Grendel by John Gardner

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 Grendel’s mother arrives just in time to save him. Years after his encounter with Grendel, Hrothgar’s power and influence grow until he rules an immense territory.

He builds a glorious meadhall, the greatest in the land, and names it Herot. He builds roads to connect his kingdom and hires an immensely gifted Harper to play at special occasions. Grendel is fascinated by the Harper’s music and tries to join the humans, but he is attacked by the frightened guards and must flee. Feeling lonely and rejected, he visits an ancient dragon that lives within the kingdom. The dragon speaks for some time, and his wicked, tired cynicism infects Grendel. He puts a charm on the young monster, making him impervious to human blades. After this, Grendel becomes a creature of pure destruction.

At the onset of each subsequent spring, Grendel carries out several raids on Hrothgar’s meadhall. He is very careful about this, leaving just enough men behind to rebuild and grow for the next spring. Several years after he builds his meadhall, Hrothgar discovers that one of his neighbors has become a threat. A young king has risen to power nearby and soon his property will border Hrothgar’s. Weakened by Grendel’s yearly raids, Hrothgar is afraid he cannot stand against an attack from the new king. He calls his people together and forms a large army to march on the upstart. The young king is unprepared and helpless.

In desperation, he offers his young sister Wealtheow to Hrothgar. Enchanted by her beauty, Hrothgar accepts and marries her. A few years after Wealtheow’s arrival at Herot, Hrothgar takes in his recently orphaned nephew Hrothulf and his advisor, Red Horse. The prince seeks the throne and slowly begins to cultivate discontent among Hrothgar’s people. The king, spiritually and physically dying, can do nothing to stop him. 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 Hrothgar’s 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 Grendel’s 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.

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