What does Grendel symbolize in Beowulf?

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susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Beowulf is an epic.  An epic hero represents the values of a culture.  So it stands to reason that a monster would symbolize its fears.  Grendel is the first of three monsters that represents the evils that Anglo-Saxon society feared most.  Grendel is described in the opening lines of the poem as a

powerful monster, living down 

In the darkness . . .(lines 1-2)

A few lines later we learn that he hates the "harp's rejoicing/Call and the poet's clear songs (lines 5-6), and that he lives alone haunting the moors.  The poet immediately associates him with evil, identifying him as a descendant of Cain.  But what kind of evil does he truly symbolize?  The Anglo-Saxon society was a warrior society.  It represented a group of people bound by loyalty to each other, traditions of socializing in the mead-hall, and obedience to the king.  Grendel represents the opposite.  He is anti-social, does not observe man's laws, and owes his obedience and loyalty to no one.  He murders ferociously, ruthlessly, and irrationally.  One of the saddest lines involves the Danes' attempts to make a peace treaty with Grendel as they recount 

how Grendel's hatred began,

How the monster relished his savage war

On the Danes, keeping the bloody feud

Alive, seeking no peace, offering

No truce, accepting no settlement, no price

In gold or land, and paying the living

For one crime only with another. (lines 64-73)

Here we see that Grendel represents what could be the destruction of Anglo-Saxon society.  He is an outsider from the wilderness who observes no civil rules and will not negotiate.  He fights dishonorably, killing by ambush and without discipline. As we see later, Beowulf symbolizes the opposite.  He is disciplined, social, and loyal. If Beowulf is the hero and savior; Grendel is the enemy and destroyer.

karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In many epics, good and evil are clearly defined. In Beowulf, the title character is obviously our epic hero. His antagonist (the first one, at least) is Grendel, who is the clear villain. Beowulf stands for good; he fights for what is right and symbolizes the traits that Anglo-Saxon warrior culture held in highest regard. Grendel, on the other hand, stands for evil and represents traits that the Anglo-Saxons feared or did not value or respect.

The epic begins by telling us that Grendel is descended from the Biblical Cain, who, of course, murdered his brother. This description sets Grendel up as bloodthirsty and ruthless. Grendel lives up to his reputation when he repeatedly murders and eats Hrothgar's men in the mead hall. His appetite for blood is insatiable. What's even more fearsome about Grendel is that there seems to be no good or understandable reason for his murderous ways; he seems to be inherently evil. We only know that he is upset about the noise made in the mead hall, probably because Grendel is alone and outcast. However, Grendel is not a sympathetic figure in the epic. Grendel, then, may represent the fear of unmotivated violence or envy. Grendel is described as a monster who will continue to terrorize the kingdom until he is killed himself. Beowulf enters the scene and mortally wounds Grendel. Good triumphs over evil.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Grendel symbolizes the sin of man, especially from greed.

Grendel is the monster from below.  He was condemned by God because of the dispute between Cain and Abel, when Cain killed Abel.  Grendel was the son of Cain.

 Grendel was this grim beast called, who haunted the moors and secluded fens; this accursed one had long dwelled with monsters since the Creator had decreed his exile. (ch 1, enotes pdf. p. 7)

Grendel haunts the humans and takes advantage of their weaknesses.  When the men enjoy some partying, Grendel comes out as soon as they are off their guard.  As long as fear of Grendel keeps the men in check, Grendel stays away.  When the partying begins again and the men pass out, Grendel returns.

 “AS SOON AS night had come, Grendel set out to explore the lofty abode and to mark how the Ring-Danes had gone to rest within it after their revelry was done” (ch 2, p. 8)

Grendel shows up to exploit the men’s weaknesses.  He exists because of God’s revenge on Cain, and he therefore seeks revenge on the greedy humans.  Beowulf rescues the kingdom from Grendel, and thus from the consequences of their debauchery. 

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