Read an in-depth analysis of Grendel.
Read an in-depth analysis of The Shaper.
The dragon - A great cranky beast that rules over a vast hoard of treasure. The dragon provides a vision of the world as essentially meaningless and empty. Throughout the novel, Grendel frequently finds himself weighing the fatalistic words of the dragon against the beautiful words of the Shaper. Some critics hold that the dragon is not actually a separate character, but rather a personified aspect of Grendel’s own mind. Although Grendel only visits the dragon once, he feels its presence throughout the novel.
Read an in-depth analysis of Beowulf.
Grendel’s mother - A foul, wretched being, and Grendel’s only apparent family member. Grendel’s mother lives with Grendel in a cave in a vast underground realm. She desperately tries to protect Grendel from the humans and his fate. She has either forgotten or never knew how to speak, though at times her gibberish approaches coherent language.
Wealtheow - Hrothgar’s wife and queen of the Danes. Originally a Helming princess, Wealtheow represents love, altruism, and an ideal image of womanhood, bringing balance and harmony to her adopted community.
Hrothulf - Hrothgar’s orphaned nephew. In Beowulf, Hrothulf usurps Hrothgar’s son as ruler of the Scyldings. In Grendel, Hrothulf is a young man who forms ideas of revolution after seeing the aristocratic thanes subjugate the Danish peasants.
Red Horse - Hrothulf’s mentor and advisor. A crotchety old man, Red Horse believes that all governments are inherently evil and that revolution does nothing but replace one corrupt system with another.
Ork - An old, blind, Scylding priest. Ork is a theologian—one who studies the theories behind religion. Mistaking Grendel for the Destroyer, the supreme Scylding deity, Ork describes ultimate wisdom as a vision of a universe in which nothing is lost or wasted. Ork is one of only a few priests in the novel for whom religion is more than an empty show.
The fourth priest - A younger priest who is overjoyed at the news of Ork’s encounter with the Destroyer. The fourth priest has a vision of the universe to which Beowulf alludes in his battle with Grendel.
The ram - The first creature Grendel encounters in the novel. The ram stands stupidly at the edge of a cliff and will not budge despite Grendel’s repeated protests.
The bull - A bull that discovers Grendel hanging in a tree and attacks him repeatedly. The encounter with the bull is a formative event in Grendel’s philosophical development.
The goat - A goat that climbs a cliff despite Grendel’s repeated yells and screams. Grendel tries to bludgeon the goat to death with stones, but it continues to climb.
Scyld Shefing - The legendary king from whom Hrothgar is descended. In Scyld Shefing’s honor, the Danes are sometimes referred to as the Scyldings.
Freawaru - Hrothgar’s teenage daughter. Hrothgar plans to marry Freawaru off to Ingeld in order to avoid a war with the Heathobards.
The Shaper’s assistant - A young man when he first arrives at Hart with the Shaper, the young apprentice takes over the Shaper’s duties upon his death.
Halga - Hrothgar’s brother and Hrothulf’s father. When Halga is murdered, Hrothulf comes to live with his uncle at Hart.
Hygmod - King of the Helmings and Wealtheow’s brother. Hygmod, a young king who is gaining in power and prominence, presents Hrothgar with a constant military threat.
Ingeld - King of the Heathobards and an enemy of the Scyldings.
Hygilac - King of the Geats and Beowulf’s lord.
Ecgtheow - Beowulf’s father.
Finn, Hengest, Hnaef, and Hildeburth - Characters in a song that the Shaper’s assistant sings at the Shaper’s funeral.
Grendel is a man-eating demon (never a good sign) that lives in the land of the Spear-Danes and attacks King Hrothgar's mead-hall, Heorot, every evening. The narrator of Beowulf claims that Grendel's motivation is hearing Hrothgar's bard sing songs about God's creation of the world, which rubs his demonic nature the wrong way.
Whatever the reason, every night Grendel slaughters more Danes and feeds on their corpses after tearing them limb from limb. Although he can't be harmed by the blade of any edged weapon, Grendel finally meets his match when the Geatish warrior Beowulf takes him on in a wrestling match.
Cannibalism, Curses, And Cain, Oh My!
The poet explains that Grendel and his mommy are the descendants of the Biblical Cain, which suggests not only that they are part of a larger religious or supernatural scheme of evil, but also that they are connected with one of the worst things possible in tribal culture— fratricide, or the killing of a brother:
Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain's clan, whom the creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel the Eternal Lord had exacted a price: Cain got no good from committing that murder because the Almighty made him anathema and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too who strove with God time and again until He gave them their reward. (102-114)
However, at other points in the poem, Grendel seems less like a Biblical figure and more like a ghost, a demon, or something else that belongs in a Halloween-themed horror movie:
So times were pleasant for the people there until finally one, a fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world. (99-101)
Critics also like to play with the idea that Grendel might represent something that isn't supernatural at all—a member of another tribe, an outcast, or a warrior who won't play by the rules. After all, the real problem with Grendel is not that he kills people. Pretty much everyone in this story kills people.
The problem with Grendel is that he seems to kill for fun and he won't pay the death-price: the treasure that he should give to the Danes to make reparations for the lives that he has taken. So, it's possible to see Grendel, not as a fantastic monster, but as a monstrous human warrior with a pathological love for violence.
Or, to spin it another way, you can read Grendel as a vilification of "the other," a demonic representation of someone outside the tribe. Of course, since he feeds on the corpses of his victims, that makes him a cannibal. But maybe that just adds to the chilling horror of it all.Grendel's Timeline