Grendel, the ferocious monster in the Old English epic poem titled Beowulf, symbolizes many of the worst passions that can exist, either in human beings or in monsters. In fact, one way to think of Grendel is as an embodiment of the monstrous passions that plague human hearts. As the poem develops, Grendel is associated with evil in a wide variety of ways, including the following (see the very literal translation cited below):
- He is said to execute “atrocities, a fiend in hell” (101) – language that associates him with the infliction of pain and with Satanic motives.
- He is called one of the “kin of Cain” (107), not only the first murderer in human history but also the first person ever to kill a member of his own family (indeed, his own brother). Grendel is thus associated with extreme evil.
- Later he is called a “damned creature, / grim and greedy” (120-21), language which associates his with excessive self-indulgence and materialistic desires.
- Similarly, he is also called “savage and cruel” (122) – a phrase in which the second adjective is in some ways worse than the first. It is bad enough to be “savage”; it is even worse to be “cruel,” which implies a perverse delight in causing pain and suffering to others. Indeed, later on the poet comments that it “grieved him not,
violence and viciousness, he was too entrenched in these" (136-37)
In other words, Grendel is repulsive not only for the evil acts he commits but for the evil pleasure and utter lack of remorse he feels about those acts. Often, in the times depicted in this poem, feuds could be settled in honorable ways, but Grendel seeks no such settlement and refuses any such settlement offered to him (151-58). Little wonder, then, that he is called “the dark death-shade” (160) and is also called “hellish” (163) and a “foe of mankind” (164).
- When Grendel approaches the hall in which Beowulf is waiting to surprise him, the poet refers to the monster by various other epithets, including “the shadow-wanderer” (702), the “vile ravager” (712), and an “enraged” creature “plotting evil” (723). He is a “cruel killer” (737), who attacks, slaughters, and devours sleeping men (740-43), thus showing that he deserves no mercy from Beowulf. Most significantly, however, he is associated with pride, which Christians then considered the root of all sin:
Then his heart laughed: / he intended to deprive, ere the day came, / the cruel beast, from each one / life from body . . . . (730-32)
No sooner does the poet describe Grendel’s confidence, however, than he immediately makes clear that Grendel will lose the fight with Beowulf. The poet is not interested here in cheap suspense; rather he is interested in letting us focus on the different characters and different motives of the two combatants. Grendel’s fighting is motivated by pride, envy, and evil; Beowulf’s fighting is motivated by altruism, generosity, and – most important – devotion to God.
- When Grendel realizes that he has met his match in Beowulf, he is eager to escape in any way, even if doing so means seeking “the devils' concourse” (756). Appropriately enough, when we last hear of him, Grendel is described as “God’s adversary” (786) and “Hell’s prisoner” (788).
What is an epic poem without a villain? Grendel is the main antagonist in Beowulf, the oldest poem in the English language. Grendel is the monster that haunts King Hrothgar's hall night after night. Hrothgar is an old king, too weak to slaughter Grendel himself. He urges his young warriors to kill the beast, but none manage the task. Every night, the men are killed. Despite Grendel's nightly raids, the warriors still get drunk in the mead hall. Mead is a honey fermented beverage. Grendel demonizes and destroys the court until Beowulf finally heeds the king's plea for help and travels to the land. He slays Grendel, but Grendel's mother then seeks vengeance.