Grendel and Beowulf: Illuminating the Relationship Between Nihilistic and Christian Archetypes

[Throughout this paper, G after a character's name refers to Gardner; AS to Beowulf the poem.]

The Wisdom god, Woden, went out to the king of trolls…and demanded to know how order might triumph over chaos.
“Give me your left eye,” said the king of trolls, “and I’ll tell you.”
Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye.
“Now tell me.”
The troll said, “The secret is, Watch with both eyes!”
Woden’s left eye was the last sure hope of gods and men in their kingdom of light surrounded by darkness. All we have left is Thor’s hammer, which represents not brute force but art, or, counting both hammerheads, art and criticism…

The philosophies expressed in the Beowulf epic complement the exploration of existentialism throughout the modern work, Grendel, by John Gardner. Both works portray different perspectives of the same story, involving the same characters; Beowulf, the ancient Anglo-Saxon hero who destroys Grendel, and Grendel, the monster who terrorizes Hrothgar’s hall. Beowulf and Grendel act as archetypes that explore humanity’s perception of the world. In the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf and his companions represent good, and the monsters, including Grendel, represent evil. When Beowulf kills Grendel, the world is less evil, but since Beowulf’s companions die in the struggle, the world is also less good. Ultimately, the two forces of good and evil will destroy each other, but the story maintains that God will interfere and save mankind from destruction. In Gardner’s story, the progression of society begins when mankind creates a monster and then creates a hero to fight the monster. Once the greater power of the hero had been established, once the conflict’s resolution strengthened society’s power, than a greater monster developed out of the more powerful society. Gardner’s Grendel (G) refuses to be shaped by society; he defines himself by nihilistically destroying men because of their “untiring dogmatism.” By defying the pattern that mankind used to identify and thus control him, Grendel (G) asserts his independence. Beowulf (G), the hero, is able to identify Grendel (G)’s pattern and destroy him. Since mankind could only defeat Grendel (G) by creating a hero more powerful than him, the hero represents a kind of process that ultimately creates a greater monster. Therefore, using these archetypes, Gardner and the Beowulf poet use the same story to illuminate the difference between ancient and modern society; Beowulf (AS) is the proper representative of the Anglo-Saxon society, and Grendel (G) is the proper representative of the modern world.

Grendel’s role remains the same in both books; the role of a monster that embodies humanity’s fears, a creature that human society creates. Grendel (AS) exists as a mindless perversion of nature. He represents one branch of the human society created by God that is distorted by evil. However Grendel (G) exists as just another aspect of nature, outside of human society; until he is transformed by his contact with mankind, the concept of “monster” does not apply to Grendel (G.) “In viewing the monstrous body as a metaphor for the cultural body…beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends are symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervades a society and shapes its collective behavior.” (Cohen). This is especially true of Grendel (G), whose attempts to interact with humanity leads to disaster. The men cannot define Grendel (G,) until the Shaper gives him a distinct seat in society:

He told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world into darkness and light. And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect. The terrible race God cursed.
(Gardner, p. 51)

The humans label Grendel (G) as the son of Cain; therefore, he exists outside the myth, and that attempt to force him into understandable terms proved disastrous. Oh the other hand, Grendel (AS) is immortalized as “the son of Cain” long before Gardner conceived his nihilistic identity:

Humanity has found a place for Grendel (AS); the poet has defined him as a monster, as what society finds most troubling about itself, just as his “ancestor” Cain represented the evil side of humanity. Grendel (AS) truly is the “son of Cain,” in that both he and Cain exist as the archetype of humanity’s dark side. Grendel (G’s) relationship to Cain represents a metaphor, a pattern that the Shaper identifies and uses to influence society.

Their relationship is symbolic; Beowulf (AS) exists because Grendel (AS) exists, the hero created by man to face the monster. The only thing that separates the two is the moral definition that the role of a hero assigns- Beowulf (AS) is in fact more dangerous than Grendel (AS), but he aids society, whereas Grendel (AS) destroys it. Gardner’s Beowulf (G) becomes a frightening, mechanical, soulless creature:

He had a strange face…the eyes slanted downward, never blinking, unfeeling as a snakes…he smiled as he spoke, but it was as if the gentle voice, the childlike yet faintly ironic smile were holding something back, some magician-power that could blast stone cliffs to ashes as lightening blasts trees…the sea pale eyes of the stranger were focused on nothing. He and his company…moved like one creature, one huge, strange machine. (Gardner p.154-155)

If Beowulf (G) behaves mechanically, than he can react perfectly to any situation, he can observe life more accurately than the human, more accurately than even Grendel (G). However, Beowulf (G) is simply a monster that fights for humanity, hinting at the inevitable outcome of mankind’s progress- the creation of a hero more dangerous than the monster, when the definitions of “hero” and “monster” are separated only by the subjective morality of the people describing their own creations.

Grendel (G), created as “evil” by men, is however, not evil. Tim Johnson writes: “What prevents Grendel (G) from being fully absorbed by the Shaper’s vision is that the Shaper only has use for Grendel (G) as a foe (G,) who, like Grendel (G), does not fit easily into the definitions of good or evil.

Quite the opposite is true of Beowulf (AS), who clearly represents the good in human society:

This portrayal of Beowulf (AS) as good is the difference between them; Beowulf (AS) is good, Grendel (AS) is evil. After Grendel (AS’s) death the world is less evil, but it is also less good, since some of Beowulf (AS’s) men died as well. Since the hero represents progress, more powerful people create more powerful monsters- where will it end?

Beowulf (G) seems a more mechanical being than a moral one. At first, Beowulf (G) seems to operate by observing patterns, like all humans, until Grendel (G) realizes that he can only see Beowulf (G) with the same artistic view the Shaper viewed Grendel (G), not by objective instinct, but flawed knowledge, an incomplete picture of reality:

I found myself not listening, merely looking at his mouth, which moved, it seemed to me, independent of the words, as if the body of the stranger were a ruse, a disguise for something infinitely more terrible…I understood at last that look in his eyes. He was insane.
(Gardner, p.162)

Beowulf (G’s) “insanity” arises from his own state of existence- he is the creation of humanity, and he, like Grendel (G), exists as the incarnate of society’s most fearsome trait. Grendel (G) does not realize that Beowulf (G’s) existence is based on Grendel (G’s) attempts to destroy society although the dragon tells him:

You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that for yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to…all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves…You are mankind, or man’s condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain.
(Gardner p.73)

Grendel (G) does not understand, but it soon becomes apparent that the dragon is correct, as the men continue, time and time again, to ward off Grendel (G,) and his attempts to kill their hope had the end result of inspiring a different fear that Beowulf (G) comes to embody- the fear of losing one’s soul.

The idea of losing one’s soul is by far the most frightening characteristic of modern society, for the loss of the soul represents the loss of innate humanity. It is not mere irony that Beowulf (G) the savior of the people and seemingly the embodiment of goodness, is portrayed as lacking that which truly can objectively define goodness, for Grendel (G) quickly perceives that Beowulf (G) has no soul, it is a dark and frightening turn of events following the peoples’ rejection of God:

Therefore, Beowulf (G) could in fact be the Destroyer, that of the peoples’ satanic prayers, the Devil’s response to their pleas. Does progress then lead mankind to sell its soul, to lose hope, to set a price for grace? Did Grendel (G) succeed in his mission to destroy society? He certainly warped it in such a fashion that he caused all the people to lose hope.

Grendel () witnesses the crumbling of society, the rejection of God, and the subsequent descent into insanity, as one priest raves to another:

Merely rational thought leaves the mind incurably crippled in a closed and ossified system, it can only extrapolate from the past. But now, at last, sweet fantasy has found root in your blessed soul! The absurd, the inspiring, the uncanny, the awesome, the terrifying, the ecstatic-none of these had a place for you before…A vision of the Destroyer! Can’t you grasp it, brothers? Both blood and sperm are explosive…and inexplicably fascinating! They transcend!
(Gardner, p.135-136)

When even the religious figures of a community reject spirituality and confuse “terrifying” with “sacred,” than the hero created by that community will not truly save anyone, he will merely perpetuate the growing fascination with demonic forces. The priest has become so desperate that he concludes “blood and sperm” are transcendent imagery, that violence and perversion represent truth, that the Great Destroyer, or Satan, will save the people, if they are willing to pay the price. Grendel (G) is an agent of society’s doom, but he does not cause the peoples’ downfall- mankind created Grendel (G) in the first place, therefore, mankind destroys itself. “Progress” becomes nothing more than the search for more destructive means to counteract man-made evils, ending eventually; with the price humanity will set for its soul.

What do the hopeless pray for? Nothing. Who do the hopeless pray to? No one. What do the hopeless give up to survive? Everything, even the soul- the only truly valuable part of a human being. Beowulf, a Christian worldview template, portrays Beowulf (AS) and Grendel (AS) as incarnations of good and evil. Grendel documents the imbalance that prompts progress, where each stage of humanity’s development creates a more powerful monster. Beowulf (G) could be the savior of society, or he could be its Destroyer, the incarnation of either Christ or Satan, the symbol of either good or evil. The question is of the moral affiliation of Beowulf (G) is determined by that of the people he comes to save. After all, they are his creators, and ultimately, they determine whether he frees them from hell or severs their connection to heaven.

The ancient epic allows for hope; in fact, it is the saving grace of mankind: the hope that God will save society and establish harmony and justice. The modern story takes the opposite view; it shows what happens when hope is lost, when society has nowhere to turn: it is a more pessimistic, more complicated view of humanity’s progress.


A. Books

Gardner, John. Grendel , New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989.

Gardner, John. Moral Fiction. New York: Basic Books Inc, 1977.

Heany, Seamus. Beowulf: A Modern Translation. New York: Farrer, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

B. Web Sites

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory. George Washington University:, 2001.

Johnson, Tim. Grendel. New York:, 2001.