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.” His use of language connects him to the Danes, but even they are often unable (or unwilling) to understand him.
Through the character of the Shaper, the novel displays both the power and deception of language. The Shaper is able to make the lies of heroism seem true and alluring. His very name implies that his artful language has the power to shape and change things. In making a comprehensible order out of the chaos of the world and in presenting a glorified narrative of the history of the Danes, the Shaper holds a central place in Hrothgar’s kingdom. Grendel is both intrigued and outraged by the Shaper’s songs, which he often goes to hear. He knows that the songs are lies, but is also carried away by the beauty and pleasure of the Shaper’s art. As the novel progresses, Grendel’s own narration is even influenced by the Shaper’s language, as it becomes self-consciously poetic and interspersed with passages of verse.
The novel’s stance on language is thus deeply ambiguous. On the one hand, language allows Grendel to communicate with the dragon and the Danes, but on the other hand it isolates him from his mother and from nature. As wielded by the Shaper, language is a powerful social force, uniting the Danes under a set of shared stories, and is able to attain a kind of order and beauty not found elsewhere in the world. But, as Grendel knows, this powerful use of language is built upon a series of lies and is ultimately deceitful and false.
Language Quotes in Grendel
Talking, talking, spinning a spell, pale skin of words that closes me in like a coffin.
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.
I tried to tell her all that had happened, all that I’d come to understand: the meaningless objectness of the world, the universal bruteness. She only stared, troubled at my noise. She’d forgotten all language long ago, or maybe had never known any.
So he sang—or intoned, with the harp behind him—twisting together like sailors’ ropes the bits and pieces of the best old songs. The people were hushed. Even the surrounding hills were hushed, as if brought low by language.
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.