Some Background

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  • An Introduction to John Gardner’s Grendel

Some Background

  • Grendel was published in 1971, derived from Beowulf, and is written from the monster’s point of view. John Gardner turned what many saw as a one-sided evil monster into a multi-dimensional character.
  • Someone once asked me, Is this going to be a “feel bad for me, I’m a misunderstood monster” kind of book?

The retelling of a familiar story allows an author to concentrate on developing additional ideas. In other words, because the epic already had a familiar plot and established characters, Gardner was able to focus his attention on theme and ideas rather than plot or character development.

  • The retelling of a familiar story allows an author to concentrate on developing additional ideas. In other words, because the epic already had a familiar plot and established characters, Gardner was able to focus his attention on theme and ideas rather than plot or character development.
  • Gardner uses the circumstances surrounding the Grendel to explore philosophy (existentialism; solipsism) and the zodiac (astrological cycle)
  • Though Grendel is a monster, the essence of this novel explores what it means to be human.

When speaking of the monster, Grendel, John Gardner says:

  • I wanted to go through the main ideas of Western Civilization…and go through them in the voice of the monster, with the story already taken care of, with the various philosophical attitudes, and see what I could do.

A little more about astrology:

  • The astrological cycle comprises twelve signs, each associated with a earth’s position in space relative to the sun and other celestial bodies.
  • The cycle begins in March, with Aries—the Ram
  • and ends in February, with Pisces—the Fish.
  • Each of the signs is represented by a symbol,
  • and those born under a particular sign have
  • certain personality traits
  • John Gardner weaves astrological symbolism into each chapter, following the annual cycle from Aries to Pisces.
  • For example, the first chapter contains a ram, the symbol for
  • Aries: brave, acts before thinking, cyclical in nature.

Chapter 1 Pages 5-14

  • Close Reading/Annotation of pages 5-8. What do you make of the voice of the narrator (Grendel)? What do you think about this character?
  • Copy three phrases that Grendel uses to describe himself. Explain what these phrases reveal about his self-image.

Whole Class Discussion

  • How would you describe Grendel’s voice in
  • this chapter…
  • What does it feel like to be inside Grendel’s mind?
  • In what ways does Grendel differ from the monster we met in Beowulf?
  • Reread the second paragraph on page 11. What do you think about HOW Gardner reveal’s Grendel and his mother’s ancestry?

Zodiac Activity

  • In order to understand how and why Gardner uses astrology in each chapter, take a look at the characteristics for each sign.
  • Then, think:
  • - of yourself and your sign: is it accurate?
  • - of someone you love and his/her sign: is it accurate?
  • - of someone you do not like and his/her sign: is it
  • accurate?
  • Serious works of literature are not like sermons at church, telling you directly what you should or shouldn't do. It's true that a good writer is indeed a careful philosopher; but his method is not to argue for a single position…but rather to explore, with all the care and wisdom he's capable of mustering, the various implications and contributing factors that must be considered when any serious philosophical question is raised.
  • - John Gardner


  • Finish questions 1-6 tonight! You can find the text online-
  • just Google: Grendel PDF
  • Be prepared for a quiz and/or discussion tomorrow!!

Let’s Review Chapter 1 Turn and Talk

  • 1.  In what ways does Grendel differ from the monster we met in Beowulf? Explain your answer.
  • 2. Reread the second paragraph on page 11. What choices does Gardner make about revealing Grendel and his mother’s ancestry?

Turn and Talk

  • Read pages 15-18 (stop at understand)
  • 3. Describe Grendel’s childhood. Use text evidence to support your answer.
  • 4. How does he feel about his connection with his mother?
  • Use text evidence to support your answer.

Turn and Talk

  • Read pages 18-21 (stop at knee)
  • 5. Explain why Grendel goes out further when venturing away from home. In what ways is this like any childhood?
  • 6. Reread the characteristics of Taurus (the bull). What do you think is the purpose of Grendel’s encounter of the bull? What does it teach us about Grendel?

Turn and Talk

  • Read pages 21-23 (stop at again)
  • 7. Reread the philosophies. Do you notice any element of Solipsism or Existentialism here?

Let’s Review Chapter 2:

  • Let’s Review Chapter 2:
  • The chapter begins with Grendel telling us a bit about…
  • We see in many ways, he is like a regular “kid” because…
  • One day, he ventures out too far, enticed by…
  • He finds himself…
  • While he is stuck in the tree, a bull comes by, symbolizing…
  • Then, he meet man for the first time, and…

Grendel Chapter 3: Gemini – Dual Nature Page 30

  • On one hand,
  • On the other hand,

Grendel Chapter 3: Gemini – Dual Nature

  • On one hand,
  • On the other hand,
  • Grendel watches the tribes of people and their strange ways carefully noting that the women tend to the land and animals and cooked. (31-32)
  • The men hunted. When they came home, they drank, and became loud and boisterous. (31-32)
  • Once in a while, one person would kill another over something trivial. Sometimes, the murderer would be excused and accepted back into human society. (32)
  • Sometimes the murderer was exiled to the forest to live like an animal. (32)
  • Grendel tried to befriend the exiled person (33)
  • Grendel tried to ignore the exiled person. In the end, he ate the person.
  • (33)

Chapter 3

  • Discuss the following quotes with your partner and record their significance in your notebook.
  • “…I settled my soul on destroying him—slowly and cruelly”(30).
  • “It didn’t matter to me what they did to each other. It was slightly ominous because of its strangeness-no wolf was so vicious to other wolves-….”(32).
  • “I was filled with a wordless, obscurely murderous unrest”(40).
  • “…Lost!”(45).


  • Grendel’s observations of humans
  • The rise of Hrothgar
  • The power(danger) of the Shaper

Homework for Wednesday

  • Read Chapter 4
  • Why does Hrothgar build Heorot, the Hall of the Hart?
  • How does the story of Cain and Abel affect Grendel?

Grendel Quiz - Chapters 3-5

  • In chapter 3 of the novel, Grendel’s view of warrior culture is much more in depth than we see in Beowulf and in some ways, contradicts it. Explain what Grendel observes about human civilization and behavior.
  • From Grendel’s perspective, how does Hrothgar rise to power?
  • The Shaper is the bard or poet. Explain what Grendel observes about the power the Shaper has.
  • In chapter 4 of the novel, the Shaper tells a tale that makes Grendel very upset. Describe this story and Grendel’s reaction to it.
  • After watching humans for so long, Grendel picks up on some things they say. Explain Grendel’s perspective on this and why it is so ironic.
  • Describe the dragon’s personality. What is your understanding of what he tells Grendel? What do you think he symbolizes here?

Warm Up Chapters 3-5

  • Bring out your astrology and philosophies chart. You have 15 minutes to complete this!
  • Grrr...Arrrgh!

Chapter 6

  • Objective:
  • Students will examine how Grendel shapes his “new” identity.
  • The dragon’s “charm”
  • Grendel’s “new identity”
  • Unferth

Chapter 6 – Page 75 Turn & Talk

  • Read pages 75-77
  • Talk with your partner and record your answers in your notebook.
  • Nothing was changed, everything was changed. What has changed in Grendel’s perception of man? Explain.
  • Why do weapons no longer hurt Grendel? How is this both a blessing and a curse?

Turn & Talk

  • Read pages 77-79 as a class
  • 3. Reread together pages 50-51 (start at the bottom of 50 at Then, circling the clearing…) How does what we just read echo this portion of the text? Compare the two scenes, noting the similarities as well as differences.

Turn & Talk

  • Read pages 79-84
  • 4. He spent so much time studying humans and wondering what his place was in the world. Now, he knows: What is Grendel’s new identity?
  • 5. Unferth understands Grendel!! How does knowing Grendel can speak change Unferth’s understanding of the creature?

Turn & Talk

  • Read pages 84-86- Discuss and record:
  • 6. How does Grendel taunt Unferth here? What is humorous? Use text evidence to support your answer.
  • Explain: “I got more pleasure from that apple fight than from any other battle in my life.”

Turn & Talk

  • Read pages 86-90 Unferth in Grendel’s Lair and answer these questions in your notebook:
  • 7. How does Grendel further taunt Unferth here? What does Unferth want? Why is Grendel so adamant about not giving Unferth what he wants? Use text evidence to support your answer.
  • 8. What does Grendel do with Unferth? How can this be seen as “adding insult to injury?”

Homework # 6

  • Finish reading chapter 6 – pages 84-90
  • Read Chapter 7 of Grendel (pages 91-110)
  • Create a dialectical journal in which you choose 5-7 quotes from the chapter to analyze!
  • Be prepared for tomorrow!!!

Chapter 7: Libra Balance

  • Warm up:
  • There is no limit to desire but desire’s needs.
  • 1. Explain what you think this quote means.
  • 2. How does this quote relate to Grendel?
  • Look at pages 91-94.
  • What do you notice about the layout of the text? Has the text changed visually at all? If so, how?
  • What do you notice about how Grendel is narrating this story?
  • What do you make of all of this?

A Simile, and also: Parts of a boat

  • “…riding out time like a helmless sheep-boat, keel to hellward, mast upreared to prick out heaven’s eye”(91).
  • Helm- steering
  • Keel- bottom of boat (boats usually built up from this, also provides balance)
  • Mast- main pole on which sails are attached
  • “tiding out rhyme…”(92).

Chapter 7: Libra

  • Hygmod- Young Warrior King- a threat to Hrothgar’s kingdom
  • Hrothgar amasses an army that could destroy Hygmod and his forces. Grendel watches with glee.
  • Hygmod comes up with a peace offering– his sister
  • Read Page 100- Wealtheow’s entrance and how it affects Grendel…
  • Comparison between Wealtheow and Grendel’s mother…
  • Unferth…
  • What does/doesn’t Grendel do?...

Chapter 8: Scorpio

  • Warm up:
  • What is Grendel’s theorem?
  • Copy it into your notebook and explain what it means.

Hrothulf’s Speeches

  • Re-read and summarize Hrothulf’s monologues:
  • Scene in the Yard:
  • Scene in the Woods:

“Traps” for Hrothgar

  • List and explain the five “traps” for Hrothgar (pages 121-122)
  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 4.
  • 5.


  • Copy the following quotes and explain who/what Grendel is speaking about and the significance of each. Also identify and explain any figurative language employed (simile, metapor,etc.)
  • “Quiet as the moon, sweet scorpion, he sits between their two and cleans his knife”(113).
  • “He has nothing left but the power of his mind—and no pleasure there: a case of knives”(121).
  • “Have I not a right to test my own creation?”(123)

Dream, dream, dream…

  • Apparently Grendel can give people dreams…
  • What is the dream Grendel gives Hrothgar?
  • What do you make of this?

Chapter 9: Sagittarius Tuesday 11.07

  • Grendel and Religion
  • Warm Up:
  • How does Grendel feel about religion? Justify your response with an example from the text.

Ork versus the Dragon

  • Re-read Ork’s monologue pages131-133. As you read, think about what the priest says that registers with Grendel. What does Grendel identify with? Where has he heard a version of this before? What is similar? What is different?
  • What is true evil according to Ork? (two things)
  • What do these limitations keep man from understanding?
  • What is the take away?

Ork versus the Dragon

  • The other priests show up and Grendel slinks away…
  • “I would fall, if I could, through time and space to the dragon. I cannot.”(137)
  • Why would Grendel say this?

Grendel and Religion

  • The Priests:
  • Read each priest’s lines in isolation.
  • What does each Priest seem to be most concerned with?
  • Priest 1.
  • Priest 2.
  • Priest 3.
  • Young Priest

Figurative Language

  • Find 10 examples of figurative language on pages 126-127. Number them, copy the phrase, and explain (i.e. the comparison).
  • Ex. 1. Something… as strange as spring
  • Something Grendel cannot comprehend- a feeling etc that is not concretely identifiable- compared to spring– spring is strange because after a long period of “death” the cycle of life begins again (in nature)

Chapter 10: Capricorn Wednesday 11.08

  • Warm Up:
  • Grendel says, “Tedium is the worst pain.”
  • Copy the statement and respond to the questions.
  • What is tedium?
  • What does this statement mean? Why do you think Grendel feels this way?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the statement in general?

Goats Do Roam

  • The Mountain Goat: Re-read the scene and answer the questions in your notebook.
  • How is Grendel’s “interaction” with the goat similar to the interaction at the beginning of the novel with the ram?
  • How is it different?
  • What could the mountain goat represent?

Sing Me a Song…

  • The death of the Shaper
  • How does the Shaper’s death affect Grendel?
  • What has been lost?

Mommy Issues

  • Grendel’s mother… what is going on?
  • “Beware the fish…”?

Philosophy Connection

  • Read the handout on the philosophy of Nietzsche.
  • Annotate any connections between his philosophy and what is going on in this chapter.
  • Record the two connections that stand out most to you in your notebook.

Chapter 10: Foreboding

  • Grendel keeps having this feeling that something bad is going to happen. How does this come across in the text? Find two examples from this chapter and Use text evidence to support your answer.

Nihil ex nihilo

  • What familiar word root do you see here? So what could it mean?
  • Nothing comes from nothing

Chapter 11 – Discussion

  • Every time we stop, you will discuss self-generated questions, ideas, and/or connections.
  • Some ideas for this portion:
  • - the imagery & repetition
  • - the description of Beowulf
  • - the kennings
  • - Again we see Tedium is the worst pain – How does
  • this relate to how Grendel sees Beowulf’s arrival?


  • 1. Finish chapter 11 (just a few pages!)
  • 2. Read Chapter 12 (pages 167-174) the final chapter!
  • 3. In your notebook, write a 2-3 page reading response to this final chapter (your own ideas, questions and connections) You may include your ideas about the novel as a whole, too!
  • The 12 Chapters of Grendel – broken up and discussed?
  • Essay on Monday – you need to bring your book
  • You need to show me that you understand how to write a good introduciton, body and conclusion with the steps we learned in class.


  • The fundamental basis for the philosophy of solipsism is a claim of unique existence; solipsism is the theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified. In the second chapter, Gardner begins exploring this philosophy through the character of Grendel. He says, “I alone exist…I create the whole universe, blink by blink.” After arriving back in his cave, Grendel says, “The world is all pointless accident…I exist, nothing else.”


  • Existentialism states that existence precedes essence. This means that people are not defined by inherent qualities, but are instead defined by what they do. People are free to create their own meaning in life. There is, in fact, no meaning except what people create for themselves.
  • The philosophy embraces the idea that humans exist with individuality, with some distance between them and an indifferent, uncaring universe. Everything else (including monsters) simply exists without the freedom of choice, all part of a mechanical universe. Grendel realizes that he is simply one of the universe’s mechanical elements. He is merely a part of the universal clutter.

Alfred North Whitehead ’s Metaphysical Position

  • “Importance is primarily monistic in its reference to the universe. Importance, limited to a finite individual occasion, ceases to be important...But expression is founded on the finite occasion.”
  • In Chapter 5, the dragon’s ideas exalt the individual and present moment over caring for others or the eternal reign of the laws of nature.

Another of Whitehead’s concepts explored in Chapter 5 is that matter is divided into classes by its capacity for expression. Expression, in this case, can be loosely defined as the reaction to received stimuli. Therefore, inorganic matter lacks the capacity for individual expression.

  • Another of Whitehead’s concepts explored in Chapter 5 is that matter is divided into classes by its capacity for expression. Expression, in this case, can be loosely defined as the reaction to received stimuli. Therefore, inorganic matter lacks the capacity for individual expression.
  • Vegetation, having no singular center of experience, has the capacity only for survival.
  • Animal life has a singular center of experience, and can therefore express itself beyond purposes of survival; animals can have emotions. Human life moves beyond the degree of expression exhibited by animal life; humans not only have emotions, but also can conceive of an idea and then put that idea into effect.

Alfred North Whitehead ’s Metaphysical Position

  • Whitehead’s process philosophy
  • defends theism but differs from the
  • God of Abrahamic religions.
  • Where the God of Abrahamic religion is above change, Whitehead views God as a growing and changing deity affected by temporal happenings. This view of God is explored in Chapter 9.


  • Nihilism is defined as an extreme form of skepticism denying the possibility of an objective basis for truth; in fact, a denial of all real existence. If all real existence is denied, then existence is meaningless. Nihilism shows itself in a total rejection of established laws and institutions.

Term to Know - Existentialism

  • a philosophical movement that views the individual and the individual’s experience as the basis for understanding the nature of human existence.
  • In other words, each individual creates his or her own meaning.

More About Existentialism

  • is a belief in freedom and accepts the consequences of individual actions
  • acknowledges the responsibility that comes with the making of choices.
  • prefers subjectivity
  • views humans as “subjects” in an indifferent and often uncertain universe.

Existentialist Writer - Sarte

  • Jean Paul Sarte argued that human beings are unable to achieve a rational basis for their lives, and thus, life is a “futile passion.”
  • Gardner’s recreation of Grendel is in some ways based on Sarte’s ideas of existentialism.
  • It’s important to note here –
    • Gardner has said, point blank, that he dislikes Sarte. So, will Grendel be an example of “What to do” or “What NOT to do?”

Term to Know - Nihilism

  • The belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can really be known or communicated.
    • associated with extreme pessimism
    • associated with skepticism
    • condemns existence.
  • A true nihilist would
    • 1) believe in nothing,
    • 2)have no loyalties, and
    • 3) have no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy the things and people around them.

Nihilist Writer – Nietzsche

  • Friedrich Nietzsche very famously argued that, “God is Dead.” What he meant was that he believed the absolutist morality that had reigned for centuries was dead.
  • Nietzsche was not a nihilist to the extent that he wanted to destroy life. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a state of being to overcome ~which is where existentialism comes in – the individual creating meaning for their own existence.

Term to Know - Mechanism

  • The idea that people can abandon free will and become mindless parts in a “machine,” often times without realizing this is happening.
  • In a “machine” there is no need to worry about the right/wrong of functioning – one simply does.
    • Grendel seems to think we are all machines, “blind, mindless, mechanical.”
  • “Mechanism” is in direct opposition to existentialism, which emphasizes human freedom, choice, and responsibility.

Machine Imagery

  • Images and references to “machinery” appear often in Grendel’s thoughts.
  • We will booknote these references!
  • These images of machinery help us understand how Grendel views himself and his world.

Term to Know - Sine qua non

  • DEF = a Latin expression, used in English to mean
  • an essential or necessary quality or condition.
  • The Dragon will use this term to criticize the human tendency to only acknowledge isolated facts.
    • “There are no facts,” the dragon says.
  • How does this quote connect to existentialism?

Term to Know - nihil ex nihilo

  • DEF = a Latin phrase meaning,
  • “Nothing comes from nothing.”
  • Grendel thinks, “Nihil ex nihilo” at the end of Chapter 10. He is fitful and upset –
  • Does this mean HE is “nothing”?

Essential Questions

  • What gives meaning to life?
  • Could a society exist without language?
  • How much of a person’s behavior is determined by his environment and his Nature? How much is determined by free will?


  • There is a struggle within every individual and within every society between good and evil.
  •  Art and The Artist are essential parts of developing a civilization and affirming the moral meaning of life.
  • Every individual craves community with others.

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