“In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping” (Beowulf Lines 710-11).
In this way the anonymous author of the epic Beowulf poem offers us a glimpse of the blood-chilling monster Grendel just before he attacks the mead-hall of Heorot. Leaving terror in his wake, Grendel ranges out from the wild swamps of Scandinavia with the express intention of seeking out men and doing them harm. But who is Grendel? On one level, Grendel is a Gothic forerunner of Frankenstein's Creature, worthy to take his place among the terrifying monsters who inhabit the world of fiction. Yet, like Frankenstein's Creature, Grendel is more than just an inhuman monster. He is a symbol of the jealousy and hate that seeks to destroy others' happiness and can ultimately cripple a civilization.
The physical description of Grendel is vague, an indication that his fictional existence in time and space is less important than the idea that he represents. The author of the poem has fleshed out Grendel just enough to show us that while misshapen and abhorrent, Grendel is not really alien to the race of men. The text indicates that he is essentially human in form. Huge and misshapen, but having “hands,” “arms” (Lines 833, 835), and a mother who is familiar enough with tools to use a dagger (L 1545-6). What places him solidly in the role of a human—albeit, disfigured—is his relation to Cain. It is this relationship to Cain that needs to be explored to fully understand Grendel.
Like Cain who killed his brother, Grendel is a “restless wanderer on the earth” alienated from the rest of mankind (Genesis 4:12). Unable to join the community of men, Grendel becomes envious and “nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him/ to hear the din of the loud banquet/ everyday in the hall, the harp being struck/ and the clear song of a skilled poet” (L 88-90). Grendel's jealousy and hate finds outlet in destroying the good things he envies. In this way, Grendel personifies the destructive nature of jealousy.
The object of his envy is the mead-hall of Heorot. This is the center of the Danish community's civilization, and—giving the story universal application—this mead-hall is, “the greatest house in the world” (L 145-46). No civilization is free from the attacks of envy and strife which Grendel represents, since even “the greatest house in the world” is thrown into confusion. Clearly, Grendel is no backwater freak-show scaring some villagers, he is a cunning force that even the greatest civilizations must wrestle with. It is telling that Grendel only cares about terrorizing the main hall of Heorot, the center of civilization. To escape him, a man could leave the mead-hall, “shifting himself to a safer distance/ to bed in the bothies [outlying buildings]” (L 139-40). Since any building would be within the range of Grendel, it is clear that he represents a community problem more than just an individual problem. He purposefully strikes at the social and political heart of Danish civilization: the mead-hall.
This disruption at the heart of the community has serious implications. The feasting and fellowship that are synonymous with the traditional mead-hall are interrupted, crippling the harmony of society. It is a bad sign when men no longer feel safe in the place where traditionally safety and trust are paramount. And this breakdown of the community is long lasting. The text tells us that for “twelve winters” the mead-hall of king Hrothgar is terrorized by Grendel (L 147).
During this entire time, the coming of Grendel is unpredictable. He always attacks at night when the warriors are sleeping. Even on the night Beowulf hopes to encounter Grendel, “the hall guards were slack, asleep at their posts” (L 704). From the standpoint of realism it is unbelievable that a roomful of warriors—fearful of their lives and with a knowledge of Grendel's habits—would all fall asleep. When seen in the context of Grendel's personification of lurking envy in society, however, their sleep mirrors the vulnerability of society to those who hate what is good in it.
When the warriors do wake up to their danger they find that Grendel can not be hurt by traditional weapons of war, illustrating yet again that he is not just a physical enemy but a moral one as well that must be “wrestled” with. “There was something they could not have known at the time,/ that no blade on earth, no blacksmith's art/ could ever damage their demon opponent” (L 800-802). Swords cannot cut through the feelings of jealousy and hate that disturb the harmony of the mead-hall.
Grendel is not the only illustration of this. Reinforcing the point that this is an inner human problem, the text gives lengthy space to the envy of Unferth. Whereas all the other Danes welcome Beowulf, Unferth is left feeling, “sick with envy:/ he could not brook or abide the fact/ that anyone else alive under heaven/ might enjoy greater regard than he did” (L 502-505). Unferth is the fully human counterpart of Grendel in the text, mirroring in real life what Grendel represents symbolically. Unferth is envious of Beowulf''s glory in the mead-hall, just as Grendel is envious of the glory and happiness of all men in the mead-hall. Unferth is a murderer of his “own kith and kin” as Beowulf points out (L 587), just as Grendel is a bloody killer. Unferth seeks to humiliate Beowulf, just as Grendel seeks to humiliate all men. We are surprised to learn that Unferth is an unpunished killer, but this is precisely because he does on a small scale what Grendel does for a living: Grendel we are told—but it applies equally well on a personal level to Unferth—“knows he can trample down you Danes/ to his hearts content, humiliate and murder/ without fear of reprisal” (L 599-601). Happily, after Beowulf conquers the monster, Unferth is reconciled to Beowulf and they exchange presents, representing once again that when the monster of envy and hate is destroyed, peace and harmony are possible.
We end with the question we began with: Who is Grendel? Grendel is the rapacious envy of man given living shape. He cannot stand the happiness or glory of others in the mead-hall. If he cannot share it, he must destroy it. Grendel may or may not have lived in the forgotten past of Northern Europe but it doesn't matter. What matters is that Grendel still lives—lives and lurks outside our own mead-hall. But he may do more than lurk on the outside—on a personal level, we must beware of becoming Grendel. What God told Cain (the first ancestor of Grendel) before his envy caused him to kill his brother, is a good warning: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).
Beowulf. Seamus Heaney, Trans. M.H. Abrams, Editor. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Major Authors Edition. 7th ed. W.W. Norton and Co. 2001