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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 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,...

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