In the Anglo-Saxon era, storytellers, sometimes called scops, were considered vital parts of society. The clannish Anglo-Saxons were a tight-knit, warlike people whose ancient religion did not provide for an afterlife. So warriors, in their efforts to live on in some form after death, strove to be heroic in battle in the hopes that storytellers would sing their praises to future generations. The storytellers also provided entertainment when the warriors gathered in their mead halls to drink and socialize. Early in Beowulf, the following passage appears, showing the storyteller's role in their social life:
. . . the music rang
loud in that hall, the harp's rejoicing
Call and the poet's clear songs, sung
of the ancient beginnings of us all, recalling
the Almighty making the earth.
John Gardner's Grendel, however, casts the storyteller in a much different light. Grendel himself, the first-person narrator of the story, calls the storyteller a “shaper,” because he does more than just relay information, he actually “shapes” the thoughts and perceptions of his audience. As Grendel, agonized in his isolation, listens to the shaper influence Hrothgar's men, he even finds himself entranced:
I listened, felt myself swept up. I knew very well that all he said was ridiculous, not light for their darkness but flattery, illusion, a vortex pulling them from sunlight to heat, a kind of midsummer burgeoning, waltz to the sickle.
Gardner's version of the Grendel character sees the shaper as a poetic liar, inspiring the men with stories that Grendel himself knows are false. Nevertheless, they move the men to deeds greater than they have ever before performed.
So whose perception is right, you might ask? There is truth in both. Stories bring us together, creating a collective “memory” that gives us all a shared context for living together. But many of those stories are legends, folktales that might not be literal truth. Grendel would call them lies, because he is not a part of the society that shares them.