Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Throughout the novel, Grendel remains painfully stranded between what he knows to be true and what he wishes were true. From an intellectual standpoint, Grendel understands the world as a brute, mechanical place that follows no meaningful pattern or universal laws. He knows that all the beautiful concepts of which the Shaper sings—heroism, religion, love, beauty, and so on—are merely human projections on the universe’s chaos, attempts to shape the world that exists in reality into one that the humans would like to see. The Shaper, for example, tells the Danes stories of their heritage so that the Danes learn to see themselves within a certain moral context. Upon hearing glorious tales of Scyld Shefing, the founder of Hrothgar’s line, the Danes begin to see themselves as inheritors of a proud tradition and consequently feel a need to adhere to the strict moral and ethical code that the Shaper has established. The Shaper, in this manner, gives history meaning, cleaning up its messy ambiguities and producing explicit, rigid moral systems in its place. This clear, knowable vision of the world comforts the Danes, who are agreeable to the idea of a world in which kings are kings, warriors are warriors, and virgins are virgins.
Grendel, however, knows that the version of history the epics set forth is essentially a lie, as he has witnessed with his own eyes the truly barbaric evolution of the Danes. Despite his unflagging belief in rational thinking, Grendel still finds himself yearning for the emotional and spiritual fulfillment that the Shaper’s beautiful fictions provide. When Grendel first hears the Shaper’s song, he is so overcome that he bursts into tears and momentarily loses the ability to speak. Time and again, Grendel’s intellect is overcome by the emotional response he has to the Shaper’s art. At times, Grendel is even willing to accept the role of the scorned, evil adversary in order to be granted a place in the Shaper’s world.
The power of the Shaper’s art and imagination turns Grendel’s world upside down, causing Grendel to desire what he knows to be illusory. Grendel finds the epic poems so stirring that he wants to be a part of them, even if it means he must be forever trapped in the role of the villain. On a linguistic level, Grendel is also affected by the narrative he hears the Shaper reciting. When Grendel decides to begin a war with Hrothgar, he triumphantly refers to himself as “Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings!” Even when Grendel glorifies himself, he resorts to the language of the original Anglo-Saxon poet of Beowulf, who often refers to characters by such strings of descriptive titles. Perhaps more poignant, when Grendel is chased out of Hart while attempting to join the humans, he expresses his frustration with a stream of human swearwords. Grendel then bitterly observes, “We, the accursed, [do not] even have words for swearing in!” Part of Grendel’s frustration with his state is that he must rely on the language of the humans in order to relate his tale.
Grendel is affected not only by stories he hears, but also by stories that exist outside his own experience. Because the events of the epic poem Beowulf predetermine the events of the novel Grendel, the earlier poem has incredible power over the world of the novel. In Grendel, the plotline of Beowulf operates like the hand of fate: before we read the first page of the novel, we know that Grendel must necessarily encounter Beowulf and die at Beowulf’s hands, for the event is already recorded in the earlier poem. Indeed, Anglo-Saxon culture viewed fate as an immensely powerful force, one that was wholly inescapable. This overarching pattern and plan governing the novel contradicts Grendel’s basic assertion that the world is meaningless and follows no set order.
Grendel’s relationship with humans is defined by his intellectual interest in their philosophies, but it is also characterized by his emotional response to the concept of community. Grendel lives in a world in which his attempts at communication are continually frustrated. The animals that surround him are dumb and undignified. His mother not only lacks the capacity for language, but is also dominated by emotional instinct; indeed, we sense that even if she could speak, she would likely be an unworthy conversational partner for the intelligent, inquisitive Grendel. Grendel, then, often finds himself talking to the sky, or the air, and never hears a response. He is largely trapped in a state of one-way communication, an extended interior monologue.
Grendel’s most painful rebuffing comes from the humans, who resemble Grendel in many ways. Grendel and the humans share a common language, but the humans’ disgust for and fear of Grendel preclude any actual meaningful exchange. Grendel’s pain is all the more acute because he is brought so close to mankind and yet always kept at an unbreachable distance. The Shaper’s tale of Cain and Abel—the two sons of Adam and Eve who are the ancestors of Grendel and humankind, respectively—further underscores Grendel’s tragic status. Grendel and humankind share a common heritage, but this heritage keeps them forever locked in enmity as opposed to bringing them closer. Grendel is just one in a long line of literary monsters whose inner lives resemble those of humans but whose outer appearances keep them from enjoying the comforts of civilization and companionship.