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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Grendel is the story of the battle between the monster Grendel and the Scandinavian King Hrothgar, told through the eyes of the monster. The story highlights the various encounters between the monster and the men who hate and fear him but who are powerless to do anything to him, until a stranger from across the waters comes to end Grendel’s life.

Grendel lives in an undersea cave with his mother but spends most of his time wandering through the forests, observing the men and women in the various villages and fortresses built across the countryside. Angered by a rebuff that he receives from Hrothgar and his thanes, Grendel vows to make life miserable for the king. At will, he raids human dwellings, destroying life and property with delight. He takes particular pleasure in wreaking havoc in Hart, the hall that Hrothgar builds as a showplace and from which he reigns as a kind of overlord.

None of Hrothgar’s warriors can match the monster’s strength, and Grendel mocks them because they are boastful at banquets but unable to live up to their claims when put to the test. He is especially harsh on Unferth, Hrothgar’s greatest warrior; when Unferth follows the monster to his underwater lair, Grendel taunts him about the poor state of men who claim to be heroes, then renders him unconscious and delivers him back to Hart, unharmed, so he must suffer shame before his peers.

Grendel is not the only enemy Hrothgar faces. Even while he fights the monster, the king strives to subdue the warring clans that populate the countryside around him and to organize them into a primitive nation. Hrothgar’s efforts are largely successful; the king balances his efforts between warfare and diplomacy to attain a tenuous peace in his land. One of the results of his policy is a political marriage to Wealtheow, the sister of a powerful adversary. Grendel is taken with Wealtheow’s beauty, and though he engages in particularly lurid acts with her to display his mastery over Hrothgar, he feels genuine remorse for his monstrous behavior.

Grendel’s actions against the men he hates are carried out intermittently; the monster spends much of his time merely watching the humans and musing on the foibles of mankind. He consults the Dragon, a creature possessed of philosophical powers far superior to his own and to those of men, engaging him in an extended conversation about the meaning of life and about the place of men and monsters on earth. From the Dragon, Grendel learns what the future holds, but he is unable to apprehend what he is told.

Finally, a hero arrives from over the water, from the nation of the Geats, a world-renowned fighter and athlete. To Grendel, this presents simply another opportunity to humiliate Hrothgar. He makes a night raid on Hart and attacks the hero. Much to his surprise, however, the hero proves more than his match; in the fight, Grendel’s arm is wrenched from its socket. Suffering with pain such as he has never felt before, the monster drags himself off to die.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 3,107 words.)