Notes on Characters from Grendel

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Grendel Major Characters

Grendel: The narrator. A large, hairy, frightening monster who lives in a cave near King Hrothgar's castle. Though he looks like a beast, Grendel can speak in a language very similar to that of Hrothgar and his people. He is thus disappointed when the townspeople are afraid of him and hate him. He feels alone: he hates his mother, because she cannot speak and is much more of an animal than he, but he can never relate to men, either, because he can't stop himself from eating them. He thinks deeply about whether life has meaning or not, but he is essentially immature and unable to form complete philosophical ideas. One moment he decides that since it doesn't matter whether he kills the Danes or not, he may as well kill them. But then the next moment, he hears a Dane singing about their glorious history, and he feels that their lives are so meaningful and rich that he wants to join them. He is torn between his mother's animalistic nature, the generally moral and humane world of the Danes, and the philosophy of the dragon. The dragon, who is thousands of years old and knows everything, tells Grendel that life is pointless, so he should just take what he wants when he can get it. These differing philosophies, and Grendel's inability to resolve them, leave him confused and angry throughout his violent, isolated life.

Grendel's mother: An ugly, smelly beast, who Grendel resents and yet loves in a dependent, childish way. Though she cannot speak, she tries to communicate with her son by caressing and holding him, sometimes even suffocating him. She seems helpless at times--she waits for him to bring her food--but when he needs her, he cries for her like a baby, and she usually saves him. She is the one who prevents him from being killed by the Danes when he first discovers the outside world. Though she sometimes seems pathetic--Grendel picks her up like a child--she is also fierce and terrifying.

The dragon: A huge, ancient beast who even Grendel fears. The dragon knows everything, past, present, and future, and it has made him cynical and bored. He has no patience for Grendel's innocent questions. He enjoys teasing Grendel, watching him grow more and more frightened, and he also likes to ramble pompously. He makes long, confused speeches, and then gets angry when Grendel doesn't understand. He tells Grendel that life is meaningless, so he may as well do whatever he wants. If he wants to kill the Danes, for any reason, he should. Grendel doesn't quite believe this, (he sees meaning in the Danes' culture) but it confuses him and makes him feel empty and sad and angry. Once he meets the dragon, he feels the creature's presence constantly. It pulls him down whenever he tries to climb into civilization or rationality. The confusion the dragon creates in him makes him even more vicious.

King Hrothgar: King of the Danes, or Scyldings. When he first meets Grendel, he seems childish (he throws an axe and Grendel for no reason) but as he grows up, he becomes a wise and powerful king. He builds an empire when most rulers are fighting pettily amongst themselves. He marries the young and beautiful Wealtheow, and tries to love her and take care of her. He worries over his nephew and the kings who are jealous of him. Grendel watches him grow wise with sorrow--in later years Hrothgar spends his life waiting for Grendel, fearful but helpless, and the waiting makes him quiet and thoughtful. Grendel respects Hrothgar, and even views them as similar.

The Shaper: A blind singer/poet, who arrives at the castle one night with a young assistant. The Shaper has an amazing ability to make everyone believe his songs: after listening to him, the Danes are inspired by their glorious history (which, as Grendel points out, has been brutal and petty at times.) This is why he is called the Shaper: he shapes peoples' opinions of themselves and others. He even convinces Grendel that the lives of the Danes are meaningful, which makes it very hard for him to kill them. He does not entirely believe the Shaper's stories, but he is influenced by his beautiful songs nonetheless. The Shaper dies near the end of the book, and the reader learns for the first time that he sometimes directed his songs at a beautiful, married woman, who perhaps loved him back. Once he is dead, Grendel feels much more comfortable murdering Danes again.

Hrothulf: Hrothgar's nephew, who comes to live with Hrothgar and Wealtheow after his father is murdered. Shy, awkward and thoughtful, Hrothulf is a little like Grendel. He has an immature but ambitious mind, always wanting to solve philosophical problems but never quite making progress. For example, he hates the injustice that the peasants suffer under the king, and hates that none of them seem to mind it. But though he seems to be optimistic about the possibility of change, he does little but whine and rant. He also has his own ambitions for the throne. His friend and advisor, an elderly peasant, seems to have great influence over the impressionable prince.

Beowulf: His name is never even mentioned in the book, but based on the context, the reader knows that the huge, cold, determined stranger who comes to kill Grendel is Beowulf. A powerful and isolated man, Beowulf has little interest in politeness or small talk. He is willing to watch a friend die so that he can learn how Grendel fights. His single purpose is to kill Grendel in any way he can, and he has perfect confidence that he can do it. He is the only person who uses his wits to defeat the monster (in fact, when he whispers to Grendel, it seems that his words hurt Grendel as much as his blows). Grendel says that his defeat is an accident, but really it is the result of careful planning on Beowulf's part. He achieves in one night what Hrothgar's whole castle could not do in twelve years.

Minor Characters

Unferth: A great soldier, who is deeply conflicted. Years ago he killed his brothers in a drunken rage. Today, he desperately wants to be a hero, and once Grendel learns this, he teases Unferth by keeping him safe, even as he kills all the soldiers around him. Unferth, who longs for a heroic death, feels ashamed, and disguises himself so that he can be killed in battle with Grendel, but Grendel always sees through the disguises. Unferth tried once to explain his ideas about heroism to Grendel, but his muddled---though heartfelt--theories were no match for Grendel's cruel cynicism. Because of the mistakes he made in the past and the shameful protection he gets from Grendel now, Unferth is defensive, sensitive to criticism, and sometimes a bully.

Hygmod: Wealtheow's brother and rival of Hrothgar. When he is forced to appease Hrothgar with something valuable, he knows that the only thing that will work is his beautiful sister, since Hrothgar is already very rich. He reluctantly gives her up, but he makes little attempt to disguise his hatred for Hrothgar. Hrothgar knows that, brother-in-law or not, Hygmod will always be a threat to him.

Wealtheow: Hrothgar's wife, sister of Hygmod. Beautiful, young and pure, Wealtheow seems to improve the character of everyone at court, just by being nice to people. Everyone, including Grendel, is inspired by her. He respects her (he watches her, knowing she is homesick, and is impressed that she does not complain or try to leave) and this confuses him. Unable to bear her goodness, he decides to kill her, and nearly rips her apart before abruptly deciding that it would be meaningless to kill her, just as her life is meaningless.

Ork: An old, earnest priest who Grendel teases. The monster, pretending to be God, tells Ork to describe God to him. Unexpectedly, Ork offers a complex and reasonable description of God, and then weeps with emotion. He says that God cannot be judged by our rational standards, because God is not only beyond rational thought, but also created it. God is what gives meaning to their lives, Ork continues. Grendel doesn't understand this, but he is moved enough not to kill Ork, as he had planned to do.

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