Grendel: The Outcast Essay

1632 words - 7 pages

Archetypes refer to the persistently recurring symbols or motifs in literature. The term itself has its origins in ancient Greek and continues to play a prominent role in analyzing literature. Archetypal images and story patterns encourage readers to participate ritualistically in basic beliefs, fears, and anxieties of their age. These archetypal features not only constitute the eloquence of the text but also tap into a level of desires and concerns of civilization. The Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, integrates many of the common archetypes that still exist today. The outcast archetype is one that particularly expressed the desires, anxieties and values of the people who lived during the Beowulf era. Grendel, a character of monstrous appearance and hazily human emotion, is portrayed as the principal outsider in Beowulf. The incorporation of a banished character against his fellow society effectively expressed the anxiety and fears that the Anglo-Saxon culture felt towards seclusion and abnormality, caused by a societal absorption in family lineage and traditionalism.
The outcast archetype describes a figure or character that is rejected by a group. There is often a high level of anxiety linked with this idea, as there is a great deal more vulnerability living outside the group than there is in being an integral part of it. Grendel and his mother are elucidated as outcasts from the very beginning, being descendants from Cain. “Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain's clan, whom the creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel the Eternal Lord had exacted a price: Cain got no good from committing that murder because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too who strove with God time and again until He gave them their reward (Heaney 102-114). It is no accident that the only Biblical story exclusively referred to in Beowulf is the tale of Cain and Abel. In the bible, Cain was the first human born and Abel, his brother, was the first human to die. Cain committed the first murder by killing his brother, likely out of envy and anger. Cain lied about the murder to God, and as a result was cursed and marked for life. In medieval Scandinavia, tribe against tribe and clan against clan often came down to fratricidal combat. Grendel represents the ultimate evil in this culture because he's the descendant of a man who killed his brother. The narrator also condemns another villain of the poem, Unferth, because he killed his brothers. The connection with Grendel to the biblical story of Cain suggests that he is part of this larger religious scheme of evil. Grendel is portrayed as a demonic representation of the culture, an outsider who contains all of society’s unwanted traits. The...

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