Grendel: The Misunderstood Monster Allison Jones

When you think of a monster, what comes to mind?

Sharp claws?
Pointy teeth?
Or just some one-dimensional monster?

Well, I bet the word


wasn't on your list of characteristics.

However, it's my belief that one monster in particular, Grendel, is often misunderstood.

So who is Grendel?

Beowulf's fight against Grendel

Grendel first appeared in the epic, Beowulf near the end of the 10th century. He was the first of three monsters that Beowulf had to face.

Grendel is described as a "grim demon" and a "banished monster from Cain's clan." He was "condemned as an outcast by God" ("Beowulf" 102-107). Grendel and many other monsters were spawned when Cain murdered Abel in the Old Testament.

The Murder of Abel

Grendel was created because of the sins of a man. He was spawned from a murder that he had nothing to do with.

When a monster is from a murder and set free to roam the Earth, what are they supposed to do except murder people and create chaos?

Joseph Milosh wrote an article in Contemporary Literature, Volume 19, published by the University of Wisconsin Press that discusses Grendel's personality in the original epic as well as the book Grendel by John Gardner. On page 49, Milosh gives a good description of the original interpretation of Grendel saying,

Milosh gives a good summary of who Grendel is in the epic.

Despite his monstrous ways, Grendel is an essential part of the story of Beowulf.

The novel Villains and Villainy: Embodiments of Evil in Literature, Popular Culture and Media by Anna Fahraeus and Dikmen Yakalı Çamoğlu discusses the importance of villains to a story.

In Part Four of the book, it says,

“The eternal story of conflict between good and the evil needs to be retold to emphasize the good in the evil and the evil in the good” (175).
Good in Bad and Bad in Good

Also, in the Introduction of Villains and Villainy it says,

“The hero - who usually wins - cannot exist without an opponent in one form or other. The villain embodies this opposition and can present a fascinating complex of characteristics” (viii).

Without Grendel, the story of Beowulf would be entirely different.

Beowulf is hardly a hero without monsters to fight.

Also, it is thanks to Grendel and his mother that Beowulf is able to become king of the Danes and take the throne after Hrothgar.

It's the evil people and the terrible things in life, like Grendel, that allow us to really see the beauty in life, and the greatness in other people. Without some pain and sorrow, we take the good times for granted.

No one would argue that Grendel is a good guy, but it is because of him that we can see how great Beowulf really is.

Another popular interpretation of Grendel is in the 2007 movie, Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis.

A picture of Grendel from the movie.

In the movie, Grendel is given the form of an ugly, deformed humanoid. Grendel is depicted to have been exposed eardrum that make some incredibly sensitive to sound. And one scene, we see Grendel lash out against the woman who is screaming.

Here, Grendel is given more motivation for his attacks. Rather than just going after a snack, Grendel is attacking the men to put an end to his own suffering.

Another characteristic that gives Grendel more depth than just being a bloodthirsty monster is the fact that he loves and respects his mother.

I think the fact that Grendel still lives with his mother speaks volumes for his misunderstood character. Aside from Grendel, there is only one other monster I can think of that still lives with his mother.

You can hardly compare Grendel to Squishy, from Disney Pixar's Monster's University; however, the fact that a monster still lives with his mother makes him ever-so-lightly less ferocious.

I'm not saying that Grendel isn't a monster

He still murders countless innocent people; however, he does so quickly, and doesn't make them suffer.

This is completely opposite of how Beowulf kills Grendel. After bombarding Grendel with some loud noise, Beowulf tears Grendel's arm off in the door, and Grendel runs home and dies in the arms of his mother.

In the scene, Beowulf almost becomes the monster, and Grendel the victim.

Beowulf brutalizes Grendel and makes him listen to his whole monologue about how great of a warrior he is. Only after boasting about himself does Beowulf tear off Grendel's arm and allow him to run off and die in peace.

Beowulf almost becomes the monster

The final interpretation of Grendel that I'm going to talk about comes from John Gardner's book, Grendel.

The cover of the novel showing The Monster himself

In the novel Grendel is the main character and we see the story from his perspective. From his point of view, he's the sensible one. At first Grendel is fascinated by people, but eventually he comes to think of man as cruel and wasteful beings, and thinks that they deserve to be eaten.

Throughout Gardner's story, Grendel struggles with being lonely. At one point in the book he says,

"I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings! But also, as never before, I was alone" (80).

Shortly after this quote, Grendel meets the character Unferth.

Unferth proclaims himself to be a hero, and tries to fight Grendel. However, Grendel see's through Unferth's words, and finds humor in his facade.

Rather than Fighting Unferth, Grendel decides to throw apples at him.

Later, Unferth swims through the pit of fire snakes and into Grendel's cave with the intention of being killed by Grendel. However, Grendel spares Unferth and carries him back to the meadhall.

Throughout all the rest of Grendel's meadhall raids, he never harms Unferth.

Some artwork of Grendel from the novel

The Grendel in the novel shows that he is much more than a one-dimensional monster. He is capable of critical-thinking, humor, and sometimes even compassion.

Grendel is a thoughtful monster who struggles to find his place in the world.

During Grendel's many interpretations, you can see the different ways in which he is misunderstood.

In the original epic, Grendel is spawned from Cain's murder of his brother, Abel, and is outcast by God to roam the Earth. Grendel's sole purpose seems to be to punish mankind and create chaos.

Also, without Grendel, Beowulf would be nothing more than a prideful, flawed man. It is the fights that Beowulf has with the monsters that make him into the hero we hear about today.

What is a hero without a monster?

In the 2007 movie, Grendel is given a real motivation for attacking the meadhall. He has sensitive hearing and the loud noises from Heorot is what causes him to lash-out in anger and pain.

In the movie, Grendel seems to be very close with his mother and tries to keep her happy by respecting her wishes.

Grendel also kills his victims rather quickly instead of making them suffer like Beowulf does to him.

Grendel's slow, painful death in the arms of his mother.

And in John Gardner's Grendel, the character is much more than just a regular monster. He struggles with loneliness and insecurities, just like regular people do, giving his character much more depth.

Also, when Grendel meets Unferth, we see that he has a sense of humor and maybe even a little bit of compassion, taking him a little bit further from the usual stereotype of a monster.

In closing,

I hope you gained a new perspective on an age-old classic monster.

Hopefully now, you can take some of this information and use it to evaluate one of your favorite monsters, and decide if they are truly evil, or simply...



  • Beowulf. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures. 2007.
  • Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney.
  • Fahraeus, Anna, and Dikmen Yakali Camoglu Villains and Villainy: Embodiments of Evil in Literature, Popular Culture and Media. Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2011.
  • Milosh, Joseph, and John Gardner. “John Gardner's ‘Grendel’: Sources and Analogues.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 19, no. 1, 1978, pp. 48–57.


Created with images by TeroVesalainen - "question mark why problem"

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