Beneath this fantasy story lies a serious metaphysical novel. Gardner’s chief concerns are the nature of man and the meaning of life itself. The musings of the monster and his interactions with the Scandinavian warriors provide a vehicle for the reader’s journey through the maze of philosophical issues confronting twentieth century man as he, too, searches for the rationale of human existence.
Gardner’s position on the ultimate meaning of life remains unclear. Grendel is openly existentialist. (Indeed, many of his ideas and some of his very words are slyly adapted from the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre.) To him, life is merely an accident, unplanned and purposeless. No benevolent (or malevolent) deity presides over human destiny. Hence, there is no ultimate judge to pronounce men’s actions good or evil. Throughout the novel, Grendel learns that lesson, which is made most clear to him by the hero who kills him: “You make the world by whispers, second by second,” the hero tells him; “Whether you make it a grave or a garden of roses is not the point.” Life is what each man, or each monster, makes of it. To Grendel, man’s behavior seems merely ludicrous and hypocritical. Nevertheless, he sympathizes with those who display what the reader recognizes as man’s highest and most human qualities, one of which is to act with some regard to the afterlife. Hence, it would be naïve to assume simply that the monster’s fatalistic approach to life is the one that Gardner wants the reader to adopt.
What is clear is that men behave in strange ways, often at odds with what they profess. That dichotomy provides much of the grim humor that characterizes this novel: The monster, whom the reader assumes to be less than human, actually appears to possess a better understanding of and appreciation for the best qualities that characterize the species Homo sapiens. Men are constantly defining themselves against other men, or against ideals. That is a central lesson of the book: Man becomes man, establishes his unique identity, only by engaging in such comparisons. Grendel—and the reader—discovers that monsters have existence as foils for men; everything in the world is defined, ultimately, by contrast with its opposite.
An important minor theme in this novel is the significance of poetry (representative here of literature as a whole) in preserving and defining what is best in mankind. Grendel is enthralled with the Shaper, the old poet at Hrothgar’s hall who immortalizes the deeds of great heroes in his songs each evening. Men live on after death in the songs of the poet; great poets, Grendel discovers, create reality. On this powerful pronouncement Grendel and his modern-day creator seem to agree.
Artists and Society The artist in Grendel is the Shaper, the court harper. His singing of great men's deeds, no matter how embellished or even falsified, renders both men and deeds immortal. Individual artists may come and go as others with greater gifts appear: this happens when the old harper in Hrothgar's hall is displaced by the Shaper, a newer and more talented bard (Chapter 3). Nevertheless, the power of art remains. While it is kings who unite countries politically, Gardner seems to be saying that they could not do so without the courage and selflessness of individuals who are inspired by the Shaper to accomplish great deeds. Such is the power of the poet that he affects even Grendel. After hearing the blind harper "sing the glory of Hrothgar's line," Grendel flees the scene, a "ridiculous hairy creature torn apart by poetry." Even though Grendel ultimately rejects the Shaper's fable, Grendel himself is still driven back to poetry in his quest to be understood. Having destroyed Hrothgar's meadhall in Chapter 6, Grendel realizes now that "as never before, I was alone." In his new role as "Wrecker of Kings," he is nothing once he runs out of kings to wreck, because "physical destruction is finite," as Howell notes. Thus later, when Grendel wants to punish Hrothgar, instead of planning some physical act of destruction, he thinks of insinuating into the king's sleep a bad dream about a "heavy blade in flight" (Chapter 8). These words (which are actually a quote from Thomas Kinsella's poem "Wormwood") are meant to evoke in the old king a nightmarish recollection of the moment he threw an ax at Grendel and began their war.
Death There is a marked contrast in attitudes toward death between the various monsters and Beowulf and the thanes (warriors), especially Unferth. With this contrast, Gardner makes the point that personal death is insignificant to the hero if it brings a chance for immortality. For Grendel, the solipsist (one who believes nothing exists but the self), killing others means nothing. When Grendel himself faces even the slightest threat of physical harm, however, it is enough to send him wailing to his mother (Chapters 2, 12). Although Gardner embellishes the character of the dragon considerably, he does not include the scene from the original epic in which the dragon kills Beowulf. Instead, Beowulf lives to preach a gospel of death and rebirth: "The world will burn green, sperm build again. My promise. Time is the mind, the hand that makes (fingers on harpstrings, hero-swords, the acts, the eyes of queens). By that I kill you" (Chapter 12). In other words, it is through creation, imagination, and inspiration that one may kill evil and achieve immortality—even if heroic acts only live on through poetry and song.
Language and Meaning According to Gardner, art—and especially poetry—is the only thing that gives meaning to an otherwise meaningless universe. Language is the only way that humans can break through the wall that isolates them from other humans and from the world of meaning. The wall is a recurring image in Grendel (see, for example, Chapters 2, 3, 8, and 12). The importance of language in Grendel in breaking through this wall is signaled not only by the significance of the Shaper's character but by the degree to which language plays a part in several other major characters. Most significant of these is Grendel himself, who begins the story as an inarticulate character like his mother but who rises at different points in the story to new levels of poetic intensity, however misunderstood by humans. (See, for example, Chapters 7, 8, 9, and 12.) Perhaps the most pathetic character in the story is Grendel's mother, who speaks no language at all, and who cannot even be understood by her own son. Though she does venture out of her cave at least once, to rescue her son, for the most part she is confined to a dark cave that symbolizes her total linguistic isolation.
Morals and Morality The struggle in Grendel can be characterized as one between the forces of good and evil, morality and immorality. This struggle can be seen both within a single person, such as Grendel, and between individuals. Grendel, no matter how he may despise himself or seek to change, can be seen as representing the forces of evil. This would make Wealtheow and Beowulf, as well as Hrothgar and Unferth (despite their sometimes cynical or comical appearances), represent the forces of morality. Critics Helen B. Ellis and Warren U. Ober suggest in John Gardner: Critical Perspectives that Gardner is like the poet William Blake by implying that "the case for a particular set of values can best be made by positing an 'ironic set' of contrary values." As even Grendel recognizes, "balance is everything" (Chapter 7). Thus Hrothgar, despite his cold-blooded attempts to hold onto his throne, represents the forces of society against the threat of anarchy. We see another form of goodness in Wealtheow's comforting of the aged king, to whom she has sacrificed all personal comfort for the sake of keeping peace between potentially warring kingdoms. And of course Beowulf's slaying of Grendel at the end represents the ultimate triumph of good over evil. For Grendel, for all his artistic attempts, at the end still remains a person who believes there is no purpose in existence: a nihilist who insists that the result of his fatal fight was just an "accident" (Chapter 12) in a world with no real meaning.