In the story of Beowulf you get a glimpse of many different themes throughout this epic. Those themes range from good and evil to those of death and glory. The story itself depicts a period in history when life was lead “blind” through the teachings of the book of the lord and his spoken words. At this same period in history traditional pagan religious practices and beliefs have slowly given way to the ideals and philosophy of Christianity. Many of the themes held within the pages of Beowulf stem from the proverbs and fables recited and practiced in the Old Testament, while concurrently adding pagan beliefs of monsters, demons, and multiple gods. The most striking of these biblical comparisons is viewed between Grendel (the protagonist, evil rival of Beowulf) and Cain (the evil brother of Able).
In the Old Testament, Cain kills his brother Abel and is consequently punished and banished from the Garden of Eden by God. His actions proved to have a dramatic effect on the life of Grendel and the choices he makes throughout his life until his epic struggle for victory over the Geats and Beowulf himself. Symbolically and genetically, Grendel assumes the role of his ancestor Cain in this epic story as an outsider, disowned from the rest of society, finding a home only among the unknown (evil) and those who have sinned.
Feeding on the flesh and blood of god’s creations, Grendel starts a vigorous battle to destroy all that is good and the things he can not have. To the Anglo-Saxons and the creators of Beowulf, one of the worst crimes a person could have committed in life was that of murdering ones kin (or the killing of one’s brother). During the era of this writing the figure of Cain is used metaphorically to represent “the unknown” (chaos, evil) and the presence of evil. Cain defies gods will and so he secludes himself to the evils of the surrounding world only to foster a hatred of god and a family cursed for eternity.
The period in which Grendel and Cain resided in was deeply structured around the book of the lord (bible) and as a result created a society structured around the teachings and morals of its stories. The idea of friendship and kin being desecrated through the act of murder is one of the worst things a person can do and the consequences of that are severe. Grendel is a victim of his own world and the actions of his ancestors. The society for which Grendel wants to conquer and deny existence proves to be the creator and destroyer of his tragic being.
In the classic story of Cain and Able, Cain enviously slays his brother Able in a vicious outcry of jealousy and anger. For his sin, he was banished from mankind for eternity and left only to live life displaced from the routines of normal beings and forced to live among the dark and the sinful. Cain was the first of a cursed family to be exiled for the sins he committed. His punishment proved to have a drastic effect on him and the future of his blood line. His punishment spawned his dedication to holding a grudge against god himself and the unreachable light he has been denied of. After being the first born of Adam and eve, Cain went on to become a farmer of the ground, while his brother Abel followed the pursuits of a keeper of the sheep. Cain became a self-willing, vindictive man, defiant in his attitude towards God and his relation to his kin.
His eternal sin was committed on the seventh day or Sunday of the week while the two brothers were presenting offerings to the lord. Abel’s offering was of the “firstlings of his flock and of the fat” (Gen. 4:4), while Cain’s “was of the fruit of the ground” (Gen. 4:3). For Abel’s sacrifice, he gave the best he had and so his offering was respected by his elders while Cain’s offering was scorned and dismissed. It was for this reason Cain brood anger towards his kin; the worst of which was focused on his younger brother Able. After his disgrace towards the lord and his family, Cain’s apathy towards his brother produced feelings of murderous intention and hatred.
Sooner or later this desperate outrage led him to murder Able in raw uneventful hatred. For his sin he was expelled from Eden. From that day on he led the life of an exile, doomed to be “a fugitive and wanderer in the earth” (Gen. 4:12) and denied the rights of a normal man, only to bare the mark of a sinner and warning to others. With this Cain walked into the land of Nod (unknown, evil, dark), only to leave a legacy felt by the generations of his offspring.
When Cain killed Able, he ignited the eternal flame of a cursed family. From Cain’s blood came “the curse of his exile and sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too” (Beowulf. Pg. 35), darkness entailed is legacy and evil embodied his future. Grendel is a descendant of Cain, so he shares Cain’s exile from all that is good and light. Cain may have been the first displaced person after Adam and Eve, but he was not the last. Grendel shares his ancestor’s punishment, he is exiled not only from whatever land or wealth he would have had if he were “human”, but he is also abandoned by God and all who followed and indulge in his faith and grandeur. It is this abandonment that causes Grendel to destroy and murder. “The treasure seat, he was kept from approaching; he was the Lords outcast” (Beowulf pg.36), since he cannot approach the throne of the Lord like the rest of mankind, he chooses to attempt to destroy it.
He has no love for God and his children if he can not be with them “hand in hand”. However, unlike Cain and his parents, Grendel is doomed from his creation by being conceived into a blood line stricken by an eternity of banishment from God’s light because of Cain’s sin against his brother. It is for this reason why Grendel kills. He can never be in the light because he is constantly fighting a lonely war against God and all of his creations. Because of his expulsion from that which is good, he is moreover discarded by everything that follows in the wake of gods will (people, society, life, etc.). The text refers to him as “spurned and joyless” (Beowulf pg. 47); it is no wonder why Grendel was considered so monstrous. He did not accept his banishment without fighting back.
Like most people who are enraged and apathetic and then placed between a “rock and a hard place” he fought back “insensible to pain and human sorrow” (Beowulf pg. 35) for those he murdered. The reason behind his actions is not because he is an unruly monster, but instead, he is overwhelmed by jealousy because he is not able to share in the spoils god has made accessible to humanity. With this in mind, if Grendel can not step into the light and become part of the life as witnessed from the outside. Then he will destroy it and leave it for no one. Just as Cain did before him, Grendel will never be content with himself as long as he must bare witness to the celebrating of life and love enjoyed by all whom lavish in the glow of Gods hands.
Whether it is Grendel or his ancestor Cain, they both suffer from the agony of trying to survive in a world as cursed beings, forced to loath around in the outskirts of the cold night and the loneliness of a sun scorched day. After destroying the perfect image of a content person in the name of jealousy and anger, Cain; forbidden to enter the known world forever, created a sphere of influence which played into the future of his children and his grandchildren’s children and so on. Even though the mark of Cain is not evident on Grendel’s physical characteristics, the presence of his cursed nature is. He like Cain suffers from an abandonment of faith and humanity. As outcasts they both find resentment and hatred towards the things they want most, whether it’s acknowledgement by god and all that is good in the world or the ability to wander freely without fear of ridicule and hostility.
To humanity they pose a threat worse then the sum of most people’s fears. They represent all that is bad in the world and as a result find themselves rejected by everything good the world has to offer. It is circumstances like these that have proven to bring out the worst in a person, such as they did in Cain and his later ancestor Grendel. What would you expect from those forced to live among the displaced in a world resentful of there existence. Instead of being accepted for there misfortunes and forgiven for there sins, they where rejected for what they where and what they had become, resulting in a creature motivated by pain and apathy inflicted by the keeper of there being and the audience of there lives.