Epic poems are usually black and white; there is a superhuman good-guy and a powerful but doomed villain that he will defeat. As readers, we have always assumed that the hero is the person with the good values and unwavering morals while the enemy is the strong and seemingly undefeatable spawn of pure evil. John Gardner had other ideas when he wrote Grendel based on the antagonist of the classic epic “Beowulf.” Quickly, the reader is immersed in Grendel’s thoughts and sees that he too is fighting inner demons. Just as in regular epics, Grendel’s main villains (for he hates almost everyone) are just composite beings of his true nemesis. Ultimately, Grendel was self-defeating since he dedicated his life to theology which cannot stand the test of time.
Grendel constantly toys with different theologies throughout the novel. We see him try Solipsism in his youth, determining that “finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, was merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly—as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back” (22). This theory that nothing holds true meaning until he gives it meaning could only last so long. Soon, he was frightened that if this is true, he does not exist either, because he realizes that the only proof he has of his existence is that he thinks he exists, but means nothing at all if he does not exist. Grendel’s entire world is thrown off kilter—if he does not exist then everything he thinks exists does not exist either; but then what does?
While he struggles with his own theology, he questions the faith of the villagers as well. When he overhears the Shaper recounting the story of Cain and Abel he states, “the brothers had never lived, nor the god who judged them” (51). Grendel cannot get himself to believe in a god at first because he realizes that he is alienated for murdering, yet he is holding a man slain from a drunken duel. He does not see the hypocrisy, instead he sees it as proof that either both he and mankind are cursed or neither, and, because of his unfair sentence, it is impossible that a true judge could ever have existed (51). This feeling is deepened as he grows older, seeing the priests pray to wooden idols and watching the people ruin the beauty and resources the land once supplied. One night he watches a priest pray to one of these idols, asking it to defend the people from Grendel by killing him and alleviating their problem. Grendel’s response is to scoff. “I smile, arms folded on my chest, and wait, but nobody comes to kill me” (127). The complete lack of any miraculous events only confirms Grendel’s atheism.
When Grendel decides to talk to the dragon, it seems that he has made the right decision. The dragon’s response to all the theories about living is that they are “games, games, games!” (64). The dragon continues on to say that their theories have “no total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say,...