The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Gardner’s novel is primarily a character study of the monster Grendel and the men who live in fear of him. Through the eyes of the monster, Gardner offers his readers an assessment of the human condition; the picture is not always nice and is in fact more often a scathing commentary on the essentially animalistic qualities that persist in men even as they delude themselves into thinking that they have risen above the beast.

Since Grendel tells his own story, the reader is allowed great insight into the loneliness that the monster feels as he tries to communicate with men. Grendel possesses superhuman strength, and though his size is never specified, he is clearly gargantuan: He is capable of seizing and tearing apart the warriors who oppose him and, with cannibalistic delight, devouring them. This same creature whose behavior strikes terror into the hearts of Hrothgar’s thanes is, nevertheless, also capable of relatively subtle thought; his commentaries on the way that men treat one another show that he understands what mercy, charity, love, hate, and revenge mean. Additionally, he possesses an existentialist view of the world, musing on more than one occasion that all that happens is merely accidental; there is no god prompting the actions of men or monsters, or giving purpose to the world.

Because this is a first-person novel, the reader’s impression of the other characters is colored by the descriptions offered by Grendel. Hrothgar...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Grendel, a thinking monster and the narrator of this modernist retelling of the Beowulf legend. A dweller in an undersea cave, Grendel disregards the fearful protests of his mother and repeatedly ventures above into the world of humans. Merely curious at first, Grendel soon learns that humans are dangerous, thinking creatures, better eaten than trusted. He kills an occasional person and conducts periodic raids to amuse himself, but his uncertainty about human nature nags him. He vacillates between the brute existence he sees before him and the idealism humans spout even in the face of their barbaric acts. In search of an answer, he travels to see the Dragon, who insists that humankind’s pretensions to meaning are pure illusion. When Grendel later discovers that adopting the Dragon’s cynicism has charmed him and made him invulnerable to any weapon, the fierceness of his raids intensifies. Unfortunately, the “charm” isolates him still further from the human community that he plunders but secretly wishes to join, and it makes killing people a tedious and mechanical process, unlike the sporting event it had been when there were risks involved. Grendel’s boredom and his disgust with human beings continue intermittently, as do his raids, until the Geat Hero arrives from another land to challenge him.

Grendel’s mother

Grendel’s mother, also a monster. Although still fierce in defending her son, Grendel’s mother has grown fat, timid, and somewhat senile in her old age. When Grendel is trapped during his first encounter with humans, she rescues him and subsequently tries to dissuade him from leaving their cave to roam aboveground. Although Grendel obviously is attached to her and values her protection, he does not want to be limited to the crude and inarticulate existence that she offers.


Hrothgar (ROHTH-gahr), a minor king, ruler of the Scyldings, a group of Danish warriors. Noted for being an accomplished warrior in his youth, Hrothgar has assembled a loyal band of fighting men (thanes) to protect him and his wealth. He extracts payments from neighboring villages in exchange for protection from outside raids and uses his substantial resources to build Hart, a magnificent tribute hall. Grendel, knowing that Hrothgar’s power and position rest on nothing more legitimate than...

(The entire section is 987 words.)