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 the novel, and develops his own theories—for example, the idea that the world consists entirely of Grendel and not-Grendel. The humans, noted by the dragon for their “crackpot theories”, offer another system of beliefs with their ideas of heroism, religion, and logic. Grendel rejects the ideas of the humans, mocking their religion, and is generally persuaded by the dragon, who offers the novel’s most complete system of philosophy.
The dragon believes in the ultimate meaninglessness of the universe and takes a self-centered approach to the world, advising Grendel to “seek out gold and sit on it.” Grendel’s various struggles with the world and with other characters can be seen as a struggle with different sets of ideas and different philosophies. When Beowulf defeats Grendel, he not only physically overcomes him, but also overcomes him with his “lunatic theory” that the world is only what Grendel’s mind makes it. Whereas the dragon claimed that the world was meaningless, Beowulf goes as far as to assert that the world only exists because Grendel perceives it, that there is no way to separate its existence from Grendel's own, suggesting that even the notion of history or time beyond Grendel's own existence is immaterial. As Grendel struggles to maintain his belief in the dragon’s philosophy, Beowulf’s ideas are almost as painful to him as the tearing off of his arm. Grendel repeats, “[Beowulf’s] syllables lick at me, chilly fire.” The novel thus culminates not only with the physical conflict between Beowulf and Grendel, but also with the conflict of their competing beliefs.
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief ThemeTracker
Philosophy, Theory, and Belief 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.
The king has lofty theories of his own. “Theories,” I whisper to the bloodstained ground. So the dragon once spoke. (“They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories!” I recall his laugh.)
I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist.
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.
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.
They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories, their here-to-the-moon-and-back lists of paltry facts.
“A swirl in the stream of time. A temporary gathering of bits, a few random dust specks, so to speak—pure metaphor, you understand—then by chance a vast floating cloud of dustspecks, an expanding universe—” He shrugged. “Complexities: green dust as well as the regular kind. Purple dust. Gold. Additional refinements: sensitive dust, copulating dust, worshipful dust!”
The ultimate evil is that Time is perpetual perishing, and being actual involves elimination. The nature of evil may be epitomized, therefore, in two simple but horrible and holy propositions: ‘Things fade’ and ‘Alternatives exclude.’
Grendel, Grendel! You make the world by whispers, second by second. Are you blind to that? Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point.