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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.
Nature and Time Theme Icon

Throughout the novel, Grendel and other characters attempt to answer large questions concerning nature and time. Grendel speaks to nature and at times wonders if there is some kind of spirit in nature (as the Danes believe), but ultimately concludes that the world is made up of a series of mindless, mechanical processes. But then where do Grendel and the Danes fit into this understanding of nature? Is Grendel also simply carrying out a natural process, driven to act by his desires, or can he choose to act in a particular way that might mean something? The answer to this question depends greatly on one’s perspective of time. Having been around for much longer than the Danes, Grendel is able to laugh at their narrative of history and understanding of the world.

But the dragon—who can see past, present, and future—finds Grendel’s perspective equally laughable. From the dragon’s grand perspective, the world is simply “a swirl in the stream of time,” and “a temporary gathering of bits.” In the big picture, there is no order or meaning to the random chaos of nature. Regardless of whether one agrees with the ideas of the dragon, the novel ultimately suggests that one’s understanding of nature is greatly dependent on one’s perspective in time. How someone perceives his or her relation to the rest of the world depends on whether he or she is considering the world in terms of an individual’s lifetime, the history of a particular people, the history of the entire human race, or all of eternity.

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Nature and Time ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Grendel related to the theme of Nature and Time.
Chapter 4 Quotes

“Why can’t I have someone to talk to?” I said. The stars said nothing, but I pretended to ignore the rudeness.

Related Characters: Grendel (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Grendel continues to feel a deep depression over the fact that he's all alone in the universe, without anyone to talk to or relate to. He's been cursed with a love for words and conversation, but because he's a frightening creature, he has nobody with whom to converse.

Grendel's frustration has increased since his encounters with the Shaper. The Shaper's command of language has inspired Grendel deeply: Grendel wishes he could communicate with others, honing his rhetorical skill and elevating it to the level of art. (This desire is even reflected in the text itself, as Grendel starts speaking poetry instead of prose sometimes). Grendel's misery is so complete that he asks the stars to talk to him. Even when the stars, of course, "said nothing," Grendel tries to imagine that the stars could talk to him and are just being rude: he's desperate for communication.


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Chapter 5 Quotes

“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.

Chapter 9 Quotes

The ultimate evil is that Time is perpetual perishing, and being actual involves elimination. The nature of evil may be epitomized, therefore, in two simple but horrible and holy propositions: ‘Things fade’ and ‘Alternatives exclude.’

Related Characters: Ork (speaker)
Page Number: 132-133
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Grendel meets a pathetic priest named Ork. Ork is the very embodiment of mankind's overemphasis on order and control. Ork is extremely religious--he believes that the universe works according to a number of specific laws. There are only two such laws: 1) Things fade, and 2) Alternatives exclude.

It's worth thinking about these two laws a little more closely. Ork believes that all of life will eventually deteriorate into death; in other words, he accepts his own mortality. Second, Ork believes that it's impossible to believe two contradictory things at the same time--you can choose one or the other, but not both. Choosing one belief necessarily means not choosing another.

Grendel's existence challenges the validity of both rules. Grendel is a monster and seems to be exempt from the rules of mortality (he certainly can't be hurt in battle, thanks to the Dragon's charm). Furthermore, Grendel refuses to believe that "alternatives exclude." Instead, he embraces his own contradictions, criticizing waste while being incredibly wasteful; attacking humans while also acknowledging that humans are his only friends, etc. In short, Grendel sneers at Ork and the rules by which Ork lives his life and tries to find meaning in the universe.

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.