What do Grendel and the dragon symbolize in Beowulf?

Expert Answers
ms-mcgregor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To understand the symbolism behind Grendel one needs to understand the Biblical references in the poem. In the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the first murder in human history is the killing of Able by his brother, Cain. He was jealous of his brother because God accepted Able's offering and not Cain's. As a result, Cain was thrown out of his family's land and became an outcast, Grendel is said to be a descendent of Cain. The poem's original audience would have been deeply struck by this association. Like Cain, Grendel is jealous of the joy of Hrothgar's people. He makes himself evil by killing them. Thus Grendel symbolizes a lonely, jealous outcast like Cain.

The dragon, on the other hand, is symbolic of death and evil, perhaps even the devil. The dragon is described as a serpent and scaly and breathes out fire. Hoarded treasure in Old English literature usually is often associated with death and evil. Even though Beowulf wants to give the dragon's treasure to the Geats, it is buried with him, symbolically linking Beowulf with death.

patticus12 | Student

Sorry Hellowe, but zack is actually closer to the truth in this one. THis story is oral tradition from germanic, as well as anglo saxon tribes that were all pagan. This story has many pagan references, and just the fact that there is a troll is proof that it is not a christian story, for christians do not believe in such thins. Yet, I digress. Grendel in this story can symbolize a few things, but if we are talking symbolism directly. It is likely GRENDEL SYMBOLIZES PLAGUE OR FAMINE. To break down the facts.

cant be destroyed by sword

eats away at the flesh

come at any moment without warning and kills.

Think of the time at which this takes place. The three creatures beowulf fights are three enemies a king must face as king.

Grendel is plague and famine, and can only be overcome by courage, Grendels mother could symbolize fraticide or violent vengence, and the dragon symbolizes hoarding, or specifically a king that does not share his wealth with his people

THIS IS NOT A CHRISTIAN STORY ORIGINALLY, those were added to help cnvert the pagans.


helloewe | Student

Actually, you are very incorrect.  The writing, yes, is pre-christian in nature, yet you forget the interpretation of the actual story.  The story of beowolf itself is an epic poem, yet heaneys translation of the story turns it into a literary epic.  The translation of the poem, was re written by scribes of monks, monks who wanted the spread of christianity.  though the vikings in the story, yes, were athestic, the central themes of this book are all biblical.  The story was to show the Vikings in a different light, the attacks against the vikings and their kind, their homeland.  So it is very incorrect to say that the story is unchristian, all the monsters in the story are different motifs for biblical characters.

zackywackyy | Student

Ms. Mcgregor, while your answer is....valid.... it's not entirely correct, the story of Beowulf was translated by christian monks into very very old english (that those who know modern english perfectly well could not even begin to understand) and in this translation the monks added many many biblican references that shouldn't REALLY be there... beowulf the story, existed before christiantiy. Also the "origional audience" firstly were not christian, so this would mean nothing to them, and secondly in the version we read today Grendel might symbolize cain, but the origional story most definintely would not have.