In the original Beowulf epic, Grendeldisplays nothing but the most primitive human qualities. In Grendel, however,he is an intelligent and temperamental monster, capable of rationalthought as well as irrational outbursts of emotion. Throughout thenovel, the monster Grendel often seems as human as the people heobserves. Grendel’s history supports this ambiguous characterization.As a descendant of the biblical Cain, he shares a basic lineagewith human beings. However, rather than draw Grendel and humankindcloser together, this shared history sets them in perpetual enmity.In this regard, Grendel recalls the nineteenth-centuryliterary convention—used in novels such as Victor Hugo’s TheHunchback of Notre-Dame and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—ofusing monsters to help us examine what it means, by contrast, tobe human. Indeed, aside from Grendel’s horribleappearance and nasty eating habits, very little actually separateshim from humans. Even his extreme brutality is not unique—time andagain, Gardner stresses man’s inherent violence. Moreover, Grendel’sphilosophical quest is a very human one, its urgency heightenedby his status as an outsider.

The novel follows Grendel through three stages of hislife. The first stage is his childhood, which he spends innocentlyexploring his confined world, untroubled by the outside universeor philosophical questions. Grendel’s discovery of the lake of firesnakesand the realm beyond it is his first introduction to the largerworld, one full of danger and possibility. As such, crossing thelake is a crucial step for Grendel in his move toward adulthood.The second step—which decisively makes Grendel an adult—occurs whenthe bull attacks him, prompting him to realize that the world isessentially chaotic, following no pattern and governed by no discerniblereason. This realization, in turn, prompts the question that shapesGrendel’s adult quest, perhaps the greatest philosophical questionof the twentieth century: given a world with no inherent meaning,how should one live his or her life? In the second, adult stageof his life, Grendel tries to answer this question by observingthe human community, which fascinates him because of its abilityto make patterns and then impose those patterns on the world, creatinga sense that the world follows a coherent, ordered system. The thirdand final stage of Grendel’s life encompasses his fatal battle withBeowulf and the weeks leading up to that battle. The encounter provides,ultimately, a violent resolution to Grendel’s quest.

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