Existentialism Grendel Essays

I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings!

But also, as never before, I was alone.

Grendel, p. 80

Grendel makes this miserable statement when he discovers the dragon's enchantment has left him invulnerable to harm from the Scylding's weapons. He glories in his power, but realizes that his impervious hide now separates him even more from the world of mortal men. In a flash of insight, Grendel recognizes that his condition has not improved, but has instead become much more hopeless as he seeks a place in this world.

I was sure, going back to my cave (it was nearly dawn), that he wouldn't follow. They never did. But I was wrong; he was a new kind of Scylding.

Grendel, p. 86

Unferth proves to be a man among men--a hero. He espouses and lives out the heroic ideal. Grendel has never met a "hero" in the flesh, so he is surprised at Unferth's determination. Unfortunately for Unferth, his epic struggle to reach Grendel leaves him weakened beyond the ability to fight. Grendel's superior power renders Unferth impotent, and there is no witness to declare Unferth's heroic words as he faced Grendel in the monster's underground lair. This new kind of Scylding is merely different rather than better. In fact, he may be more pitiful in his seemingly delusional views of the world.

"Why can't I have someone to talk to?" I said. The stars said nothing, but I pretended to ignore the rudeness. "The Shaper has people to talk to," I said. I wrung my fingers. "Hrothgar has people to talk to."

Grendel, p. 53

Grendel's isolation drives him to petulance. He asks the cosmos for someone to talk to, but of course receives no answer. Despite his aspirations to philosophical introspection, Grendel is essentially a lonely child looking for a friend. He envies both the Shaper and Hrothgar their companionship, even though he is constantly complaining about their self-deception and futility. Grendel sees the companionship of another as something higher (at least at the moment) than some abstract set of principles by which to live his life.

"That's where the Shaper serves them. Provides an illusion of reality--puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me. Mere sleight-of-wits. He knows no more than they do about total reality--less, if anything..."

Grendel, p. 65

The dragon despises the Shaper and the Scyldings' reliance upon him. He sees the Shaper's songs and ideals as an illusory placebo designed to help the human race take its mind off its very real despair and desolation. The Shaper is a magician using words to do his tricks, and like stage magic, the success of the Shaper's efforts depends upon an audience ready to listen with credulity to the fantasies he sings.

So much for heroism. So much for the harvest-virgin. So much, also, for the alternative visions of blind old poets and dragons.

Grendel, p. 90

Unferth's failure to prove his heroic ideal a reality puts Grendel in an even more cynical mood than before. He considers the Scyldings' tales of amazing feats and superhuman bravery to be little more than fables, barely fit for little children. However, Grendel is not ready to embrace the dragon's philosophy either. He sees the Shaper's fantasies and the dragon's pragmatic existentialism as opposing views, but embraces neither one. Grendel is looking for something between the two, which will allow him his dark realism but will also give him free will in an admittedly mechanistic universe.

I have not committed the ultimate act of nihilism: I have not killed the queen.

Grendel, p. 93

In Grendel's ongoing search for meaning, he fixates on yet another external factor: Queen Wealtheow. In her, he sees the human virtues of charity, compassion, and selflessness. His own cynical outlook cannot comprehend a world in which someone such as Wealtheow exists. Her every act contradicts Grendel's self-centered philosophy, but to destroy her would be to admit that she has some meaning independent of his own. Grendel's existentialism is trapped between a desire to eliminate this confusion and the knowledge that eliminating it will also destroy his own ideology.

"I offer you my sister," the young king said. "Let her name from now on be Wealtheow, or holy servant of common good."

Grendel, p. 100

We never learn the former name of Wealtheow; she is forever known by her actions, serving the common good. Wealtheow has offered herself as a guarantee of peace between her people, the Helmings, and Hrothgar's Scyldings. She names no pretense at a happy future. She merely does that which seems right and good to do. This selflessness amazes both Hrothgar and the watching Grendel, neither of whom can understand the sacrifice of oneself for the greater good.

How, if I know all this, you may ask, could I hound him--shatter him again and again. dive him deeper and deeper into woe? I have no answer, except perhaps this: why should I not? Has he made any move to deserve my kindness?

Grendel, p. 122

Grendel ponders the question of his own motives. If he can understand Hrothgar (in a way Grendel himself wishes to be understood) and can even see the pity the ancient warrior deserves, why can he not stop his raids and leave Hrothgar in peace? Grendel's answer is no answer at all: he states that Hrothgar has done nothing to deserve his kindness. However, it is not kindness, but inaction, for which Hrothgar's miserable state calls. Grendel must act, and act violently, not of his own free will, but because that is simply what he does.

Something is coming, strange as spring.

I am afraid.

Standing on an open hill, I imagine muffled footsteps overhead.

Grendel, p. 126

Grendel experiences a portent of Beowulf's arrival. That the hero's arrival in the future should be as "strange as spring" suggests Grendel's inability to comprehend the life-giving aspect of nature. The gloom of autumn and death of winter are within Grendel's scope of understanding; spring, with its verdant vibrancy poses unanswerable questions. For the first time since his encounter with the bull and Hrothgar, Grendel is afraid of something--the unknown.

Tedium is the worst pain.

Grendel, p. 138

Although his life is filled with violence, Grendel’s boredom torments him more. Being long-lived and invulnerable to weapons has made him jaded. Life holds no surprises or thrills for him any longer. The cyclical nature of the world and of Scylding society traps him in an unending, repetitive "war" against Hrothgar--a war he fights as much out of habit as to achieve any real goal.

[The dragon] shook his head. “My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.”

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary

Grendel finds himself in the presence of a huge, red-golden dragon that lives in a cave filled with gold and gems. The dragon has been expecting Grendel, and he takes cruel pleasure in Grendel’s fright and discomfort. He laughs obscenely and points out that Grendel’s reaction to him is just like the humans’ reaction to Grendel. Angered by the dragon’s spitefulness, Grendel picks up an emerald to throw at him, but stops at the dragon’s sharp words. Grendel, pausing to consider the dragon’s comparison between himself and the humans, decides to stop scaring the humans merely for sport. Reading his mind, the dragon scoffs at the idea, asking him brusquely: “Why not frighten them?”

The dragon claims to know everything about everything. As a more highly evolved creature than Grendel and the humans, the dragon has a vision of the world that is beyond anything these low creatures can comprehend. The dragon sees both backward and forward in time, though he quickly disabuses Grendel of the notion that this vision gives the dragon any kind of power to change things. The dragon ascertains that Grendel has come seeking answers about the Shaper, and he begins by explaining the flaws in human thinking. Lacking the total vision that the dragon has, humans approximate by gluing isolated facts together and trying to link them into logical chains and rational systems. Every once in a while, the humans sense that their systems are actually nonsense—that is where the Shaper steps in. The Shaper, through the power of his imaginative art, provides the Danes with an illusion that their systems are real. In reality, of course, the Shaper has no broader vision than any other man, and he is still working within the same limited system of facts and observations. His system may be neat and ordered, but it is entirely contrived.

The curmudgeonly dragon launches into a sprawling philosophical discussion, in which he has difficulty making his points understandable to the simple, childlike Grendel. Grendel, for his part, is skeptical about the dragon’s conclusions, but he listens anyway. The dragon explains that humans have a tendency to extrapolate theories and grossly generalize from the limited evidence they have, hampered as they are by their restricted vision of the world. The dragon also explains to Grendel how all nature inevitably moves toward more complex forms of organization. He illustrates his point by comparing a vegetable to an animal. If a vegetable is split into many different pieces, nothing changes from piece to piece; its organization of molecules remains consistent throughout its body. An animal, however, has a center of dominant activity—the head—and if that center is severed from the rest of the animal, the entire coordination collapses. The dragon makes the same comparison between a rock and a human. The rock, a less complex object, makes no distinctions about what it attracts gravitationally. Man, on the other hand, organizes, makes selections, and then acts systematically upon his environment.

Grendel and the dragon reach a frustrated impasse. Finally, the dragon reveals that the world Grendel knows is no more than a small ripple in the stream of Time, a gathering of dust that will fade away completely when enough years pass. All of man’s monuments, systems, and inventions will eventually fade from the world entirely. Even the dragon himself will be killed someday. In light of this vision, the dragon scoffs at Grendel’s attempts to change or improve himself. He grants that Grendel does have a kind of purpose in life: he is man’s “brute existent,” the enemy against which man will come to define himself. Grendel drives man toward the lofty planes of art, science, and religion, but he is infinitely replaceable in this capacity. Whether Grendel sticks with man, helps the poor, or feeds the hungry is irrelevant in the long run. The dragon, for his part, plans only to count all his money and perhaps sort it out into piles. After ridiculing humankind’s theories about God, the dragon gives Grendel a final piece of advice: “seek out gold and sit on it.”

Analysis

In the words of the crabby but oddly charismatic dragon, Grendel finds a vision as powerful and provocative as the Shaper’s. Indeed, throughout the rest of the novel, the philosophies of the Shaper and the dragon battle against each other within Grendel’s mind. In contrast to the ordered worldview of the Shaper, the dragon sees the world as a chaotic, meaningless place, a vision that speaks to the spiritual disconnectedness that Grendel has been experiencing up to this point. The dragon finds the Shaper’s efforts to impose meaning on an inherently meaningless world to be ridiculous and small-minded. The meaningful patterns and systems that man creates—history, for example, or religion—are hollow and unfounded. In the face of this all-encompassing vision, the most passionate response the dragon can muster is a crankily resigned cynicism.

In philosophical terms, Grendel’s visit with the dragon pushes Grendel’s inherent existentialism to the more extreme philosophy of nihilism. Existentialism is a school of thought that presupposes the absence of God and a total lack of meaning in life. As such, existentialism asserts that there are no intrinsic morals or values in the world: man has complete freedom to assert any meaning—or no meaning—as he pleases. Nihilism takes existentialism a step further, to an even bleaker worldview. Like existentialists, nihilists deny the existence of any inherent meaning or value in the world. Under such a system, meaningful distinctions between things are impossible, and therefore all attempts to make such distinctions eventually come to nothing. To the dragon, the values of piety, charity, nobility, and altruism are totally interchangeable irrelevancies. The dragon’s notion that the passage of time will erase all evidence of mankind speaks directly to one of the anxieties found in the original Beowulf text. As a record of historical acts of bravery, the entire purpose of Beowulf is to ensure the fame of its hero and the culture of warriors he represents. For that community, fame acts as a bulwark against the ravages of time. The dragon, however, would reply that fame, too, must fade with time.

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