Is Grendel Evil?

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 13 November 2016

Is Grendel Evil?

In a world of chaos, he who lives, lives by his own laws and values. Who is to say that the death of millions is any worse or better, for that matter, than injuring a cockroach. And in the case of an existing power in the form of God, who is presumed to be all which is good, presiding and ruling an organized universe, why then does evil exist? The prosaic response of “without evil, there is no good” no longer holds any validity in this argument as the admitted goal of good is to reach an existence without evil.

So even if a God does exist, I think it is fair, at this point, to say that he is the embodiment of both good and evil. And if humoring those who would answer the previous question with the response that there can be no good without evil, then can we assume that evil is simply a subsection of a defined good? Or perhaps even a good thing? If it is essential, those who chose the side of evil are simply abiding by good values. In the case of a world ruled by Chaos, evil is a non-existent word or value, rather.

The system upon which a person’s actions are judged also disappears leaving nothing but an instinct for natural survival as basic and primary as the life within the forests which we tear down to build our houses. Ethics is a wide field of philosophical study to which the core of every question within falls to one side of a blurred line. On the right, is good; the value which is popularly believed to be the correct alignment for which a person should live their life according to. On the left, is evil; that which is the cause of most human misery, and prevents peace on earth.

In John Gardner’s book Grendel, the retelling of the ages old story Beowulf, further blurs the line between good and evil. Circumstance and perhaps a confused view of reality allow the monster, Grendel, to conceivably defend his evil beliefs. In order to better understand evil, using Grendel as a guide, I intend to attempt to justify it. Grendel is born a neutral being, perhaps even good, but nevertheless, without hate. The transition which he undergoes to become evil is due to misunderstandings between himself and humans and also meeting with a dragon who is questionably evil.

As a young “monster”, Grendel knew nothing other than the cave he lived in and his mother who could not speak any distinguishable language. He was a playful creature who seemed to be like a “blank slate” and had no thoughts of that which he could not touch or see. As a result of his interaction with humans (and of course the dragon), he develops a sort of wisdom and philosophy of life and existence. When society (humans) reject his desire to co-exist with them, he turns to evil as punishment for the humans although it provides no solace for him.

Though he does not actually remember how he’d learned it, John Gardner’s Grendel speaks a language which is similar to that of the human characters in the book and is, therefore, able to understand them. During Grendel’s first encounter with humans, he pleads to them for assistance when he is caught and wounded in a trap. The leader of the humans is Hrothgar who eventually becomes king of the Danes. When Grendel’s cry for help is mistaken for a cry of attack, the humans attack Grendel and wound him more painfully than flesh could be wounded.

The first intelligent, speaking beings, with some similarity to himself, which Grendel has encountered, have attacked instead of helped him. It is in this moment that Grendel forms his first opinions of existence; the outside world does not seem to embrace good as he does. In a one-way conversation he has with his mother after the incident (Chapter 2), Grendel says, ” the world resists me and I resist it. That’s all there is. The mountains are what I define them as. ” In the statement, ” the mountains are what I define them as”, Grendel starts to form a belief of a sort of reality which does not actually exist.

Life is meant to be lived as the owner wishes to live it; it is what you make of it. Taking Grendel’s early childhood as an example, his innocent and curious (and completely non-hateful) disposition towards humans, leads to the assumption that he was born at least neutral. That is, to say, not good or evil. It is life which shapes his beliefs and therefore life which dictates ethics, whether dependent on fate or not. Within the society which humans have created and live in, there are certain ideals which are reinforced actively by written law and organized religion.

Since there is no evidence that any omniscient, eternal being actually organized a faith dedicated to itself and especially for the fact that no such being exists in the society of a creature such as Grendel (with no society within which he belongs); I will say that no God has any power over Grendel (he has not been told that one even exists). For Grendel, there is no reinforcement of which ethics, good or evil, he should abide by and therefore he is able to make a more honest decision of which way to live. Since the world which he sought to embrace, rejected him, he is forced to make a decision.

He must choose between a self-exile in which he would live a life separate from the humans with which he shares the ground which they walk on, or to take form as a God himself and seek punishment for those who wronged him, essentially, Hrothgar the King of the Scyldings. His meeting with the mystical dragon is what helps to guide his decision towards the side of what is defined as evil. The dragon is Grendel’s guide to the gateway of evil beliefs and also seems to be representative of time itself. He sees all including the future yet does nothing to change it unless it is written within time itself that it should be done.

He basically tells Grendel that God does not actually exist and that all that humans live by is nonsense. They have false beliefs which they themselves, at times, doubt but create stories to make their beliefs seem realistic. Essentially, they simply believe because they have nothing else to live for. The dragon explains that everything that happens is an accident, there is no such thing as fate, and the world is simply a chaotic existence with no order and no higher power. Under this reasoning, there is no definition of good or evil and, in fact, no right or wrong.

By the end of the conversation with the dragon, Grendel still does not completely believe in the dragon’s version of the chaotic world but his system of beliefs obviously begins to give way. He states at the end of the chapter (5), “In some way that I couldn’t explain, I knew that his scorn of my childish credulity was right. ” However the dragons imposed view was not so different from Grendel’s own even before he met the dragon. In the conversation with his mother, after the incident with Hrothgar, Grendel says, “the world is all a pointless accident!

” Even early on Grendel was beginning to see that the unfairness of the world could not be deliberate and that it all simply happened. When the humans, misunderstanding his intentions, and Grendel, misunderstanding theirs, met again, there was a battle. Grendel, only knowing violence from the likes of humans, then immediately made up his mind towards that of becoming the great evil destroyer of the Scyldings. For all the pain they had caused a disadvantaged, well-meaning monster in the first place, the humans which Grendel constantly looked up to and observed, could only be considered evil.

They fought battles with neighboring areas from which they would steal gold and pillage women and burn houses. All the while, peace was maintained amongst themselves by keeping one common goal, which is to fight others in order to gain more power for themselves. Even if simply attributed to human nature, it can only be considered evil behavior to cause human suffering to better your own life. Grendel observed all their wars and brutal acts from the darkness and made his own judgements. He knew that these were not virtuous human beings living under the hand of God with light hearts and good thoughts.

These were people who existed only to please themselves even at the cost of the pain of others. For this reason, the suffering he brings upon them is no more evil than the suffering they bring to others and others bring to them. A passage in chapter eight of the book best describes Grendel’s feeling for Hrothgar and his reasons for causing him pain. His fear for his people makes a coward of him? And his fear is one he cannot even be sure is generous; perhaps mere desire that his name and fame live on? old Hrothgar’s knowledge that peace must be searched through ordeal upon ordeal, with no final prospect but failure.

Lesson on lesson they’ve suffered through, recognizing, more profoundly each time, their indignity, shame, triviality. It will continue. How, if I know all this, you may ask, could I hound him-shatter him again and again, drive him deeper and deeper in to woe? I have no answer except perhaps this: why should I not? Has he made any move to deserve my kindness? If I give him a truce, will the king invite me in for a kiss on the forehead, a cup of mead? Ha! This nobility of his, this dignity: are they not my work? What was he before? Nothing! A swollen headed raider full of boasts and jokes and mead?

No one would have balked at my persecuting him then. Enough! Who says I have to defend myself. I made him what he is. Have I not a right to test my own creation? I am a machine, like you. Like all of you. Blood-lust and rage are my character. Why does the lion not wisely settle down and be a horse? This passage states much in the way that Grendel understands the pain he causes Hrothgar and in some way might actually feel guilt, for a moment, at what he does. He quickly erases this feeling when he says “Enough! Who says I have to defend myself?

” In this way he understands what he does is wrong but rationalizes the situation and even includes fate in his reasoning. He says near the end, “Why does the lion not wisely settle down and be a horse? ” I believe Grendel is saying that his fate, even when he was born unknowing and innocent, was to become the violent murderer that he has become; that being simply are what they are and theres no way and no reason o change that. And in return, perhaps Hrothgar was meant to be stalked by Grendel. After all, his strong and noble character was a result of the pains suffered due to Grendel’s raids on Hrothgar’s town.

Before that, he knew only victory over other’s and brutality as a marauder who caused suffering to others for the prosperity of himself and his people. Perhaps Grendel’s second of guilt is not even warranted for his own evil is no worse than that of the man who he stalks. An issue which comes up again and again in Grendel, is that of violence and evil as a way of protecting oneself from the same fate. In a conversation that Hrothgar’s nephew has with his advisor, the old peasant explains to him the evils in structure and the good in revolution and change.

It is almost as if the old man, Red Horse, is reinforcing the fact that Grendel’s actions are neither right nor wrong. The incitement to violence depends upon total transvaluation of the ordinary values. By a single stroke, the most criminal acts must be converted to heroic and meritorious deeds. If the revolution comes to grief, it will be because you and those you lead become alarmed at your own brutality?. the total ruin of institutions and morals is an act of creation. A religious act. Murder and Mayhem are the life and soul revolution?

The essence of good in evil is contained within this speech given by Red Horse. That which should be, will come from revolution. The people will fight for what they consider is the truth and if certain morals or institutions stand in the way of that, they must be torn down. The reason for destruction is to actually create anew what is better for existence. This is what I believe the old man is trying to say. That sheer brutality, and that which is considered evil, is the only way to achieve change and therefore a newer, better way of life.

It is a concept which sounds harsh and uncompromisingly hurtful to those who are on the opposing end, but it is actually similar to sociology’s conflict theory. Without conflict, and therefore the resolution of conflict, there can be no change. Without change, life remains stagnant and in the same cycle of trading one man’s pain for another man’s happiness. Therefore, without evil as a means to achieving good, the world would remain a constant struggle without advancements of living and without advancements of life.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 13 November 2016

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