What do you know directly (and
what can you infer) about Grendel after reading only the first
What, if anything, do you think young Grendel learns about
himself and the world while he is trapped in the tree?
Describe the quality of Grendel's relationship with his mother.
Grendel is a fairly close and curious observer of humans throughout
the book. What does he think of them as a young monster, before
he meets the Dragon, and then after the dragon-encounter?
Describe the effect of the Shaper's songs on Grendel's sense
of the world, of humans, and of himself.
Why do you think Grendel does not kill Ork or Wealtheow when
he has the chance?
What physical and psychological traits does Gardner give to
In what ways is Grendel a "modern"
How does Grendel create for Unferth a fate worse than death?
Why does he do this to him?
Could Hrothulf be seen as a "typical" teenager or
young adult? Why or why not?
What seems to be Hygmod's dominant personality trait? How
do you recognize this?
Is Beowulf the same kind of hero in Grendel as he was
in the original poem? How is he the same? How is he different?
Point of View
Why would John Gardner choose
to retell Beowulf from the monster's point of view? What is to
be gained from such a shift?
How does Grendel's telling of his own story affect your response
to him? How is this response different from the way you thought
of him in Beowulf?
Try to imagine this novel written from the third person point
of view - though still from the monster's side. What does first
person narration add to Gardner's tale?
Imagine that the author of the original Beowulf epic has just
read Gardner's book. What would his reactions be? What might
he like about the novel? What would confuse or upset him?
The Meaning and/or Meaninglessness
What gives meaning (a sense
of purpose and value) to the life of each of the following characters:
Hrothgar, Wealtheow, Unferth, The Dragon, The Shaper, Red Horse,
Ork, Hrothulf, Beowulf?
Grendel's narration is full of references
to a mechanical universe. Why do you think he uses this image?
What does this reveal about his own sense of the meaning of life?
Why does Grendel do all he can to mock
and deny the idea of The Heroic?
The Power of Art/Song/Language/Shaping
Describe the effect of the Shaper's songs on Grendel's
sense of the world, of humans, and of himself.
How do humans in the novel change the world and themselves
through their craft and art?
The Need for Community
Grendel is an outsider, but
he does sometimes express or show a desire to be part of a community
- even the human community. Describe some of these moments. What
are the outcomes of his need to belong?
What does Grendel see as some of the
strengths and weaknesses of the human community?
Good vs. Evil
Although Grendel in Beowulf
represents all that is evil, Gardner seems to take a different,
more complex approach. Identify some signs of potential goodness
in Grendel. What prevents these "seeds" of goodness
What exactly makes Grendel a monster?
Consider not only his physical appearance but also his moral
and spiritual understandings.
Where does Grendel find Evil in the
to Grendel, who or what are "the bad guys"?
Who or what is Good in Grendel's eyes?
Of what does that goodness consist?
Freedom vs. Determinism
How much (if any) of Grendel's
behavior is determined by Instinct or Nature? How much (if any)
is determined by his own Will (conscious choice)?
What is it about caves and monsters?
Why are they so closely asociated with each other? How might
the cave in this novel be used in both literal and symbolic ways?
From Grendel's point of view,
what is the most interesting thing about Hart? What does Hart
seem to represent to him?
What does Hart mean to the humans?
The Natural World
What does Grendel think and
feel about the physical world through which he walks?
Discuss the ways in which Grendel's
language (his choice of words and images) is colored and shaped
by the natural world around him.
The Human World
How effectively do you think
the physical conditions of the human world are portrayed through
Grendel's eyes? What does Grendel find most striking about the
way these humans live?
Grendel in Other Contexts
Does Grendel in this novel remind
you of any character in another book or film?
Read another novel by John C. Gardner
and look for thematic similarities between it and Grendel.
It has been said that Gardner used this
ancient tale of Grendel to tell a very modern story about the
nature of Evil and the quest for a meaningful life in the 20th
century. In what ways do you find this to be true?
Learn about the philosophies of Friedrich
Nietzsche, Alfred North Whitehead, or the existentialism of Jean-Paul
Sartre. Apply your new knowledge to an understanding of this
Discuss John Gardner's creative use
of anachronism in this novel.
Discuss the meaning of The Heroic in both the original poem
Beowulf and in Gardner's novel. What does it mean to be a hero?
Could it be that Unferth is the most honorable character in