Grendel, a large bearlike monster, has
spent the last twelve years locked in a war against a band of humans.
The main action of Grendel takes place in the last
year of that war, but the novel skips back in time in order to illuminate
the origins of the conflict as well as Grendel’s personal history.
As a young monster, Grendel lives with his mother in a
cave on the outskirts of human civilization. A foul, wretched creature
who long ago abandoned language, Grendel’s mother is his only kin
or companion. One day, the young Grendel discovers a lake full of
firesnakes and, swimming through it, reaches the human world on
the other side. On one of his early explorations he finds himself
caught in a tree. A bull and then a band of humans attack Grendel
before his mother rescues him.
Grendel becomes fascinated with the world of men, watching from
a safe distance as mankind evolves from a nomadic, tribal culture
into a feudal system with roads, governments, and militaries. He
is alternately befuddled by their actions and disgusted by their wasteful,
brute violence. Grendel watches as Hrothgar of the Danes (also known
as the Scyldings, after an illustrious ancestor) develops into the
most powerful king in the area.
Eventually, Hrothgar’s power and fortune attract the services
of the Shaper, a court bard who sings glorious tales of Danish kings and
heroes. Though the Shaper’s songs are only partially based on fact,
their imaginative visions of a supremely ordered moral world are
incredibly powerful and invigorating. Inspired by the Shaper’s words,
Hrothgar builds a magnificent meadhall and names it Hart. Even Grendel,
who has witnessed the true, savage history of the Danes, finds the
Shaper’s vision extremely seductive and becomes ashamed at his own
brute, bestial nature.
Grendel, increasingly upset by his split feelings about
the Shaper, visits a dragon in search of some advice. The dragon
belittles the Shaper and declares all moral and philosophical systems
pointless and irrelevant. Grendel gradually adopts this worldview
and becomes enraged at the humans. He begins to raid Hart systematically,
initiating the twelve-year war. In his first battle, Grendel handily
defeats Unferth, one of Hrothgar’s mightiest thanes (or soldiers), and
adds insult to injury by scoffing at Unferth’s romantic ideas of heroism.
Some years later, Hrothgar’s brother Halga is killed,
and Halga’s orphaned son, Hrothulf, comes to live at Hart. Hrothgar
and Wealtheow already have two sons of their own, and the presence
of so many possible heirs to the Scylding throne makes Wealtheow
nervous. Hrothulf, for his part, is disgusted by the split he sees
between the laboring class and the aristocracy, and he plans a revolutionary overthrow
of the government. Hrothulf’s counselor, a peasant named Red Horse,
tries to convince Hrothulf that all governments are inherently evil
and that a revolution merely replaces one corrupt system with another.
Later the same winter, the Shaper dies. Grendel experiences
an increasing feeling of dread, though he cannot place it or puzzle
it out. His mother senses it also, and though she tries warning
Grendel, she can only produce the gibberish phrase “Warrovish,”
which Grendel later deciphers to mean “Beware the fish.” Fifteen
strangers arrive from over the sea: they are Geats, and their leader
is Beowulf, who has come to rid the Scyldings of Grendel. Grendel
knows that the Geats are what he has been waiting for, and he is
alternately frightened and excited. The Scyldings are none too pleased
at Beowulf’s arrival, and that night at dinner, Unferth taunts Beowulf for
famously having lost a swimming contest. Beowulf coldly responds
that Unferth has been misled, and calmly declares that Unferth is
doomed to hell because he killed his own brothers.
When the Geats and the Scyldings fall asleep, Grendel
attacks Hart. Beowulf manages to surprise Grendel and grabs his
arm. As they struggle, Grendel slips on a pool of blood, and Beowulf
gains the upper hand. Beowulf begins whispering madly in Grendel’s
ear. Grendel moves in and out of a series of hallucinations in which
he sees Beowulf sprouting an enormous pair of wings. Beowulf smashes
Grendel against a wall, cracking his head open and demanding that
he “sing of walls.” Beowulf manages to rip Grendel’s arm off at
the shoulder, and Grendel runs off into the night. He finds himself
at the edge of a cliff, staring down into its dark, murky depths.
A host of animals gather around Grendel, seeming to condemn him,
and the novel closes as Grendel whispers to them, “Poor Grendel’s
had an accident. . . . So may you all.”