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Monsters and Humans Theme Analysis

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.
Monsters and Humans Theme Icon

The most striking thing about Grendel is that the novel is narrated by a monster. Gardner takes the oldest story in English literature of a hero defeating a monster (Beowulf) and turns it on its head by seeing the tale through the eyes of the monster Grendel. The novel thus continually asks what it means to be a monster and how monsters and humans differ or are related. When Grendel and the humans first meet, both recognize each other as a different kind of creature, but the two are actually rather similar. Significantly, they speak the same language. And the Shaper’s use of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel to mark Grendel as a descendant of the evil Cain points to a distant shared ancestry of both humans and Grendel. While Grendel goes on murderous rampages to satisfy his desire for blood, the humans also murder each other for, as Grendel sees it, no real purpose. At many points during the novel, the distinction between monster and human seems to blur, as Grendel seems more human than the Danes, and the Danes more monstrous than Grendel.

But while Grendel and the humans often seem similar, both find it very important to stress their difference from each other. Both Grendel and the Danes use each other as an “other” against which they can better define themselves, as is most clearly expressed by the dragon. The dragon tells Grendel that he is “the brute existent by which [the Danes] learn to define themselves.” The Danes use the monster-figure of Grendel to make themselves civilized, honorable, and human by contrast. After his meeting with the dragon, Grendel also recognizes that the same is true for him: his identity as a fearsome monster is dependent upon having human rivals to raid and terrorize. Grendel does not kill all of the Danes or wipe out their city entirely, because, as he himself says, “What will we call the Hrothgar-Wrecker when Hrothgar has been wrecked?” The relationship between monster and humans can be seen as one of mutual dependence—both rely on the other as a contrast to their own identity, even though in the end they may not really be so different.

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Monsters and Humans ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Grendel related to the theme of Monsters and Humans.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Behind my back, at the world’s end, my pale slightly glowing fat mother sleeps on, old, sick at heart, in our dingy underground room. Life-bloated, baffled, long-suffering hag. Guilty, she imagines, of some unremembered, perhaps ancestral crime. (She must have some human in her.) Not that she thinks. Not that she dissects and ponders the dusty mechanical bits of her miserable life’s curse.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Grendel’s Mother
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we're introduced to Grendel's mother--a fearsome monster who, unlike Grendel himself, doesn't have the gift of speech. Grendel seems to feel no real affection for his mother whatsoever--instead, he regards her as a bloated hag. Grendel's lack of affection for his mother is paradoxical--on one hand, it's proof of his dignity and humanity (he's rejecting the barbarism with which he's usually associated); on the other, it suggests his own barbarism (it's barbaric to reject your own family).

Grendel is truly alone in the universe--even his own mother can't give him the company and conversation he craves. Grendel despises his mother because she represents everything he hates about himself--his ugliness, his foreignness to the humans, etc. Grendel aspires to be a thinker and a talker, but he can never form lasting bonds with other creatures because of his fearsome appearance. It's only appropriate that Grendel should both love and hate his mom.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

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.

They hacked down trees in widening rings around their central halls and blistered the land with peasant huts and pigpen fences till the forest looked like an old dog, dying of mange. They thinned out the game, killed birds for sport, set accidental fires that would burn for days. Their sheep killed hedges, snipped valleys bare, and their pigs nosed up the very roots of what might have grown... There was nothing to stop the advance of man.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

Grendel watches closely at Hrothgar begins to institute order and community among men. Before, the men fought with each other, destroying their own societies. Now, however, men unite together to form one great community headed by Hrothgar.

It's crucial to notice the subtle difference between this passage and the previous passage quoted. Before, humans turned on each other--their destruction was nihilistic and self-defeating. Now, humans have turned their capacity for violence outward, toward nature. Instead of fighting other humans, they fight the natural world, destroying it heartlessly. The implication is that humans are hopelessly violent--whether they fight each other or fight Grendel, they have to fight something. Moreover, humans are disgustingly wasteful; they destroy nature for no discernible reason other than their innate desire for power and conflict.

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.

Chapter 5 Quotes

“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.

Chapter 7 Quotes

What will we call the Hrothgar-Wrecker when Hrothgar has been wrecked?

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Hrothgar
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel goes on, the Dragon's theory of antagonistic cooperation becomes truer and truer. Grendel had initially sneered at the idea that humans and monsters "need" each other.  But here, he realizes that the Dragon was right all along. Grendel could easily destroy Hrothgar and his kingdom altogether. But then, Grendel would be all alone in the universe once again--life is better for Grendel and the humans when Grendel holds back and spares some lives.

The passage reiterates that Grendel depends upon some form of interaction with other people. Grendel can't stand to accept the fact that he's all alone in the universe. Even if his interactions with other beings are horribly violent, they still serve a useful purpose by reminding him that he's not all by himself--he has a name as long as others are there to give it to him, even if that name is monstrous and antagonistic.

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 11 Quotes

I am mad with joy. –At least I think it’s joy. Strangers have come, and it’s a whole new game.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker), Beowulf
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Grendel feels a sudden rush of excitement--a very rare emotion for an isolated, essentially immortal creature. Grendel is excited because of the arrival of a new group of humans, including Beowulf (though Grendel doesn't know him yet, and he remains unnamed throughout the novel).

The passage reinforces the ambiguous relationship between Grendel and humanity. Grendel despises humanity and yet can't survive without humanity. He craves intelligent beings with whom to interact, and challenges to his strength and immortality; therefore, the arrival of more humans is a blessing. Of course, Grendel continues to dislike humans and sneer at their culture, but since he's isolated so much of the time, he can't be picky about who he spends his time with.