Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Although the narrative of Grendel skips around chronologically, the novel is patterned after the passage of one calendar year. Grendel opens in the spring of Grendel’s final year of life and ends with his death in the winter of the same year. The seasons are common motifs in literature, with each season having come to symbolize certain archetypes or ideas. Spring, for example, the time when cold weather retreats and new vegetation appears on the earth, has become a traditional symbol for growth and new beginnings—thus making it an appropriate time of year to set the beginning of a tale. Winter, in turn, traditionally has come to symbolize age, maturity, and death. As Grendel moves into its final chapters and into winter, the glory of Hart is fading, and the once virile Hrothgar is bowed with age, doubt, and grief.
The period of transition from winter into spring is of particular importance in Grendel. This time of year includes aspects of the winter, with its assurance of death, and the spring, with its promise of an eventual rebirth. In the song sung at the Shaper’s funeral, we see that this transitional time between winter and spring is the time of year when the Danes gained their freedom from the Frisians, but also the time that brought a tragic queen who ultimately lost her brother and her son. The winter-spring transition is a moment when the Danes regain a sense of freedom, but it also necessarily results in the death of our protagonist, Grendel.
The seasons are one example of a cycle that takes a year to complete; the zodiac, or astrological system, is another. Grendel is split into twelve chapters, each linked with one month of the year and one astrological sign. Gardner includes at least one allusion to each sign within its corresponding chapter. Chapter 1, for example, occurs under the sign of Aries, the Ram, and the ram is the creature with whom we find Grendel arguing as the novel opens. Some chapters feature their astrological signs more prominently than others: the chapters of Aries, Taurus, and Capricorn all feature significant encounters between Grendel and their representative animals. Some chapters and signs require a more interpretive reading. Wealtheow arrives during the month of Libra, the balance; appropriately, we see that she is indeed a force of balance, first between the Scyldings and the Helmings and later within Hart. The zodiac motif appears to have been a late addition to the Grendel manuscript, and critics are still divided as to how much weight its symbolism should be given.
References to mechanics and machinery abound in Grendel. Grendel often uses these metaphors as a way of expressing his frustration with what he sees as pointless, mindless adherence to set patterns of behavior. Grendel sees this tendency in the ram, which instinctually responds to the arrival of spring with a rash of ludicrous behavior. Grendel is especially frustrated when he sees this tendency in himself: he describes himself as “mechanical as anything else” when the warm weather causes him to begin attacking men again. When Grendel is stuck in the tree, both a bull and a band of humans attack him. Once the bull starts attacking Grendel, it never changes its tactics: it fights by a “blind mechanism ages old.” Humans, on the other hand, have the ability to make new patterns, to break out of routine and mechanism. This ability is the source of Grendel’s lifelong fascination with the human race.