Story Symbols and Themes


The power of art:

In this novel, art provides an alternative interpretation of the world than that which the brute bull teaches Grendel through his repetitive attacks, as well as that which the greedy dragon provides with his nihilistic explanations of the universe. Human art, as exemplified by the Shaper, exists to impose order over chaos, creating a stable, although artificial, system of values. Grendel makes no distinction between art and religion, seeing them both as manmade stories.

Grendel’s feelings toward art, much like his feelings toward humans, are ambivalent. On the one hand, he thinks that humans are “treacherous,” and that their stories are lies. For example, the Shaper tells glorious stories of Scyld Shefing, who founded Hrothgar’s line, to instill pride in the Danes. This inspires them to stay faithful to the Shaper’s moral code, and continue to expand their cultural influence. Having observed the savage history of the Danes first-hand through his long, nearly ageless life, Grendel knows this is just a fantasy. However, Grendel is still so moved when he first hears the Shaper performing that he cries, speechless.

Although art is artifical, its creates real changes in humanity. The Shaper’s stories inspire Hrothgar to expand his kingdom, and the gods his priests worship allow Grendel to eventually pretend to be a deity, inspiring greater faith in at least two of them.

In the end, art seems to win in this novel, when Beowulf makes Grendel compose an ode to the walls he is being slammed against. While philosophy may make human endeavors seem irrelevant, the hardness of the walls has supreme importance when Grendel is being slammed against them, forcing him to finally experience the fruits of civilization.

Ideological value systems vs. existential nihilism

Grendel wavers between these two opposite views of the universe throughout the novel. The model stressing value systems like heroism and goodness is...

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Essays About Grendel