Friday, October 7, 2011

Beowulf vs Grendel

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Beowulf is a long poem with no break in its narrative. It is also a masterful poem that weaves superhuman, almost magical powers around its heroic protagonist, Beowulf. As the symbol of both strength and goodness, he does quite extraordinary feats, but always with a powerful sense of social responsibility and morality.

The narrator opens the Beowulf poem with a discussion of Shield Sheafson, a great king of the ancient Danes and the founder of their royal line. He began life as a foundling (an infant abandoned by his parents) but quickly rose to be strong and powerful. All of the clans had to pay him tribute, and, when he died, he was honored with an elaborate funeral ceremony. His body was put into a boat, covered with treasures and armor, and cast off to sea. Shield Sheafsons life ended as it began, with him cast adrift on the water.

The novel, Grendel, opens late in the chronological development of a plot. Grendel, a powerful, intelligent monster, has been at war with a band of humans for twelve years. As the novel progresses, he recounts the events of his life that led to the war and the bitter years that followed.

Grendel lives in a dark and gruesome underground cave with his mother and dozens of cold, unmoving creatures. He is very curious and, in his early years, finds a way to escape this terrible place and enter the world. Every night he wanders outside his cave, exploring the land around him. One night, he gets trapped in a tree. A band of human beings led by King Hrothgar approaches and, after some hesitation, attacks Grendel. They close in for the kill, but Grendels mother arrives just in time to save him.

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In Grendel, Grendel is a highly intelligent, sensitive, and decidedly immature monster. Grendel lives with his mother in a cave underneath a swamp. From the very onset of his life, he questions the world around him. He is immensely curious, and this curiosity leads him to examine the nature of his own existence. He seeks answers, but when he finds them, he is not strong enough to live with them. His spirit dies in the philosophical aftermath, and Grendel becomes a hollow, brutal creature.

In Grendel, Beowulf is the Leader of the Geats. He is fearless, supernaturally strong, and absolutely confident. He represents the natural reflex against chaos and emptiness. He is the ultimate hero, the ultimate answer. His philosophy--that life and beauty are their own justification--is the fundamental philosophical stance of the entire novel. Beowulf represents the authors intended response to Grendels debilitating questions about the meaning of life.

Hrothgar is the Leader of the Danes. Hrothgar was, in his youth, an ambitious and clever conqueror. He brought order to the land around him and the kingdom he created was a magnificent one. He represented to Grendel all of mankind, and as such, he was the target of Grendels rage. After years of relentless war with the monster, Hrothgar became a weak and sad old man, and now his kingdom has shrunk, his army has become weak, and Hrothgar himself is essentially dead.

In Beowulf, Beowulf exemplifies the traits of the perfect hero. The poem explores his heroism in two separate phases�youth and age�and through three separate and increasingly difficult conflicts�with Grendel, Grendels mother, and the dragon. Although we can view these three encounters as expressions of the heroic code, there is perhaps a clearer division between Beowulfs youthful heroism as an unfettered warrior and his mature heroism as a reliable king. These two phases of his life, separated by fifty years, correspond to two different models of virtue, and much of the moral reflection in the story centers on differentiating these two models and on showing how Beowulf makes the transition from one to the other.

In Beowulf likely the poems most memorable creation, Grendel is one of the three monsters that Beowulf battles. His nature is ambiguous. Though he has many animal attributes and a grotesque, monstrous appearance, he seems to be guided by vaguely human emotions and impulses, and he shows more of an interior life than one might expect. Exiled to the swamplands outside the boundaries of human society, Grendel is an outcast who seems to long to be reinstated. The poet hints that behind Grendels aggression against the Danes lies loneliness and jealousy. By lineage, Grendel is a member of Cains clan, whom the creator had outlawed / and condemned as outcasts. (106�107). He is thus descended from a figure who epitomizes resentment and malice. While the poet somewhat sympathetically suggests that Grendels deep bitterness about being excluded from the revelry in the mead-hall owes, in part, to his accursed status, he also points out that Grendel is [m]alignant by nature and that he has never show[n] remorse (17).

Hrothgar, the aged ruler of the Danes who accepts Beowulfs help in the first part of the story, aids Beowulfs development into maturity. Hrothgar is a relatively static character, a force of stability in the social realm. Although he is as solidly rooted in the heroic code as Beowulf is, his old age and his experience with both good and ill fortune have caused him to develop a more reflective attitude toward heroism than Beowulf possesses. He is aware of both the privileges and the dangers of power, and he warns his young prot�g� not to give in to pride and always to remember that blessings may turn to grief. Hrothgars meditations on heroism and leadership, which take into account a heros entire life span rather than just his valiant youth, reveal the contrast between youth and old age that forms the turning point in Beowulfs own development.

In Grendel, by the twelfth year, Grendel has grown weary of his monotonous yearly routine and gruesome life. He is desperate for a challenge. He sees a band of warriors land on Hrothgars shore. They are led by Beowulf, an immense, self-assured demigod among men, and in his arrival, Grendel senses something faintly prophetic. Beowulf assures Hrothgar that he can slay Grendel and gathers his men in the meadhall in preparation. Unable to resist the challenge and the unavoidable change, Grendel attacks. Beowulf is stronger than anyone Grendel has ever met, and with a vicious jerk, he rips Grendels arm off. Grendel is terrified, desperate in his agony, and runs to the cliff outside his home. He stands over the edge, barely hanging on to life, and lets himself fall into the chasm.

In Beowulf, In time, Hygelac is killed in a war against the Shylfings, and, after Hygelacs son dies, Beowulf ascends to the throne of the Geats. He rules wisely for fifty years, bringing prosperity to Geatland. When Beowulf is an old man, however, a thief disturbs a barrow, or mound, where a great dragon lies guarding a horde of treasure. Enraged, the dragon emerges from the barrow and begins unleashing fiery destruction upon the Geats. Sensing his own death approaching, Beowulf goes to fight the dragon. With the aid of Wiglaf, he succeeds in killing the beast, but at a heavy cost. The dragon bites Beowulf in the neck, and its fiery venom kills him moments after their encounter. The Geats fear that their enemies will attack them now that Beowulf is dead. According to Beowulfs wishes, they burn their departed kings body on a huge funeral pyre and then bury him with a massive treasure in a barrow overlooking the sea.

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