The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

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 appears pompous and egotistical, but a careful analysis of his actions suggests that he is a kind of King Arthur figure, trying to bring order to a troubled land and give those subordinate to him ideals toward which to strive. He is politically astute and less fatalistic than the monster about the value of life. Similarly, Unferth is treated with contempt by Grendel, but his speech in the monster’s cave about the real meaning of heroism suggests that he has insight into human nature denied to Grendel. When Grendel makes fun of him, Unferth urges that they fight unobserved: “A hero is not afraid to face cruel truth,” he tells the monster. No one will know how Unferth behaved in the underwater cave. “Only you and I and God will know the truth. That’s inner heroism.” Grendel treats this profundity as simply another embarrassing contradiction in human character.

Other characters appear undeveloped, almost stereotypes. Some attempt is made to personalize the young queen, Wealtheow, though she is little more than a combination sex object and lost child. Again, one must remember that she is viewed exclusively through the eyes of the monster, who lusts for her and yet is overcome by her charm and sincerity.

The hero who defeats and finally kills Grendel is hardly developed at all. Rather, he appears as an instrument of fate, a messenger of God or destiny sent to terminate the monster’s life. He brings a final lesson to the monster (and the reader) about the nature of life: It is what each person (or each monster) makes it. Hence, the hero functions as simply a kind of existential angel of death. As he lies dying in the forest, Grendel expresses an understanding of the stranger’s mission and his message; the whole incident, like life itself, is no more than a cruel accident.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987


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...

(This entire section contains 987 words.)

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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 bloodshed and intimidation, delights in waging a personal war against him, undermining both his power and his claim to a divinely ordained prosperity. Hrothgar is able to do nothing to stop Grendel’s raids and can only watch as his thanes are killed and his power eroded.

The Shaper

The Shaper, a blind harpist who composes and sings poetry at Hrothgar’s court. The Shaper arrives after Hrothgar has established his kingdom, and he proceeds to invent noble accounts of the creation of Hart and of the divine benevolence and intercession that made it possible. Half teary-eyed and half enraged, Grendel fluctuates between being seduced into hope by the Shaper’s song and being sickened by its falseness and irony. He witnessed the real circumstances, calculated and brutal violence, that enabled Hrothgar to become a wealthy king. The Shaper enjoys his position not because he speaks the truth but because he tells people what they want to hear. Even on his deathbed, he proclaims visions that the Danes, nearly decimated by Grendel’s raids and now vulnerable to attack by other clans, will be restored to their former greatness. Grendel savors the irony as the man dies in mid-sentence.

The Dragon

The Dragon, a huge, fire-breathing beast. Misanthropic and cynical, the Dragon reinforces Grendel’s doubts about the Shaper and about human nature in general. He characterizes human beings as counters and theory makers who assemble random facts and ideological schemes that mean nothing, and he maintains that the Shaper merely “invents” significance that does not exist. Omniscient in his knowledge of the past, present, and future, the Dragon suffers from an unrelieved boredom, which he tries to mitigate by hoarding gold and jewels. He explains to Grendel that all existence is arbitrary and temporal and thus includes no absolute truths of meaning and no eternal reality. Grendel leaves, saturated with the Dragon’s bleak message, and begins to vent his murderous rage whenever he hears people’s songs of hope and self-satisfaction.


Unferth (UHN-furth), Hrothgar’s best warrior. Still relatively young and a large, capable fighter, Unferth challenges Grendel during one of the monster’s meadhall raids. Prone to theatrics, Unferth is not so much a threat as a comic annoyance. Rather than fight him, Grendel decides to pummel him with a barrage of apples, humiliating him in front of his peers. Unferth surprises Grendel by following him back to his cave, where, prepared to fight to the death, he makes a grandiose speech about the meaning and importance of heroism, then passes out from exhaustion. Grendel returns him unharmed and refuses to kill him in subsequent raids, adding to Unferth’s shame and frustration.


Wealtheow (WEEL-thee-ow), Hrothgar’s queen. A young redhead of unsurpassed beauty and charm, Wealtheow was a gift offered by her brother, a young king who planned to attack Hrothgar but who changed his mind when he saw the army Hrothgar had assembled. Wealtheow seems less than happy in her new life but accepts the duty graciously and becomes a civilizing force among Hrothgar’s people. Like the Shaper’s song, Wealtheow’s beauty and grace “tease” Grendel out of his bitterness, but only temporarily.

The Geat Hero

The Geat Hero, Beowulf, a huge, well-muscled warrior who has come by ship to rid the Danes of Grendel. As cunning as he is powerful, Beowulf silences the boasts of Hrothgar’s men and unnerves the watchful Grendel with his intensity and single-mindedness. Grendel is both afraid of him and eager for their encounter. When they meet, Beowulf uses his shrewdness and strength to make good on his promise to end Grendel’s reign of terror.


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Gardner's novel reverses the narrative pattern of the Anglo-Saxon epic upon which it is based. In the epic, Grendel is a shadowy figure, malevolent and evil, whose motives or even intentions are not developed. Beowulf is the central character, the hero who restores the values of mead-hall civilization by ridding Hrothgar's kingdom of its predators, first Grendel and then his dam. The final section of the epic, however, tells the story of Beowulf's final battle with a dragon that preys upon his kingdom. The central theme of the epic is therefore a tragic one. The hero's courage and prowess can serve as examples to the retainers, and his efforts can preserve, if temporarily, the civilization of the mead hall from ruin. But the hero, and the civilization he protects, including the mead hall itself, are ultimately transitory, so all Beowulf or any hero can hope for is the respect of his contemporaries and the renown as a hero that will outlast his own mortal life.

In Gardner's story, Beowulf is a shadowy presence whose name is not mentioned. He is the champion of Hrothgar's order, the monster knows, and he defeats the monster not, as in the epic, because of his nobility and courage, but because Grendel slips in a puddle of blood while they are fighting. If the author of Beowulf concentrates on the character of the hero, Gardner focuses attention on the motives and consciousness of the monster.

Grendel is not just brute malevolence. He is monstrous, but not brutish. What attracts readers to Grendel is that he is a bit of an ironist and philosopher. He knows that his actions are cruel, and he wants to understand why he persists in them. He seeks, like an existentialist philosopher, to understand the nature of his being and to bring his nature to completion. Gardner indicated in interviews and in one of his own essays on Beowulf that the monster represents, in his view, a perversion of the virtue of reason. Thoroughly contemptuous of the folly of human beings, he at one moment humorously wonders, "It was one thing to eat one from time to time — that was only natural: kept them from overpopulating, maybe starving to death, come winter — but it was another thing to scare them, give them heart attacks, fill their nights with nightmares, just for sport." Monster that he is, Grendel feels thoroughly alienated from the civilization Hrothgar has built. Unable to appreciate the value in that culture, he acts on the dictates of his nature by destroying the great hall. He also feels pain, both psychological and physical, and the scene in which he faces his death is touching.

Four other characters affect Grendel's struggle to achieve a perverse selfhood. Unferth, one of the thanes, embodies the heroic values of Beowulf, but not his force or philosophical sophistication. When he first confronts Grendel, he is humiliated because the monster refuses to take his professions of the obligations of a hero seriously — he vanquishes Unferth by throwing apples at him. When Unferth pursues him to his cave, Grendel learns something that threatens his belief in nihilism. Unferth's devotion to the heroic ideals of courage and loyalty are not mere instruments toward a good name and praise. Unferth feels an inner heroism, one that defines a set of possibilities for all human beings. The consolation Unferth wants, even in death, is that his action provides a moral standard for all humanity. Begging for death in the monster's lair, Unferth says, "Except in the life of a hero, the whole world's meaningless. The hero sees values beyond what's possible." This dedication to a set of values and an ideal for the self threatens Grendel's nihilism. Because of this threat, he denies Unferth the hero's death he seeks. He takes the vanquished warrior back to the great hall, and elaborately spares him on every future raid.

Hrothgar's court poet, the Shaper, represents another threat to Grendel's idea that all life is pointless. The monster is irrationally moved by the songs of the poet, blind as the Greek Homer, and one purpose in all his adventures is to discredit the creative view of the Shaper. He can temporarily vanquish the Shaper's poetic definition of the hero, and he feels in Unferth's defeat a proof of the falsity of the Shaper's influence. Unferth got his ideas about heroic conduct from poems, and Grendel has reduced Unferth to a pathetic travesty of those ideals. This proof will not withstand, however, the advent of the true hero of the Geats. More fundamentally, the Shaper offers, in Grendel's view, the illusion that the world makes sense. The monster firmly believes that a world made by a loving god, for men, with a purpose, is a lie invented by human beings to protect themselves from the truth, that the world is entirely random, yet "the old Shaper might make it true, by the sweetness of his harp, by his cunning trickery." Grendel secretly wants the Shaper's vision to be true. As a rationalist, however, he cannot prove it true, so he makes his nightly raids to prove it false.

Queen Wealtheow also threatens Grendel's world view because she forgives and brings peace to the kingdom. The monster is as obsessed with her as with the Shaper because, whereas the poet offers the prospect of an intuited ideal, the queen actually brings order to experience through her love. She helps Unferth to deal with the guilt of having killed his brother, and her influence brings meaning to the community of the great hall. Attempting to kill the queen in a sadistic manner that reveals the monster's connection between her sexuality and her kindness, Grendel attempts to define himself finally as "the truth-teacher, phantasm-tester!" who would "teach them reality."

Gardner superimposes a character from late in the epic to support Grendel's nihilism. Beowulf's final battle was an encounter with a dragon, and it is to the Dragon Grendel turns when the threats of the Shaper's vision and the queen's kindness make him doubt his own nature. The Dragon's counsel sustains the monster's nihilism and is therefore the most insidious force in the book. Seeing the future and past, the Dragon persuades Grendel that there is no such thing as ethical choice. He offers as his best advice that the monster imitate the Dragon: get a pot of gold and count it. He even persuades Grendel that his malevolence is a necessary component in the human design. He almost convinces him that "You are mankind, or man's condition ... If you withdraw, you'll instantly be replaced." He reinforces the monster's suspicion that, in a random universe, it makes absolutely no ethical difference whether one helps the poor, feeds the hungry, or kills innocent people. ences should be scrutinized carefully against the facts, not only of this story, but of the original Beowulf legend as well. Grendel does not represent Gardner's position on heroism or human institutions. In fact, Grendel's cynicism is one of the chief devices by which the author makes his theme clear, and that theme ironically involves a modern affirmation of certain of the values of humanity and art Grendel so violently rejects.