Compare and contrast the characters of Beowulf and Grendel.

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In the epic poem Beowulf, Beowulf is the Geatish hero of the story, while Grendel is humankind's archenemy.

Beowulf, the story's protagonist, arrives to assist Hrothgar, King of the Danes, defeat the ferocious and murderous monster Grendel, who raids the mead hall until it sits empty for a very long time. Our hero arrives with a long list of victories in battle to his credit. He is a man with unshakable valor and integrity. He is self-sacrificing. His actions are guided (as are other heroes of the time) for glory and for God. Greeted by Hrothgar's wife, Beowulf explains what motivated him to come to the Danes' aid:

This was my thought, when my thanes and I

bent to the ocean and entered our boat,      

that I would work the will of your people    

fully, or fighting fall in death,                        

in fiend’s gripe fast. I am firm to do             

an earl’s brave deed, or end the days            

of this life of mine in the mead-hall here.

On the other hand, Grendel is a savage creature without honor or compassion for any human:

The monster of evil [Grendel]

Greedy and cruel tarried but little,              

Fell and frantic, and forced from their slumbers

Thirty of thanemen; thence he departed

Leaping and laughing, his lair to return to, 

With surfeit of slaughter sallying homeward.

The narrator reports that when Cain murdered his brother, Abel, God exiled him. Grendel is a descendant of Cain. As Cain was before him, Grendel is isolated from God and the friendship of others. Consequently, the creature finds the sounds of joy and camaraderie coming from Heorot loathsome, which causes him to begin his attacks.

While Beowulf is a brave, proven warrior, Grendel is a creature that fights for the pleasure of killing. Beowulf answers a higher calling in life, but Grendel is answerable to no one. He delights not in glory, but in devastation and suffering.

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It's a lot easier to contrast the characters of Beowulf and Grendel than it is to compare them, so let's do the hard part first and look at how they are similar (comparison).

Beowulf and Grendel both embody the characteristics of their archetype (an archetype is a kind of literary element that becomes a pattern over the course of many years). Beowulf is the epic hero, and as such possesses the characteristics of bravery and exceptional strength. He stands out among men as a singularly impressive warrior. He is also committed to the ideals of his archetype. Grendel also fully embodies the characteristics of his archetype—which we will call the “villain,” for lack of a better term. Like Beowulf, he is fearless, at least initially, and when he sets out to do battle he fully expects to succeed.

Contrasting Beowulf and Grendel is easier. Obviously, one is human (Beowulf) while the other is supernatural (Grendel). Beyond this obvious difference are their contrasting motivations. Beowulf wants to achieve everlasting fame and to live in accordance with the warrior code (sometimes called the Heroic Code) of his era. As a warrior, he is part of a social structure that values the character qualities and warrior skills that he possesses. Grendel, on the other hand, is not part of an established social structure. He is born of a cursed race sired by Cain. He is an outcast. In fact, early in the poem, Grendel's motivation for attacking Herot is shown to be his anger at the noise they make during their celebrations—he does not like the fact that they gather together in fellowship. This makes him a threat to the society that Beowulf values and strives to protect.  

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