John Gardner

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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.

Monsters and Humans

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…

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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.”…

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Loneliness and Isolation

For much, if not all, of the novel, Grendel is simply looking for someone to talk to. His mother cannot communicate with him, and the various animals he addresses cannot respond. Utterly alone and isolated, he can talk only to himself. When he finally encounters humans, he tries to communicate with them, but they misunderstand him and brand him as a terrifying monster. The closest thing Grendel has to a friend or companion is perhaps…

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Nature and Time

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…

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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…

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Philosophy, Theory, and Belief

Grendel can be seen as a novel of competing ideas. Different characters try to make sense of the world in different ways, and as Grendel progresses through the novel, he must choose which set of theories or beliefs he adheres to. On one end of the spectrum, Grendel’s mother experiences the world in purely physical, sensual way, and does not question or theorize at all. Grendel rejects this simplistic approach to the world early in…

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