Significant Quotations

1. “I understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly—as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink.”

Grendel comes to this understanding of life when he is trapped in a tree, being repeatedly attacked by a bull that does not think enough to figure out how to fatally wound him, but keeps charging him on instinct. According to Grendel, the world is like the bull, aggressive and impersonal.

It is important not to take Grendel’s statement that “I alone exist” out of context, however. Grendel isn’t literally saying that the bull and entire world exist within his own mind. He is instead choosing himself as his point of reference for everything else, sorting whatever he encounters in a seemingly indifferent world as helpful or harmful depending on how it affects him.

According to Gardner’s interpretation of his own novel, as quoted by Barry Silesky, much of this scene was taken from one of the texts of Jean-Paul Sartre, a 20th-century existentialist philosopher: “The first major experience in Grendel’s life, when he meets human beings for the first time, is all from Being and Nothingness.” Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, published in 1943, made the claim that each individual is defined by their existence and actions, and it is self-deception to define oneself according to society.

This is echoed in Grendel’s choice to sort everything he encounters according to how it impacts his own existence, causing him to be pushed or do the pushing. However, the fact that Beowulf later verbally tears this philosophy apart as he smashes Grendel’s head into a wall created by the effort of the society Hrothgar created gives an indication of how critical Gardner was of Sartre’s philosophy.


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Essays About Grendel