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....
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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 times Unferth throws himself into battle with the monster.
Grendel’s examination of the ideal of beauty revolves around Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s young and virtuous queen. The monster is fascinated by her qualities even as he had been fascinated by the Shaper’s songs; his confusion returns as he considers her role within the Danes’ culture. Eventually, he decides to kill her to confirm himself in the Dragon’s teachings; however, even though he breaks in and captures Wealtheow, Grendel immediately releases her, thinking that killing and not killing are equally meaningless activities. He also asserts that by not killing the queen, he has destroyed another of the humans’ theories about him as a monster.
During this time, Hrothulf, Hrothgar’s nephew from a murdered younger brother, also comes to live at Hart. Hrothulf is tutored in political theory by Red Horse, an aging anarchist who longs for the overthrow of the two-class society of thanes and peasants. The principles of anarchism—primarily that government exists purely by means of power and is thus illegitimate—are contrasted to the more self-aggrandizing views the thanes hold of themselves.
Grendel considers the nature of religious faith. While sitting in the midst of the circle of carved gods in the village, Grendel, posing as a deity himself, questions an old blind priest named Ork. Ork presents a theological view that seems to represent a transition from ancient polytheism into the theism rising with the advent of the Christian faith. Moved by his own words, Ork begins weeping as he describes the king of the gods. Grendel, who had been planning to kill Ork, is puzzled by this display of emotion and retreats, listening as other priests arrive and discuss Ork’s experience.
As the cold winter months progress, Grendel is disturbed by the sickness and eventual death of the Shaper. He tries to kill a goat climbing a cliff toward him but does not succeed, as the goat’s indomitable life keeps it moving upward; he also overhears an old woman telling children of the coming from across the water of a mighty warrior with the strength of thirty thanes. Grendel’s agitated premonitions increase as he secretly attends the Shaper’s funeral; he is both elated at the Shaper’s death and saddened at the disappearance of this man whom he has come to see as his foe.
Grendel’s boredom is replaced by a strange joy as fifteen warriors, the Geats, arrive from over the sea. He is fascinated by their powerful leader (Beowulf, who is unnamed in the novel). Hrothgar and Wealtheow also are pleased with the arrival of the new hero, who pledges to face Grendel in unarmed combat. Although verbally attacked by the jealous Unferth, Beowulf chastises Unferth for killing his own brothers, and Unferth leaves the mead-hall. Later that night, Grendel attacks the mead-hall and kills one of Beowulf’s men. When he seizes the next man (the waiting Beowulf), Grendel is startled by the superhuman strength of Beowulf’s grip. As Grendel begins to lose their encounter, he has pain-induced visions of Beowulf as a flaming figure with dragon’s wings. Although Grendel continues to insist that Beowulf’s victory, should it occur, is strictly due to chance, Beowulf forces him to improvise a poem on the hardness of the walls against which he is being beaten. Grendel is suddenly defeated as Beowulf pulls off one of his arms, and Grendel begins to bleed to death.
Grendel escapes the mead-hall and flees into the surrounding woods. Surrounded by the animals he hates, he dies with a final curse against everything around him.