John Gardner

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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 numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer 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)
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:
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Grendel PDF

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)