What is the role of Grendel in defining virtue and community in Beowulf?
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What is one of the central themes in the epic poem, Beowulf, is that of community: belonging and not belonging.
Hrothgar, the King of the Danes, has many subjects, and he builds an enormous mead hall called Heorot, described as the "best among halls." Many gather there, including scops (bards, storytellers), that tell tales of the valiant accomplishments of their people.
In the story, Hrothgar's community—those gathered in the mead hall—is attacked by Grendel. Grendel is an outcast. The reader will notice the religious influence of the Church in the tale as Grendel is identified as a descendant of the world's first murderer:
...this accursed one had long dwelled with monsters since the Creator had decreed his exile. On the kin of Cain did the sovereign God avenge the slaughter of Abel; Cain...was driven far from the sight of men for that slaughter. From him awoke all those dire breeds: ogres, elves, and phantoms that warred with God a lengthy while...
The sounds of laughter and revelry come from the mead hall. These joyous sounds (of community) enrage Grendel. He is not only shunned by man, but (as the story infers) he is outcast from God. Grendel attacks the mead hall, night after night, until no one dares to return for fear of death. For twelve winters the hall remains silent.
However, the story of Grendel's attack travels to Beowulf, a brave and valiant Geatish warrior. He travels across the ocean, and reports to Hrothgar's scout what they have heard in Beowulf's homeland:
...among the Scyldings a strange monster, doing black deeds in the dark of night, wreaks havoc and murder with unmatched rage and hatred.
Beowulf is virtuous in offering his help to Hrothgar and his followers, who are strangers to the Geats, and battle Hrothgar's foe. Beowulf is unselfish.
Grendel, this cruel monster, will now be mine to best in single battle!
The King of the Danes accepts Beowulf's help. The Geats and Danes become comrades, forming yet another community—from which Grendel is also exiled. These men together show virtue in banding together for the common good: working together against evil. These men put aside cultural differences to defeat a murderous beast. They fight for what is right, not for profit.
The two groups gather and sounds of life return to Hrothgar's hall. Grendel approaches:
He came striding in the dim night, the shadow-walker.
The monster expects to feed fully on the men inside...
...his heart laughed, for the savage beast was in the mood to sever each soul's life from its body before daybreak as he saw this opportunity to sate his slaughterous appetite.
But Beowulf is well seasoned in battle, and as the monster enters and reaches for him, his strength immediately frightens the creature. The battle is horrific; soon all Grendel wants to do is escape. But Beowulf holds him there, and rips off the monster's arm—who returns to the fens to die.
Community in this tale first promises survival of a tribe (in general); it describes also a new community that consists of men who come from different cultures...united to fight God's enemy. Grendel's exile symbolically addresses his distance from God, a punishment worse than exile from humans.
The Geats and Danes, as a community, defeat evil, personified in Grendel.