Beowulf @ Ellis

Norah K.

Analysis of a Beowulf Project

            “No one waited for reparation from his plundering claws: That shadow of death hunted in the darkness, stalked Hrothgar’s warriors, old and young, lying in waiting, hidden in the mist…” (157-162).   These lines refer to Grendel, one of many evils conquered in the epic poem, Beowulf.  At this time, he rules over Herot and the Danes and is represented as a horrible monster, even though he is actually a human being descended from Cain.  I wanted to explore more deeply what really made Grendel a human being: what kind of recognizable qualities and character did he have?  What made him who he is?  Through this Beowulf project, I showed my interpretation of the true Grendel. 
            The passage that really inspired me to create this work of art was the battle between Beowulf and Grendel (805-823).  This is the first time readers actually see a human side to Grendel; they see him suffer when he is finally up against an equal, and they begin to feel pity and sadness for Grendel.  This made me think about Grendel as a human being, and who he really is beyond a raider of Herot.  I wondered if that was simply all he was.  So, through a collage in Grendel’s simple form, I attempted to “define” Grendel.
            The first component of the drawing is the top portion of his head, filled with words, such as “Shaper” and “evil”.  This is to show Grendel’s extraordinary intelligence and cleverness.  In the novel, Grendel, by John Gardner, readers discover that Grendel has a vast vocabulary and is fascinated by the world around him, in particular human beings and their Scop (31).  He loves to watch and observe them grow as a culture, because they are unlike any other creature he has ever seen.  He almost feels a vague kinship with them.   By putting words and questions inside Grendel’s head, the artist represents Grendel’s great curiosity and confusion about his surroundings.
            The next part of Grendel’s body in the collage is entirely black, except for one red dot, and covers the rest of the head and neck.  This could represent many of Grendel’s values and characteristics.  One trait it definitely illustrates is loneliness.  In Beowulf, readers know that Grendel has no one really like him, and only his mother for company. More importantly, in Grendel, we see that he does not have anyone to talk with because his mother cannot speak.  The black suggests one of Grendel’s biggest beliefs: nihilism.  Grendel thinks that “[he] alone exist[s]” (32), and that nothing else is important or matters.   This concept is represented by the red dot; alone in a vast space of unimportance.  The placement of this darkness is also crucial because it shows that these are the values that motivate and support Grendel and his thoughts.
            Along the torso, there is a depiction of fire, suggesting that Grendel is always enraged with hatred and envy, and evil.  In lines 695-702, the poet implies that Grendel is fated to be evil and will be sent to hell.  Previously, readers are told that Grendel “made his home in a hell not hell but earth” (103-4).  This means that wherever Grendel is, hell is there as well.   In Grendel, Grendel feels the same way; as though he is trapped into being evil and has no other choice. 
            The right arm of the collage illustrates Grendel’s interest and attraction to art, especially poetry.  There is no real mention of this in Beowulf, but it is focused on greatly in Grendel.  Art is the one human creation or action that at first Grendel does not condemn and mock.  Rather, he grows to love it with such a deep passion that he even begins to imitate the Shaper’s language.  The Scop provides a role model for Grendel, someone who teaches with words; something that he has never known in his youth.  However, Grendel faces one great dilemma with regard to the poetry.  He knows the “true” history of human beings, and that Hrothgar’s world was violent and harsh, because he was present and saw it.   But the Shaper tells a story about human history from a different perspective; he fabricates beautiful “lies.” Grendel knows it is all distorted and useless information, but “[he] is addicted” (54).  The Scop has his own interpretation of history that sometimes feels like a higher truth to Grendel.  Therefore, he continues to be fascinated by poetry and is really “shaped” by the poet.
            The right part of the torso portrays Grendel’s love of murder and death.  This is another thing that Grendel is addicted to.  He cannot stop himself, and “no savage assault quench [s] his lust for evil” (137-8).  In Beowulf, killing is the only real action we see Grendel do, and for the human beings in this poem, that is all Grendel represents: the lust to destroy and murder.  The background of this illustration is also important because it displays his battle against the good; the human beings and, in particular, Beowulf. 
            On the left arm, the artist depicts the physical Grendel.  Though this is not an important part of his character, his appearance is a reflection of his real self.   It confirms Grendel’s monstrous side and his physical degradation from the true human form.  The arm was chosen as a symbol for his ugly, disturbing, furred physical self, because this is what Beowulf rips off in their battle.
            The next portion of his body shows merriment and joy, but with an ominous overtone.  Obviously, this illustrates Grendel’s hatred of “normal” human happiness.  The poet never fully explains why Grendel despises the joy of other human beings, but it is evident in passages, such as the following.  “A powerful monster, living down in the darkness, growled in pain, impatient as day after day the music rang loud in that hall…” (86-8).  Probably maddened by all of the sounds, especially music, which he cannot be a part of, Grendel attacks Herot.  Thus, this segment of the body connects to his love of murder, his only relief from pain.  If there were no joy in Herot, Grendel would not have to murder, because his “happiness” is to silence all music, laughter, and noise.  Therefore, this component emphasizes how Grendel differs from human beings in his beast-like qualities and dislike of music.
            A huge part of the torso is symbolic of his murderous ancestry-- against a white background.  All of these things represent Grendel’s ancestors, with the most important figure being Cain.  Cain committed the first murder by killing his own brother, and was soon exiled by God.  This created two separate races: the good, descended from the other brother, Seth, and the evil, descended from Cain.  In this sense, Grendel is almost locked into being evil, as all his previous ancestors have been, though he does possess free will.  The blank space represents the exile by God, and also Grendel’s very bleak belief in God.   Grendel knows God does indeed exist, but he does not believe in His goodness or respect any of his works.  His mission is to “forever [oppose]… the Lord’s Will” (113-4). 
            On Grendel’s left leg, I chose to illustrate his home.  Grendel’s environment says an enormous amount about who is.  Often it is said that a home shapes who a person is, or the person shapes the home.  This statement obviously holds true for Grendel.  He lives in such a repulsive, dirty, low, and dirty place, where no goodness or happiness can reach or be created, that his evil is reinforced by it. For this reason, we cannot be surprised by Grendel’s character, for his surroundings express and support it.
            The other leg is simply blank with a slight amount of sparkle.  In Beowulf, a large amount of Grendel’s individual character is missing.  Readers only know the few horrific traits the poet tells them.  They understand the simpliest and most important parts of Grendel, but there is little detail in the poem.  However, the little bit of shine in this segment suggest that there is something more to Grendel; that he is a much more complex character than the poem describes.  I think this because in the poem we get slight hints that there might be something more under Grendel’s furred skin; something more than his evilness.
            The final portion of this Grendel collage is a depiction of Herot, a crown, and a small patch of green.  In the poem, the only time we really hear about Grendel is when he invades Herot to kill.  When he comes, the people are terrified and try their best to defend themselves, but their efforts are useless.  Though Hrothgar is king, Grendel rules over the Danes, especially Hrothgar, who is represented by the crown.  Before Beowulf comes, Hrothgar is very despondent about all of this and sees no hope for the situation.  What upsets him the most is that he is defenseless against Grendel, that he must simply watch his own people suffer.  However, the small area of green suggests what the greatest of Grendel’s motives might be: envy.  Grendel can hear the people singing and being merry, but he cannot take part in it; only watch from a distance.  He hates people primarily because he yearns for companionship and joy in his life and cannot have them.  Since, he cannot acquire this happiness, he attacks Herot and its people, resolving to make them as miserable as he is. 
            This collage truly represents Grendel’s character; it shows the viewer who Grendel is under his plain, opaque, and ugly exterior.  People can now see that, even though Grendel acts like a monster and is more of an animal than a human being, inside is a complex person with real feelings and conflicts, such as loneliness, jealousy, and resentment.  Though not directly stated in the poem, Beowulf, the qualities of Grendel are hidden in the words and must be intuited and interpreted by readers to achieve a clear, rich understanding of Grendel and even Beowulf.


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