Grendel: the threatening and threatened outsider.
In Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, Grendel embodies the role of the outsider. As he is introduced to us, he is described as being the descendent of Cain. This association that Grendel has with the biblical Cain, who killed his own brother, automatically portrays Grendel as an ominous creature by association. Grendel was one of the “misbegotten spirits” that sprang from Cain and that was “banished and accursed” (Heaney, 1265-1267). Grendel’s evil lineage is constantly referred to several times throughout the poem, which alludes to his malicious nature. Although portrayed as a threatening force, Grendel is also portrayed as pitiful and even mistreated and ignored. The text represents Grendel as threatening, but also evokes sympathy for Grendel, which negates the notion of Grendel as a threat.
Grendel is a threatening presence in this poem. Before his name is even mentioned the narrator refers to him as a “powerful demon.” We learn that “times were pleasant” in Heorot until “a fiend out of hell began to work his evil” (Heaney, 100-101). This fiend out of hell is Grendel. The first time Grendel attacks the mead hall; he grabs thirty men and kills them. The next night he murders more people. The narrator describes Grendel as malignant by nature and numb with grief. In other words Grendel is heartless and hateful, but this was his nature, which derived from Cain’s nature. Physically Grendel is depicted as threatening as well. We learn that he is “bigger than any man” of “unnatural birth” (Heaney, 1353). He is a monster in the poem which alludes to his appearance as being terrifying.
In this English poem, we have the contrasts of a hero: Beowulf and the villan: Grendel. This villainous role or the role of the evil figure obviously deems Grendel as threatening. The element of the villan is necessary in a tale like this one. There has to be some hated character or monster for the hero, a brave knight, to defeat. Beowulf represents good and Grendel represents evil, and good always triumphs in such tales. Before Beowulf faces Grendel, he is described as a “prince of goodness” so of course his adversary would be the opposite of good. The narrator states that “God rules over mankind” and Grendel is not human, he is a monster. The narrator deems Grendel as being “malignant by nature” and says that he has “never shown remorse” (Heaney, 137). This description takes away any human emotion from Grendel. The narrator also calls him “demonic” and says that he is a fiend out of hell. By describing Grendel in this way, we begin to think of Grendel as the epitome or literally the father of Sin: the Devil. Equating Grendel with the devil depicts Grendel as extremely threatening because we have the notion of the devil as an ever-present threat. Physically, Grendel is bigger than any man of natural birth, but Beowulf is stronger than any man. This size difference is similar to the David and Goliath discrepancy in size. David, like Beowulf, was the smaller of the two, but the victor of battle. Goliath like Grendel was the monstrous figure that is defeated expectedly by the hero.
The narrator’s perspective of Grendel as a threat can be refuted. The narrator’s perspective portrays Grendel as an outsider but there is another perspective. Readers can view Grendel as lonely and misunderstood. The narrator even say’s that Grendel “dwelt for a time in misery” among other monsters that were “outlawed and condemned as outcasts” by the creator, God (Heaney, 107). The celebrations that occurred in the mead hall in Heorot were loud and occurred everyday, and they “harrowed” Grendel. We learn that one night, Grendel set out for Heorot “to see how the Ring-Danes were settling into it after their drink, and there he came upon them, a company of the best asleep from their feasting, insensible to pain and human sorrow” (Heaney, 115-120). Immediately after he notices these seemingly happy people, he grabs thirty men and proceeds to kill them. The attacks by Grendel may have been his way of dealing with the people of Heorot that had prevented him from sleeping. It was not his fault that he was naturally grim. Grendel’s violence could be seen as a reaction to being an outcast. The assertion can be made that Grendel was jealous of these people. Grendel can be seen as trying to enter human society. They had no pain or worries, no reason to be sorrowful, but meanwhile Grendel was living unhappily among other monsters. He was not in a position to enjoy the human pleasures that those in Heorot experienced. He was an outcast, outside of human society, in a place unlike Heorot. Seeing these people happy caused immediate hate and jealousy within Grendel. He led a solitary and uneventful life and to see others living a more interesting life involving feasts and music not only disturbed him, but hurt him emotionally and his immediate reaction was anger and violence. Grendel, the uninvited guest, became the un-welcomed guest. If he could not partake in celebrations with them he would prevent them from celebrating and being happy while he lived in misery.
A few instances in the poem create sympathy within the reader towards Grendel. When Grendel tries to attack Beowulf and realizes Beowulf’s strength, he tries to flee but cannot. Eventually Grendel is able to retreat to his den after Beowulf rips his arm and shoulder from the rest of his body. This causes Grendel to emit an “extraordinary wail” (Heaney, 781-782). Hurt and partially dismembered, the narrator refers to Grendel as a howling “loser” (Heaney, 786). And although Beowulf was smaller in stature than Grendel, Beowulf was stronger and able to overwhelm Grendel. This presents the notion of an unfair fight. Beowulf was the strongest man of his time, able to bare handedly defeat Grendel and separate his arm and shoulder from the rest of his body. We learn that Grendel will die from his wounds. Beowulf’s celebration of his victory over Grendel, such as when he hangs Grendel’s arm and shoulder as a trophy in the mead hall, also work to evoke sympathy for the defeated and soon to be dead Grendel. When Beowulf speaks of his encounter with Grendel he expresses his wishes to have made Grendel suffer before killing him. Beowulf’s plan was to pin Grendel in a tight grip and make him pant for his life, powerless in Beowulf’s hands. Although Grendel was bigger, it was an unfair fight because Beowulf was the stronger of the two. The reader pities Grendel as he is bleeding and trying to return to his home in pain. We know that he is in pain, because he howls and retreats. The fact that Grendel’s mother, a dragon, attempts to revenge her son’s death causes the reader to think of Grendel as being young and in need of motherly care. Another epithet used to describe Grendel is “menace” which has the connotation of a youthful mischief maker (Heaney, 1442). So we get the sense of Grendel as young and naïve. When Beowulf seeks out Grendel’s mother, he finds her in a cave and kills her. Afterwards Beowulf discovers “Grendel lying moveless” and decided to behead him with a sword (Heaney, 1586-1590). This is an audacious and horrific thing that Beowulf did. He had already removed one of Grendel’s limbs and had caused Grendel’s death. Yet while he is dead, Grendel is not safe from Beowulf. It is extremely sorrowful to picture a dead Grendel, without an arm and perhaps even bloody, being decapitated. This action by Beowulf depicts him as being heartless and unemotional and even villainous, although he is supposed to be the hero. This incident definitely weakens the argument that Grendel is threatening and it creates more sympathy for him because Beowulf desecrated his motionless body.
Grendel was definitely depicted as being the outsider in Beowulf. He was isolated from humans and could not live amongst them or revel in their celebrations. The text depicted him as evil and violent by nature and he repeatedly attacked Heorot for years until Beowulf slew him. He does however become pitiable since Beowulf hurts him excessively and desecrates his already immobile corpse. Before Beowulf arrived to kill Grendel, Grendel was portrayed in the poem as being a threat. After Beowulf arrives the text negates the threat that Grendel poses by depicting Grendel as easily defeated and unthreatening because while they are locked together in a hand grip the reader assumes that Grendel will not return to Heorot, because he knows that he is no match for Beowulf. The text represents Grendel as a threat before Beowulf arrives, but the text also negates Grendel as a threat when he encounters his stronger adversary.