The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Grendel, a young monster, lives with his mother in a vast cave under a marsh. Swimming through a pool of firesnakes, he finds a secret door leading to the world above. On the surface one night, he becomes stuck in a tree. Exhausted, he finally sleeps, awakening to find that a group of humans is trying to figure out what he is. Grendel understands their language, but they misinterpret everything he says and eventually try to kill him. Only his mothers arrival rescues him.

Grendel periodically visits the surface to observe these creatures who speak his language. They slowly evolve from small marauding groups, always fighting and bragging, into organized communities clustered around meadhalls; they begin planting crops and domesticating animals. Hrothgar gradually predominates, brutally subduing nearby tribes and building roads to consolidate his power. Despite these superficial changes, Hrothgars actions merely change the scale, not the meaning, of the incessant strife. The arrival of a blind bard, whom Grendel dubs the Shaper, transforms everything. His poetic words turn violence into heroism for an ideal, and destruction into part of the glorious destiny of Hrothgars people. Bloodshed, suffering, and sacrifice now have a historical context and transcendent meaning.

Grendel understands that the Shapers songs hide reality behind beautiful webs of words, but he still longs to believe the vision. He accepts the Shapers view that God divided...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

1968 Demonstration in Chicago Published by Gale Cengage

American Society in the Late 1960s
The heady days of the early 1960s, with their promise of peace abroad, political...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
Grendel is told in the first person ("I") from the point of view of the title character. Grendel is...

(The entire section is 948 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

Sixth-century A.D. Scandinavia: Using Scandinavian chronicles and sagas, it is possible to date the historical events in the...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Comment on Grendel's progress as a poet, under the influence of the Shaper, by evaluating the style and poetic effects of the doggerel he...

(The entire section is 240 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Much of the initial and continuing popularity of Grendel can be traced to its retelling of the first third of the Beowulf story...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Grendel was adapted as an animated cartoon titled Grendel, Grendel, Grendel by Alexander Stitt in 1981. Sir Peter Ustinov was...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Beowulf is the oldest epic narrative in any modern European language. As the major inspiration for Gardner's...

(The entire section is 276 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

David Cowart, "John Champlin Gardner, Jr." in Dictionary of Literary

(The entire section is 479 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Butts, Leonard. The Novels of John Gardner: Making Life Art as a Moral Process. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Butts draws his argument from Gardner himself, specifically On Moral Fiction (that art is a moral process) and discusses the ten novels in pairs, focusing on the main characters as either artists or artist figures who to varying degrees succeed or fail in transforming themselves into Gardner’s “true artist.” As Butts defines it, moral fiction is not didactic but instead a matter of aesthetic wholeness.

Chavkin, Allan, ed. Conversations with John Gardner. Jackson: University Press of...

(The entire section is 714 words.)