Taken from the epic and ancient poem Beowulf, Grendel, the first and most terrifying monster in English literature, is said to be a direct descendant of Cain, the first biblical murderer. This poetic story of unknown authorship barely survived the atrocious monastic destruction perpetrated by Henry VIII in England. One copy of the poem survived, and it had to be patched up in a few places. But we do have it.
Beowulf may be the oldest example of English (nothing we might recognize) language literature. Dating back to about 700 to 1000 AD, it deals with life and culture around the sixth century. The story is set during a time and in a place when battle, conquest, and death were honored descriptions of what life was like.
The protagonist is Beowulf, a young, strong, and powerful warrior who eventually becomes a king. Unlike the average leader of the time, Beowulf seemed to care about his people and introduced leadership with compassion as opposed to fear and dread. Beowulf must defeat three antagonists: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon.
The story tells us that Grendel had been attacking and killing Danes every night for 12 years. Beowulf comes to the aid of the Dane king whose mead hall had been under nightly attack by the monster.
If Beowulf was to fight Grendel to the death on Grendel’s terms, it would be unarmed and (presumably) naked. Since Grendel used no weapons, Beowulf chose the same. Grendel had done a lot of damage and killed many of the king’s mead hall drinkers in his years of harassment. In the poem, Grendel is presented as an evil that must be stopped and Beowulf is the man to do it.
Flash forward a thousand years or so, and in an interesting twist, another side of the story is told in the 1971 book by John Gardner, titled, Grendel. In this frequently banned book, Grendel tells his side of the story. This is a retelling of Beowulf that follows the monster Grendel as he learns about humans and fights the war at the center of the Anglo Saxon classic epic.
I have always felt that there are at least two sides to every story, but one must wonder what the Danes were thinking when they returned to the mead hall every night for 12 years, there to drink and sleep, only to be attacked by the monster. With so many being killed during so many attacks, the Danes must have been close to decimated before Beowulf made his mark.
Open the window and look both ways, the monster approaches.
Mind the gaps as you escape his anger and his vengeance.