Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1248
The monster Grendel has been attacking the Danish king Hrothgar and his mead-hall, Hart, for twelve years. Grendel is extremely embittered. He is frustrated by the stupidity of an old ram, the unresponsiveness of the sky to his complaints, and the very existence of the trees, birds, and animals around him. He thinks of his home, a cave with an underwater entrance, and his mother, an uncommunicative monster asleep in the cave. Eventually, his rage and anger drive him to attack Hart yet again, and he kills and eats several of Hrothgar’s thanes (warriors). The monster’s rage is unabated by the attack, and he secretly attends the funeral pyre held the next day for the various body parts he has left behind.
Grendel recalls his earlier life and the events leading to his ongoing war with Hrothgar. As a youth, he explores his cave home and eventually swims out into the larger world. During one of his explorations, he catches his foot in the cleft of two oak trees grown together and is attacked by a bull; he also encounters men for the first time. Grendel can understand their language, but his attempts to communicate frighten the men, who decide to kill him; however, Grendel is rescued by his mother and taken back to his cave.
This incident does not immediately turn Grendel against humans; in fact, he observes them over the next several years as they gradually develop more complex homes and civilizations. Hrothgar, as a result of his skills as a savage warrior and pragmatic politician, emerges as the acknowledged leader of the humans over a wide geographical area. A blind harpist and poet, the Shaper (a translation of the word scop, pronounced “shope”), arrives at the mead-hall and becomes resident bard, commemorating in his songs Hrothgar’s victories in particular and human history in general. Grendel is enraged and yet fascinated by the Shaper’s poetry, and Hrothgar is influenced to build his civilization on more general principles of justice. Grendel remains angered at what he sees as the hypocrisy of the entire enterprise, yet he goes back again and again to hear the Shaper’s songs, which combine mythology, history, and biblical references. At one point, he is so moved by the poetic songs that he goes to the mead-hall to attempt a treaty with the humans, but he is rebuffed and attacked by the frightened thanes.
Grendel is torn between his desire to become like the noble and heroic humans celebrated by the Shaper, and his cold-blooded knowledge that most of what the Shaper celebrates is fictitious. However, his life is changed by a trance-like, visionary encounter with an ancient, omniscient, treasure-hoarding dragon. Grendel and the Dragon have an extended philosophical argument over the nature of human destiny as presented by the Shaper; ultimately, the Dragon strengthens Grendel in his nihilism and disbelief. Grendel accepts his role as the death-dealing monster who spurs the humans toward their development and achievements; soon, he discovers that the Dragon has placed a spell upon him that makes him invulnerable to the humans’ weapons.
Despite his newfound knowledge and role, Grendel remains perplexed by some of the ideals held by humans and described in the Shaper’s art, especially heroism, beauty, and religious faith. He encounters Unferth, Hrothgar’s mightiest hero and warrior; Unferth tries to kill Grendel but is defeated when Grendel throws apples at him. In the effort to regain his honor, Unferth follows Grendel to his cave home, thinking that he will be killed by Grendel but that his name and exploits will be remembered and celebrated by the Danes. Grendel decides to frustrate this attempt at heroism by refusing to kill Unferth; in fact, even though Grendel continues to attack the mead-hall and kill its people, he does not kill Unferth, no matter how many...
(The entire section contains 1248 words.)
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