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Essay: Why might a reader feel sympathy for Grendel?

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: 21 January 2022*
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  • Words: 921 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 4 (approx)
  • Tags: Beowulf essays

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In the Anglo-Saxon period, which lasted between approximately 410 and 1066, the epic poem Beowulf was written. The protagonist, Beowulf, is viewed as a savior, someone who comes to the rescue when no one else is able to help. The first “monster” he saves the people of Heorot (Denmark) from is Grendel, who serves as the antagonist, as well as the inversion of the hero Beowulf. As a result of how Beowulf describes and depicts Grendel, for many years he is thought to be a one-dimensional character with no personality or characteristics. Then Grendel is published in 1971, which portrays Grendel in quite a contrasting way. According to his first-person perspective in Grendel, the reader is able to understand this so-called “monster” better, and realize he has depth. He is not a flat character who is killed in Beowulf strictly for the purpose of showing Beowulf’s strength. Would a reader feel sympathy for Grendel, despite his cruelty, in John Gardner’s Grendel and Seamus Heaney’s translation of the epic Beowulf, if they knew how alone he was, his perspective, or his slight compassion?
Grendel is kept separate from human society and treated as an outcast. He is quite an isolated being. He is even referred to as “the Lord’s outcast” (Heaney, 13). Due to the fact that he is peculiar, Grendel is alone. The only person like him is his mother, who he cannot communicate with. Grendel was never taught any sort of language because his mother just groans or grunts; she does not speak. He is able to understand the language spoken by the people, but they are frightened by him when he tries to respond. The “monster” simply longs for someone to talk to. After badgering Unferth for a while, Grendel knew that he understood at least some of what he said, and Unferth yelled “‘No more talk!’” (Gardner, 85). Grendel’s largest issue is his lack of communication with others. It bothers him deeply, and leads to his aggression towards humans. “I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist” (Gardner, 22), Grendel acknowledges that he is, and will always be, by himself. Despite the appearance of acceptance, Grendel is infuriated by this realization. A reader may feel sympathetic because they are aware of the importance of interactions with others, and may relate to how Grendel is feeling, especially if they have ever felt abandoned or lonely.
Beowulf was written and released much before Grendel, so for many years, Grendel is believed to be only a monster, a “fiend out of hell” (Heaney, 9). When Grendel is released, readers saw an entirely new perspective of Grendel, since it is written from first person point of view. He finally has a personality, and has reasoning behind his anger. He is a preconceived monster, who is thought to find joy in attacking and killing humans, “In off the moors, down through the mist bands God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping” (Heaney, 49). Grendel’s perspective of the incidents shows that he is misunderstood. He was cruel, but he also had at least some good in him. Readers can relate to Grendel’s feeling of an inner demon or darkness, even though they act upon their instincts differently. The reader could have a sympathetic view of Grendel because they feel a connection to him on an emotional level.
Despite his malice, Grendel has some compassion. After hearing the Shaper, he is drawn in. The Shaper’s way of speaking affects everyone, including Grendel. The Shaper does as his name implies; he reshapes the world, by giving it new light. “He told of an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light. And I, Grendel, was the dark side, he said in effect” (Gardner, 51), Grendel believes every word he says; even when they call him a monster, he still believes. He wants mercy and peace between him and the people, and wants to be their friend, but they are frightened. Later, after meeting with the dragon, Grendel finally understands how the people feel when they see him, “So Grendel waged his lonely war, inflicting constant cruelties on the people, atrocious hurt. He took over Heorot, haunted the glittering hall after dark” (Heaney, 13). Grendel learns that it is different to scare the people for sport, for the fun of it. He declares to stay clear of them. He does not hold true to this statement, but the sentiment is still there. The reader knows that he has learned what he is doing is wrong, and he has some remorse for his actions, which creates sympathy from the reader.
In Beowulf, Grendel is portrayed as a monster. In retrospect, maybe he is. The fact is, Grendel has human-like qualities. These qualities give him the name of a “modern monster”. Readers relate to his emotions, and have affinity towards him. A person can relate to Grendel’s feelings of isolation and inability to communicate. For many, their circumstances may not be as extreme, but they have a connection to him. Readers feel they can relate to his struggles, because they may have the same difficulties. Grendel is an inversion of the epic hero Beowulf. He is the antagonist, which is meant to show his cruelty and lack of mercy. From Grendel’s perspective in Grendel, observers see that he is more complex. He has reasoning behind his anger. From reading Grendel’s version of the incidents, people may feel sympathy for him, because they understand why he did the things he did.

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