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 is perhaps no different from the dragon’s selfish hoarding of treasure.
Grendel is especially able to mock ideals of heroism through his interactions with Unferth. By refusing to fight Unferth and instead throwing apples at him, he humiliates the hero and turns what should be a noble fight into a kind of pathetic slapstick comedy. By refusing to kill Unferth, Grendel denies him a heroic death and demoralizes him, showing him the emptiness of his ideas of heroism.
When Beowulf finally arrives and defeats Grendel, the novel presents the closest thing to a true hero. Stronger and cleverer than all the Danes, Beowulf overcomes Grendel in dramatic combat. But even as he dies, Grendel painstakingly maintains that his death is not the result of a heroic deed. With his dying breaths, Grendel insists that Beowulf defeated him through trickery and by sheer chance. Even as the novel seems to give an example of a true hero defeating an enemy, Grendel goes to the grave insisting that there is no such thing as real heroism, that Beowulf simply got lucky in one act of violence as meaningless as any other.
Heroism Quotes in Grendel
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.
“It will be sung,” he whispered, then paused again to get wind. “It will be sung year on year and age on age that Unferth went down through the burning lake—” he paused to pant “—and gave his life in battle with the world-rim monster.” He let his cheek fall to the floor and lay panting for a long time, saying nothing. It dawned on me that he was waiting for me to kill him. I did nothing. I sat down and put my elbows on my knees and my chin on my fists and merely watched.
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?