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Themes and Colors
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Loneliness and Isolation Theme Icon
Nature and Time Theme Icon
Heroism Theme Icon
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Grendel, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Heroism Theme Icon

In the background of the novel is perhaps English literature’s most significant text about heroism: Beowulf. Whereas the epic poem Beowulf builds up the idea of a hero, much of Grendel criticizes and pokes fun at the very idea of heroism. From Grendel’s perspective, the heroic feats celebrated by the Shaper are all lies. The Danes’ exploits are simply examples of “violence no more legitimate than a wolf’s.” Hrothgar’s amassing of riches and tribute is perhaps no different from the dragon’s selfish hoarding of treasure.

Grendel is especially able to mock ideals of heroism through his interactions with Unferth. By refusing to fight Unferth and instead throwing apples at him, he humiliates the hero and turns what should be a noble fight into a kind of pathetic slapstick comedy. By refusing to kill Unferth, Grendel denies him a heroic death and demoralizes him, showing him the emptiness of his ideas of heroism.

When Beowulf finally arrives and defeats Grendel, the novel presents the closest thing to a true hero. Stronger and cleverer than all the Danes, Beowulf overcomes Grendel in dramatic combat. But even as he dies, Grendel painstakingly maintains that his death is not the result of a heroic deed. With his dying breaths, Grendel insists that Beowulf defeated him through trickery and by sheer chance. Even as the novel seems to give an example of a true hero defeating an enemy, Grendel goes to the grave insisting that there is no such thing as real heroism, that Beowulf simply got lucky in one act of violence as meaningless as any other.

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Heroism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Heroism appears in each chapter of Grendel. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Heroism Quotes in Grendel

Below you will find the important quotes in Grendel related to the theme of Heroism.
Chapter 3 Quotes

Then once, around midnight, I came to a hall in ruins. The cows in their pens lay burbling blood through their nostrils, with javelin holes in their necks. None had been eaten. The watchdogs lay like dark wet stones, with their heads cut off, teeth bared. The fallen hall was a square of flames and acrid smoke, and the people inside (none of them had been eaten either) were burned black, small, like dwarfs turned dark and crisp.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

In this surprising passage, Grendel goes to the village of men and is shocked to find that someone has beaten him to his work: someone has attacked the humans and killed them. Slowly, Grendel comes to realize that other humans are the ones who have burned down the village. Indeed, these other humans' evil vastly exceeds Grendel's own--Grendel eats his victims quickly, while the humans have burned their fellow men alive, and haven't even eaten the animals they killed. Their violence was not of necessity, but was pure cruelty and sadism. Humanity's worst enemy isn't Grendel--it's other people.

The passage is crucial because it establishes the reason that humans choose to fight Grendel. Humans need an excuse to unite together; without this, they'll tear themselves apart. Grendel is the ultimate "other," a nice reminder that humans can define themselves as a unit--i.e., something different from Grendel. Paradoxically, Grendel is crucial to the survival of the human race--without Grendel to do battle with, humans would turn on themselves and go extinct.


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Chapter 6 Quotes

“It will be sung,” he whispered, then paused again to get wind. “It will be sung year on year and age on age that Unferth went down through the burning lake—” he paused to pant “—and gave his life in battle with the world-rim monster.” He let his cheek fall to the floor and lay panting for a long time, saying nothing. It dawned on me that he was waiting for me to kill him. I did nothing. I sat down and put my elbows on my knees and my chin on my fists and merely watched.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Unferth (speaker)
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Unferth is a self-described hero who lives in the village. He tries to hunt down Grendel and kill him, claiming that his acts of bravery will be remembered forever. In short, Unferth is heroism incarnate. Unferth genuinely believes in the myths that the Shaper sings: he genuinely believes that it's worthwhile to sacrifice one's life for the greater goods of combat, courage, and being immortalized in art.

As we can imagine, Grendel is very irritated with Unferth--he needs to take Unferth down a couple notches and show him that heroism is just a sham. Grendel is tempted to kill Unferth, but of course, doing so would only allow Unferth to win in the long run: Unferth would be celebrated forever for his noble sacrifice (and, based on this passage, clearly wants precisely this to happen). Instead, Grendel decides to spare Unferth's life, successfully disillusioning Unferth to the silliness and arbitrariness of heroism and any kind of artistic immortality.

Chapter 8 Quotes

This nobility of his, this dignity: are they not my work? What was he before? nothing! A swollen-headed raider, full of boasts and stupid jokes and mead. ...I made him what he is. Have I not a right to test my own creation?

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Hrothgar
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Grendel wonders why he continues to terrorize Hrothgar, even after Hrothgar has become an old man. Grendel's answer to his own rhetorical question is very interesting: he claims that he can do whatever he wants to Hrothgar, since he made Hothgar what he is today. Grendel seems to have accepted the Dragon's theory: Grendel knows that he is useful to the humans, since he gives them something to unite against. His role as "monster" has essentially allowed Hrothgar to solidify his role as "king"--they are two sides of the same coin.

And yet the passage also represents a turning point in the novel. Previously, Grendel criticized humans for their excesses, and for wasting valuable resources. Here, however, Grendel seems to be sinking to humanity's level, wasting his time terrorizing a village and wasting the villages' resources for no practical reason whatsoever. Grendel has become the thing he hates most: a bored, corrupted human being.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“It was an accident,” I bellow back. I will cling to what is true. “Blind, mindless, mechanical. Mere logic of chance.”

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Beowulf has just defeated Grendel by ripping off his enormous arm, slowly killing him. Grendel refuses to believe that Beowulf has defeated him fairly and squarely--instead, he insists that Beowulf has won because of sheer dumb luck, because of the random chance of the universe's logic. Had Grendel reached inside the building on a different night, or had Beowulf been stationed somewhere else in the building, Grendel would still be alive.

Grendel's words reiterate his way of looking at the universe. Grendel refuses to acknowledge the existence of fate or destiny: even when he's been defeated, he refuses to admit that a true hero has defeated him. Instead, Grendel tries to downplay Beowulf's achievement, suggesting that Beowulf, in spite of his victory, is just another man. Ultimately, Grendel's true enemy isn't Beowulf; it's heroism itself. Grendel can't stand the idea that some people are meant to be great--and so, with his dying breaths, he continues to insist that Beowulf isn't really a hero at all.