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 humans first meet, both recognize each other as a different kind of creature, but the two are actually rather similar. Significantly, they speak the same language. And the Shaper’s use of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel to mark Grendel as a descendant of the evil Cain points to a distant shared ancestry of both humans and Grendel. While Grendel goes on murderous rampages to satisfy his desire for blood, the humans also murder each other for, as Grendel sees it, no real purpose. At many points during the novel, the distinction between monster and human seems to blur, as Grendel seems more human than the Danes, and the Danes more monstrous than Grendel.
But while Grendel and the humans often seem similar, both find it very important to stress their difference from each other. Both Grendel and the Danes use each other as an “other” against which they can better define themselves, as is most clearly expressed by the dragon. The dragon tells Grendel that he is “the brute existent by which [the Danes] learn to define themselves.” The Danes use the monster-figure of Grendel to make themselves civilized, honorable, and human by contrast. After his meeting with the dragon, Grendel also recognizes that the same is true for him: his identity as a fearsome monster is dependent upon having human rivals to raid and terrorize. Grendel does not kill all of the Danes or wipe out their city entirely, because, as he himself says, “What will we call the Hrothgar-Wrecker when Hrothgar has been wrecked?” The relationship between monster and humans can be seen as one of mutual dependence—both rely on the other as a contrast to their own identity, even though in the end they may not really be so different.
Monsters and Humans ThemeTracker
Monsters and Humans Quotes in Grendel
Behind my back, at the world’s end, my pale slightly glowing fat mother sleeps on, old, sick at heart, in our dingy underground room. Life-bloated, baffled, long-suffering hag. Guilty, she imagines, of some unremembered, perhaps ancestral crime. (She must have some human in her.) Not that she thinks. Not that she dissects and ponders the dusty mechanical bits of her miserable life’s curse.
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.
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.
They hacked down trees in widening rings around their central halls and blistered the land with peasant huts and pigpen fences till the forest looked like an old dog, dying of mange. They thinned out the game, killed birds for sport, set accidental fires that would burn for days. Their sheep killed hedges, snipped valleys bare, and their pigs nosed up the very roots of what might have grown... There was nothing to stop the advance of man.
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.
“Ah, Grendel!” he said. He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity. “You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.”
I discovered that the dragon had put a charm on me: no weapon could cut me. I could walk up to the meadhall whenever I pleased, and they were powerless. My heart became darker because of that. Though I scorned them, sometimes hated them, there had been something between myself and men when we could fight. Now, invulnerable, I was as solitary as one live tree in a vast landscape of coal.
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?