Beowulf – The Psychology of Grendel
Psychologists often look to a person’s past and upbringing to explain the motivation for their actions as adults. Some authors examine the development of their characters from youth to adulthood through the use of a Bildungsroman. John Gardner did this in his novel Grendel, a companion to the 8th century poem “Beowulf. ” This choice of structure allows the reader to explore not just one part of Grendel’s life, but the entirety of it. The reader sees Grendel’s development as a sheltered child, suffocated by his mother, to an adult facing death.
This allows the reader to view the characters in different lights throughout the novel. The first stage is his childhood, which he spends naively exploring, untroubled by any serious thought (SparkNotes). The book begins in spring which symbolizes growth and rebirth which is exactly what is happening when Grendel goes exploring, showing his rebellious side. Grendel’s wandering leads to a new finding, his discovery of the lake of Firesnakes and life beyond. It is the first sign of curiosity and bravery and his first step toward adulthood.
The second step, which is considered to have made Grendel an adult, happens when the bull attacks him, forcing him to realize that the world follows no rules (SparkNotes). “When I was a child I truly loved: Unthinking love as calm and deep as the North Sea. But I have lived, and now I do not sleep”? (Gardner). As Grendel ventures further and further away from his mother, like most teens tend to do, he goes through a time of depression. He exhibits the behaviors of a nihilist. A nihilist is someone who acts upon total and absolute destructiveness to the world and oneself.
Nihilists believe that life has no meaning, purpose, or value. He screamed and begged for his mother to come and help him right away and it wasn’t until he was nearly killed by the strange new creatures, called the humans, that she came for him. For every child there is a time when they get scuffed up and they don’t have their parent around to kiss them and make it better.
They must rely on themselves because at that moment, that is all they have. When Grendel realizes this, he starts to question himself and his life which ends up being the motivation for all of his decisions bad and good. So childhood too feels good at first, before one happens to notice the terrible sameness, age after age”? (Gardner). Grendel only wants to know that if there is no meaning in life, how one should live their life. He thought differently from those around him and he had no understanding of anything going on. Grendel tries to answer this question by watching the humans who end up becoming his obsession. He watches how they live and what they believe to be the meaning of life, even when he knows that there is not one.
Out of all the humans Grendel watches, he becomes taken with a select few of them. He becomes addicted to the songs of the singer, “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… I believed him! Such was the power of the Shaper’s harp! ” (Gardner) and was excited by the man who called himself a hero. At this point he actually wanted to be a part of the human’s lives. He was so confused about how he truly felt about the singer’s songs, that he went seeking advice from the dragon.
The dragon explained things in a way leaving Grendel still confused but allowed him to realize how untrue rang the singers songs and how false heroism really was. After his talk with the dragon, he seemed to envy and detest the humans. In Grendel’s mind, everything he wanted and wanted answers to, seemed so simple to him. Because of that, he became increasingly frustrated throughout the novel. Grendel seemed to think that the humans acted how they did because they were all violent and instead of trying to join them, he wanted to eat them.
He spent twelve years in a war with the humans during which he picks specific people to kill and eat, he even starts to fall in love. One day Grendel finally decides to get Wealhtheow to save her from her unhappy life. He goes to her in the hopes to love her and show her how much he loves her. But when he obtains ahold of her he sees how tainted she is. He had assumed that because she so obviously had no love for her king that she was still pure, as pure as her beauty made her appear. But she had allowed Grendel’s enemy to have his way with her and they even produced children.
He is filled with so much hurt, especially since it is his first heartbreak, that we wants to burn away her impurities, to save her soul. Instead, he decides that it isn’t worth it because life has no meaning. Throughout Grendel’s adulthood, he even begins to expand his vocabulary, thanks to the humans. On page 52 (Gardner) for example he starts to use profanity. Though he has no idea what these words mean, he uses them because they do, all the other men do in fact. As people get older, their vocabulary collects and enlarges. It also becomes less of a taboo to use words that are considered inappropriate for children.
The last stage of Grendel’s life includes the time before and including his deadly fight with Beowulf (SparkNotes). By the end of the story, through his death, Grendel is left with an answer, though slightly unclear, to his question that he asked the dragon but it is too little too late for him. He wanted to know what the meaning of life was and what the purpose was. He realized that nothing comes out of nothing, “Nihilo ex nihilo ? (Gardner). Grendel really put anything worthwhile into life because he believed it had no meaning, so he lived a life full of no meaning. The book ends with the season of winter which symbolizes aging and death.
This is shown through not only the Death of Grendel but the glory of Hrothgar’s kingdom being diminished. In psychology it is said that to learn something is to have permanent change in behavior. That is exactly what happened with Grendel. He went from knowing nothing of these new creatures and wanting to live with them, to seeing how they stab each other in the back and wanting to kill them for it. He ended his life answering some of the most difficult questions in life, the broad ones. What is the meaning of life? The meaning of life is valued at whatever one puts into it.