Throughout Grendel, the Shaper and his beautiful though fictional systems are presented as an alternative to the cynical, fatalistic outlook of the dragon. The Shaper represents the power of art and imagination to change people’s perceptions about themselves and the world in which they live. When the Shaper first arrives at Hart, he sings a version of history that depicts the Danes as inheritors of a heroic, righteous legacy, all the while downplaying the savage past that Grendel has actually witnessed. Although the Shaper’s story is largely fictitious, it enables the Danes to construct comforting, coherent value systems. The Shaper’s stories promote heroism, altruism, love, and beauty—all concepts that the Danes come to see as giving meaning to their lives. With these models, the Danes gain a sense that they are striving for something larger and more transcendent than their mundane, individual lives. Although Grendel is fully aware that the Shaper’s beautiful songs are built upon a foundation of lies and omissions, he still finds their power incredibly seductive, and he in turn wishes he had something greater to strive for and believe in.
Though the Shaper is an incredibly important and pervasive presence in the novel, Gardner gives him very little characterization. Though the Shaper is often presented as an opponent or counterpoint to a highly colorful character—the dragon—we can find very little to say about the personality of the Shaper himself. We know that he has a mutual though unconsummated affection for a married Danish woman. Furthermore, we receive scattered hints that his attachment to the Danes is built less on a selfless devotion to the community than on personal pride and a promise of monetary gratification. This almost negligible amount of characterization makes us consider the Shaper less a fully realized character than an abstract figure, less an individual poet than a representation of the idea of poetry.