary vision of himself hanging by the roots of an oak tree over an abyss . But Grendel reasons that he has no reason to fear the strangers. He watches... (full context)
Chapter 12
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
Grendel tries to kick, but feels as though he is falling, clutching at the oak’s roots from his vision. He falls and slips on the bloody floor. Beowulf is talking... (full context)