Grendel

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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.
Language Theme Icon

Grendel explores the power, consequences, seductions, and deceptions of various forms of language. Language is what separates Grendel from nature and from his mother. His ability to speak marks him as different from the rest of the natural world that cannot respond to him. The very language that enables Grendel to tell his own story actually isolates him within what Grendel calls a “pale skin of words that closes me in like a coffin.” His use of language connects him to the Danes, but even they are often unable (or unwilling) to understand him.

Through the character of the Shaper, the novel displays both the power and deception of language. The Shaper is able to make the lies of heroism seem true and alluring. His very name implies that his artful language has the power to shape and change things. In making a comprehensible order out of the chaos of the world and in presenting a glorified narrative of the history of the Danes, the Shaper holds a central place in Hrothgar’s kingdom. Grendel is both intrigued and outraged by the Shaper’s songs, which he often goes to hear. He knows that the songs are lies, but is also carried away by the beauty and pleasure of the Shaper’s art. As the novel progresses, Grendel’s own narration is even influenced by the Shaper’s language, as it becomes self-consciously poetic and interspersed with passages of verse.

The novel’s stance on language is thus deeply ambiguous. On the one hand, language allows Grendel to communicate with the dragon and the Danes, but on the other hand it isolates him from his mother and from nature. As wielded by the Shaper, language is a powerful social force, uniting the Danes under a set of shared stories, and is able to attain a kind of order and beauty not found elsewhere in the world. But, as Grendel knows, this powerful use of language is built upon a series of lies and is ultimately deceitful and false.

Language ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Grendel related to the theme of Language.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Talking, talking, spinning a spell, pale skin of words that closes me in like a coffin.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Grendel has no friends, nobody to talk to. All he has to keep him company are his words. With words, Grendel can create imaginary friends, hold long conversations with himself, and generally give his life some semblance of a community. (In this way he's very similar to Frankenstein's monster in Shelley's Frankenstein.)

Grendel sneers at much of human society, but he's too clever to sneer at language. Grendel's command of language is one of the most important bonds linking him with human culture--ironically, he's every bit as eloquent as the humans with whom he fights, and who consider him a monster and barbarian. And yet Grendel hates himself for relying so excessively on language: by accepting language, Grendel is also accepting the supremacy of human culture--the very culture that defines itself against him and strives to murder him.

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I found I understood them: it was my own language, but spoken in a strange way... They were small, these creatures, with dead-looking eyes and gray-white faces, and yet in some ways they were like us, except ridiculous and, at the same time, mysteriously irritating, like rats. Their movements were stiff and regular, as if figured by logic... We stared at each other.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Grendel comes face-to-face with his eventual opponents, the humans, for the first time. Grendel finds the humans as strange and frightening as the humans find him. (And this, of course, is the whole point of Gardner's book: he reverses the poem Beowulf to tell Grendel's story from Grendel's point of view.)

In the novel, there is no true good or evil: Grendel and the humans are just two sides of the same coin; i.e., two different intelligent races who have decided to fight one another to the death, defining themselves against their supposed "opposite." Naturally, the humans like to believe that they're the "good guys" and Grendel is "evil," but in truth, both sides are equal--a fact that Gardner reinforces by noting Grendel and the humans' common language, and their common struggle with the realities of life and the universe.

I tried to tell her all that had happened, all that I’d come to understand: the meaningless objectness of the world, the universal bruteness. She only stared, troubled at my noise. She’d forgotten all language long ago, or maybe had never known any.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Grendel’s Mother
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Grendel has just come from a bloody fight with the humans, and he wants to tell his mother what he's just discovered: he wants to tell her how scarring and frightening the fight was. Furthermore, Grendel wants to tell his mother what the fight has taught him: all of life is nothing but a meaningless and violent struggle for power. Unfortunately, Grendel's mother can't talk.

The passage is important because it reinforces the sympathy we're supposed to feel for Grendel. At first, Grendel just wants someone to talk to: his desire for conversation and companionship is far greater than his desire for food or power. And yet when Grendel tries to talk to the humans, he's attacked. Grendel has no friends in the universe--he's persecuted and punished for being an "other," and so he naturally assumes the role thrust upon him: that of a monster.

Chapter 3 Quotes

So he sang—or intoned, with the harp behind him—twisting together like sailors’ ropes the bits and pieces of the best old songs. The people were hushed. Even the surrounding hills were hushed, as if brought low by language.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), The Shaper
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Grendel meets the Shaper--a bard who sings for the community of humans. The Shaper, Grendel knows full-well, is a liar: he sings beautiful, idealized songs about heroism, encouraging humans to go off and die for their communities. Without the influence of the Shaper, humans wouldn't be as violent: they need poets and writers to inspire them to go out and fight to the death.

And yet Grendel also finds the Shaper utterly transfixing. His words may be lies, but they're undeniably beautiful. In all, the passage reinforces Grendel's close relationship to humanity--a relationship that's mediated by the power of language. Grendel despises much of human culture, but he has a weakness for the single most essential part of human culture--words.

Chapter 4 Quotes

It was a cold-blooded lie that a god had lovingly made the world and set out the sun and moon as lights to land-dwellers, that brothers had fought, that one of the races was saved, the other cursed. Yet he, the old Shaper, might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, his cunning trickery. It came to me with a fierce jolt that I wanted it. As they did too, though vicious animals, cunning, cracked with theories. I wanted it, yes! Even if I must be the outcast, cursed by the rules of his hideous fable.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), The Shaper
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Grendel considers everything the Shaper has sung about. In his song, the Shaper claims that Grendel is descended from a semi-Biblical "bad brother" who was punished by god for his disobedience. In other words, the Shaper claims that Grendel is being punished for the sins of his ancestors. Humans, by contrast, are descended from a martyred "good brother." Notice that the Shaper's story echoes the Biblican Cain-Abel story, but with one major modification. In the Bible, Cain kills Abel before Abel can have any children, suggesting that no one is descended from the "good brother." Furthermore, Cain has children of his own and builds the first human city. (Although according to Judeo-Christian tradition, all of Cain's descendants are killed in the Great Flood, and the rest of humanity is descended from Adam and Eve's younger children.) If anything, then, humans are the descendants of the bad brother! But because humans refuse to accept their own sinful nature, they craft a different story, in which they're "good" and Grendel is "bad."

Grendel doesn't believe the Shaper's story, and yet his hunger for stories and art is so great that he accepts it--he wants to believe it. Grendel craves order and meaning in the universe. So even if he is cast as the villain in the Shaper's story, he'll accept this story because of the meaning it provides him. A sad story is better than no story at all.