Notes on Grendel Themes

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Grendel Topic Tracking: Philosophy

Topic Tracking: Philosophy

Chapter 1

Philosophy 1: Grendel sees everything as meaningless, but at the same time he yearns for meaning. He protests that he doesn't think of himself as important--he's just an animal murderer--but he gets angry at the sky when it "ignores" him. When he sees the men rebuilding their castle, he gets very angry. He doesn't want them to think they are doing anything of importance, but at the same time he can tell that they are. No matter how many of them he kills, he cannot break their spirits, and that enrages him.

Chapter 2

Philosophy 2: Grendel is beginning to outline his philosophy. He believes that "perception is reality"--he creates the universe, because it is only his experience of his environment that makes it real. However, he takes this relatively reasonable idea to an extreme, deciding that he alone exists. It leads, eventually, to his belief that only he matters, and he can therefore do whatever he wants to everyone else.

Philosophy 3: Grendel's philosophy is getting more dangerous, to himself and the townspeople: he thinks of reality in terms of conflict--it's him against everybody else--and decides life is just one big accident. There is no God, and there is no point to anything. Therefore, he can give in to his urge to kill, without wondering where it comes from.

Chapter 4

Philosophy 4: Grendel's mind is confused and immature. When he is confronted with art and culture, which seem to bring meaning to the lives of the Danes, he gets angry, because he wants to believe that life is meaningless. That conviction makes it easier for him to understand his own life (he is intelligent, but for some reason lives in a cave and is driven by a need to hunt) and he resents the Danes for shaking his belief.

Philosophy 5: Though Grendel at times allows his basic emotions--fear, loneliness, anger--to influence his beliefs, and is usually totally self centered, he is sometimes able to think clearly about other people. He realizes that the Shaper's and Hrothgar's philosophies isolate them, perhaps as much as he himself is isolated. He has a sophisticated understanding of Hrothgar's ambition and the Shaper's creative ability. The reader can see Grendel contradicting himself: though he would like to say that he is just a crude beast, prisoner of his instincts, he is actually quite intelligent and able to choose whether or not to kill. He just doesn't want the responsibility of that choice.

Chapter 5

Philosophy 6: The dragon's philosophy is a destructive but rather common one, and Gardner wrote the dragon's speeches as parodies of this self-centered system. The dragon insists that there is no meaning to anything, which excuses him from making the world better, allowing him to pursue entirely selfish hobbies.

Chapter 6

Philosophy 7: Grendel's philosophy changes in this chapter: with the dragon's words as a shield, he is no longer as influenced by the Shaper. The Shaper's songs about the glory and nobility of the lives of the Danes still confuse Grendel, but now he has the dragon's cold, brutal ideas to hide behind, so his confusion makes him lash out, rather than try to communicate with the Danes. The dragon has made Grendel sadder and more isolated, but he has hardened his ideas.

Philosophy 8: Unferth has built his life around a philosophy that Grendel dismisses with a wave of his hand. Simply put, Unferth believes that what one does is worth something, whether other people know about it or not. Heroic deeds are valuable in and of themselves. Still, Unferth is not able to explain his beliefs clearly, and it is all too easy for Grendel to thwart him. Unferth has a good idea--even Grendel sometimes feels, in spite of himself, that life has meaning--but he is not a well-spoken philosopher, so Grendel can easily ignore him. Unferth is a stark contrast to the dragon, whose speeches can be viewed as generally meaningless but are very convincing nonetheless.

Chapter 8

Philosophy 9: Alone and depressed, Hrothulf wrestles with the pain he feels about the natural cruelty in the world. He shouldn't be upset to see trees killing the plants under them with their shade. Does that then mean that a king growing rich off the labor of his subjects is also morally acceptable? These thoughts are mixed with more personal debates: does Wealtheow really love him? Is love what he wants? His youth and innocence clearly influence his thoughts, as does his ambition for the throne. At times, in fact, he echoes Grendel: thoughtful but immature.

Philosophy 10: Though Hrothulf tries to keep up with his advisor's cynical comments, he does not believe, as the old man does, that all governments are evil and the only answer is violence. Yet he keeps silent, because he does not know what the real answer could be. Grendel watches all this, knowing that the ultimate irony is that no matter what either man believes, they are subject to the laws of the land. As a prince, Hrothulf has freedoms that the old man could never have, and neither of them seems to even realize it.

Chapter 10

Philosophy 11: Grendel, using the excuse that no one matters or knows anything but himself, dismisses his mother's warnings. He adds to this theory by reasoning that because time passes moment by moment, the past is just as irrelevant as the future. He can ignore anything that isn't happening right now. He decides that not only is his mother ignorant, but her concern for him will fade from his memory by tomorrow, so he need not let it influence him in any way. These ideas seem to come partly from the dragon and partly from Grendel's fear that his mother actually does know something, but is unable to tell him.

Philosophy 12: Grendel sums up his philosophy in three words: nihilo ex nihilo, or nothing from nothing. This Latin phrase reveals Grendel's pretentiousness, and his desire to simplify things. This philosophy is clearly at odds with reality, because Grendel soon learns that he should have trusted his instincts and his mother's warnings. Beowulf shatters Grendel's illusion that nothing matters, that none of his actions have consequences. He shows Grendel that things can happen whether or not he believes in them.

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