What does Grendel symbolize in Beowulf?

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Grendel serves as a multi-faceted symbol in Beowulf, one that mirrors the complex culture and religious background of the poem. One one hand, Beowulf is a poem about a Scandinavian folk hero vanquishing monsters, and on the other, the poem comprises a detailed history of dynastic struggles among the...

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Grendel serves as a multi-faceted symbol in Beowulf, one that mirrors the complex culture and religious background of the poem. One one hand, Beowulf is a poem about a Scandinavian folk hero vanquishing monsters, and on the other, the poem comprises a detailed history of dynastic struggles among the Swedes and Danes, and, perhaps more important, explores the nature of loyalty, war, and kingship. Overlaying the poem are two competing belief systems—paganism and Christianity—that create a constant tension between imagery and world view.

When Grendel first appears, he is described as

That fiend from Hell,/That grim spirit, was called Grendel,/ ... this sorrowful man had stayed awhile,/Since the Shaper had condemned him/as Cain's kinsman. (ll. 101-107)

Although many readers see Grendel as just a monster, the Beowulf poet carefully places him within a Christian context and thereby creates a Christian symbol. As a descendant of Cain, the world's first murderer according to biblical tradition, Grendel has been cast out by God just as God cast out Cain for having murdered his brother, Abel. Grendel's lineage, then, is human—he may be inhuman now, having lived with "eotens, elves, and orkneys," but the poet implies that Grendel is a debased human, not another species.

Because Grendel is also a creature related to pagan enemies of mankind in the Scandinavian belief system also present in Beowulf, he becomes the symbol of nature as predator. Despite his origins within the human family, Grendel eats men, the ultimate sign that he has become, through his isolation and living with monsters rather than men, something other than man. In the Scandinavian pagan belief system, nature is more often seen as the enemy of mankind than as benign or even neutral. The Old English poems "The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer" clearly express the dangers and hardships brought upon mankind by nature, and Grendel is a part of that natural danger.

To further distance Grendel from mankind, the poet points out that he not only attacks Hrothgar and his men constantly without cause, but Grendel also ignores cultural norms, further evidence that he is not part of mankind or the society he attacks:

... hate feuds/crimes and murders ... he wanted no truce/with any man of the Danish forces,/to let them buy peace, pay him wergild (man-money, compensation) ... (ll. 152-56)

Grendel, being a hater of men, does not accept traditional ways of stopping constant warfare. In Scandinavian culture, war can be avoided if the weaker party is willing to pay a price, and the murder of a man, rather than resulting in a war between tribes, can be solved by the murderer paying compensation to the murdered person's family and tribe. In the eyes of Hrothgar and his people, Grendel becomes the symbol of implacable hatred, something that will not respond to reasonable ways of solving conflicts.

Lastly, the Beowulf poet places Grendel in the realm of magic, a symbol of supernatural strength and invulnerability. When Grendel attacks the Geats in Heorot, where Beowulf awaits him unarmed, the poet notes that the Geat warriors tried to attack him with their weapons, but

... no war-blades,/the choicest of weapons anywhere on Earth,/could even scathe that sinful wrecker; for he'd cast spells against all/edged weapons whatever. (ll. 802-06)

The advantage that Grendel gives himself by magic, however, is short-lived. Beowulf, not wanting to take advantage of an unarmed man (being), is not carrying a weapon and, in the event, Beowulf grapples with Grendel and tears his arm off at the shoulder, a fatal wound.

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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.

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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.

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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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