From Outcast to Monster

I have always had an interest in villains and the complex minds behind them, even as a little girl, so I was immediately curious about Grendel when I first read Beowulf. He demonstrates evil behaviour, such as eating a man alive without any real reason other than for the pleasure of it, but why is he labelled as evil? What are the reasons behind his darkness? Is he truly a demon or a creature that has been caught up in a curse that is not his own? Because of these questions, I have chosen the passage that takes place from lines 86 to 114.

Grendel is first introduced as a “powerful demon”, which immediately imposes the idea of a character that is wholly evil without any chance of redemption (86). The poet goes on to tell us that the joyful noises of a nearby hall upset Grendel. However, it is never explained why this upsets him. Is it because he hates happiness or is it because he is envious of them? It is described how God had created the world to be beautiful and helpful to mankind, which obviously excludes Grendel from these delights. This is the first suggestion of Grendel as an outcast. We soon find out that Grendel is the descendent of Cain, who is cursed for the murder of his brother Able. Cain was exiled from his homeland and cursed to be a “restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). The previous lines of the poem that describe Grendel to be “haunting” and “marauding” around the fens liken him to Cain and his wandering. Even though Grendel spends most of his time in these parts, the marches are never referred to as his home. This may have been done in order to give the sense that Grendel truly is an outcast and is estranged everywhere.

How did Grendel get to be a monster? At first I mulled over the word “wanderer”, which reminded me of history’s gypsies and how they were made outcasts. They were seen as abnormal and quite different from society’s norms, and when people are deemed to be different they are typically feared. When fear came into play, I then thought of the fear monsters instill in all of us. And there it was, the link between the initial wanderer and the monster: in this poem, outcasts are made to be monsters and vice versa.

I find that the poet of Beowulf makes Cain much more hated than is suggested in the bible, as he was simply exiled and made to wander. God did not hate Cain for what he did; in fact, God even protected Cain after he banished him. He made it so “no one who found him would kill him” (Genesis 4:15). This made me think: if God did not want Cain to be murdered, would he want Beowulf to murder Grendel?

The very last line of this passage states that all of these cursed creatures are waiting for God to give them their “reward” (114). But just what is the reward? In the end, Grendel was given nothing but death. Peace is possibly the greatest reward of all and it is thought that there is peace in death, but is that what the poet meant? Did he or she mean to say that all these creatures will one day meet their possibly grim end, but in it they will finally find peace and will no longer have to wander?

Works Cited

Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. p.37-80. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume A The Middle Ages 9th ed. 6 vols. New York: NY, 2012. Print.

Zondervan NIV Study Bible. p.10-12. Barker, Kenneth L., gen. ed. Grand Rapids: MI, 2002. Print.

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7 Responses to From Outcast to Monster

  1. bkmilne says:

    I will start by saying I applaud your unique thought process of not only Grendel, but monsters in general. Your research (and/or background knowledge) from the Genesis backs up your opinion quite strongly, and actually has made me consider whether or not Grendel is someone we should feel sorry for.

    In the end, he is still a “monster” and I cannot sympathize with him, not necessarily for being “different” and straying away from the norm, but for the fact that he does monstrous things. Though he may look different, it is not the whole reason he is feared, “eating a persons face for no reason other than pleasure” is probably a huge reason for why he is feared. Just like normal people. as discussed in class, the normal person who looks like our neighbor and is completely within social norm, is not feared until he does something monstrous.

    At this point I use the term monstrous, instead of saying he slips away from norm, because there is a difference. Slipping away from the norm could be something as simple as your male neighbor wearing a dress, that does not make him a feared monster, but if he is a murderer and keeps body parts in his freezer, that is something I consider monstrous and would cause fear.

    To end this, I ask how monstrous acts should be defined? What exactly makes a monster, a monster? Is s/he still a monster if s/he looks weird, nut has no resemblance to humans whatsoever (ie. a purple tiger that eats people, but doesn’t resemble human qualities, it resembles a tiger)

  2. Dane Thibeault says:


    I commend you for your insightful investigation into this passage from the text of Beowulf, and your relentless pursuit to identify the underlying meaning behind the creature Grendle, as it pertains to the poem. Again, there is a recurring sense developed that Grendle is an object of scorn, on behalf of the divine authority within the text, however, I found that your consideration of how this scorn could be a calculated application by the author to reflect his own anxieties towards difference served to peak my curiosity. Perhaps Grendle is only an outcast because he is depicted by the author to be one? Perhaps he is not a monster at all, yet, is the product of discrimination towards an non-deciphered enigma? Thus, the portrayal of Grendle by the author could be considered, in effect, a rhetorical manipulation of reality. Therefore, to provide a response to your posed question: while Grendle is equated to the wandering Cain, I do believe that the God within the text would aspire for Beowulf to slay the beast, as a reflection of the author’s own insecurities towards beliefs, realities, or situations that serve as exotic to the ones he has come to recognize, and commonly identify with. With regards to these considerations, I am now prompted with this abstract question, applying to the entirety of Beowulf: Does the poet consider himself to be the divine authority within the text? Is the poet, himself, in effect God, bestowing upon Grendle, who represents his insecurities and prejudices, divine punishment through establishing him as an exile or a foreign entity in the perceptions of the characters surrounding him? As you have stated, there is the potential that Grendle is not, in fact, resentful of human bliss or fulfillment, but rather, is merely envious of their revelry, as he has been deprived of it, himself. Well done with your insightful analysis, and I encourage you to continue considering abstract perspectives in your approach towards the critical analysis of literature. Regards,

    -Dane Thibeault

  3. Theresa Kenney says:


    Firstly, I enjoyed reading your writing. Your writing style allowed my focus to be on what you were analysing and clearly identified the points found throughout your analysis. I agree with Brittany in that you gave excellent evidence which strongly supported your examples. Simply, I found it interesting, well done, and thought provoking through its entirety.

    Secondly, I understand that your main analysis was about the monster but your comparison of Grendel and his proposed distant relative Cain allowed me to recall some of my own knowledge about the bible. Therefore, I have a suggested answer to one of your last questions.

    “What is the reward?”

    As you explained, Cain was protected by God. Out of God’s mercy He gave Cain a mark, or in this case a reward. Cain was given protection from any harm or premature death (Genesis 4: 13-14).

    Now, this doesn’t explain Grendel’s ending and his absent reward. However, it does connect to what we have been discussing in class. I assume the poet chose to write line 114 the way he did because of the influence of Christianity. I think that the influx of Christianity in the poet’s writing made a suggestion of what cursed creatures could receive from God at their end. The cursed creature, Cain, received a reward from God. The cursed creatures of Beowulf may have been awaiting not the reward of peace, but mercy since the Divine cursed them. I think that God’s mercy is what the line refers to in that sense. Everyone will meet their end, but because they were cursed and punished by the Divine, their reward will be the mercy and protection of God.

    This is only my suggested answer brought on by your analysis. Once again, I commend you for your thought-provoking work.

    Theresa K.

  4. madelynbrakke says:

    Great insights into Grendel and the world of monsters. It is interesting how little we know about Grendel and his mother in Beowulf. They are given no physical description and very little information about their background. Why are they wanderers? Is this what makes them outcasts? You did a very good job of connecting the two, using the comparison of gypsies. It makes you think of other groups that don’t always fit into “societal norms” and how they are seen to the rest of the world as outcasts and abnormal as well.
    Grendel is associated with darkness or a “prowler through the night” (86), I think this also adds to the mystery surrounding him. Why only come out at night? Is he ashamed of himself? For his appearance or his general nature? These questions can only be answered with assumptions, as we never really get a good glimpse into Grendel’s mind.
    Your post made me think about the never ending questions surrounding Grendel, and how we can only use the text (and our thoughts/opinions) to try and answer them. Great job!

  5. jddieu says:

    Hey Stephanie,

    The complexities and intricacies of the villain’s mind and nature is a source of intrigue to me as well. Their irregularities, their lewd and malign actions, their reckless indifference or defiance towards the regulations, laws and rules that society imposes ignites my interest towards their motives, causing a sense of wonderment upon their being. What are these creatures who so brazenly strive against the moral grain? Who are these monsters that disdain the course of nature and become a thing of fear? For what purpose do they perform these evil works? Are they compelled by nature or do they willingly desire to antagonize?
    Indeed Grendel and Grendel’s mother both possess a great and awful malevolence, displayed clearly in their deeds and in their thoughts, in their endless pursuit of inflicting pain, of stripping enjoyment and glee from mortal men. In your questioning of the reasons as to why Grendel had intent on reigning terror down of Heorot, the poet leaves the motives undefined, and perhaps this ambiguity lends to the mysticism and increases the horror of Grendel’s actions. Often times it unknown contributes to the fear factor and heightens the unpredictable behaviours in which villains thrive in.
    Furthermore, in regard to the interconnectedness of the terms outcast and villain, it seems that villains would often operate in such manners because society does not accept them, whether because of their actions, their appearance or their ideologies. Specific to the poem, Grendel is an exile primarily because of his relation to Cain, of which the poet describes Grendel as an offspring or spawn of Cain. Cain, as you have mentioned, was caused to be a “wanderer on the earth” without roots, without a place to call home, forever a nomadic creature, hated by all. In your post you mentioned concepts of the origin of Grendel. Monstrosity is often derived from the nature of the being, and from there stems the symptoms of their deeds and behaviours. Grendel was by nature destined to be an evil thing, (possibly due to the “sins of the father” in Biblical terms, or through nurture and interaction and the company he kept, more precisely, his mother). Indeed it is not a prerequisite for all monsters and fiends to be recluse and isolated, exiled and expatriated; more many times the most fearful ones are those who lurk within society, Trojan horses. What is interesting is that these notions of what constitutes evil and wickedness are still prevalent in today’s contemporary cultures, whether it is the fear of the lone drunkard or a gang of bikers, the abnormal, the occult and the strange will always be seen as trouble and danger.

    John Dieu

  6. mrubling says:

    To repeat another comment above, props for the well-organized points you brought up in your post. Your analysis as to why Grendel is the way he is reminds me of the way he was portrayed in the 2007 film (here’s a clip:
    The director offered his own interpretation of the poem and one of them was the reasoning behind Grendel’s behavior. In the movie he comes off as an almost tormented, misunderstood and child-like monster who lives as an outcast in his cold, damp cave. And as you mentioned in your last paragraph, he is only free from his life of pain through his encounter with Beowulf.
    Putting the movie example aside though, I personally find his character the most interesting the poem because he is just a complex mix of both man and beast. His very human feelings of resentment/jealousy/loneliness are all what motivate him to become furious and murder the Danes. This just really serves as a reminder to me that us humans in society today are still very much slaves to negative emotions that can push us to commit evil acts—from the little things such as spiteful words to hurt someone to mass-murders.

  7. nicolericher says:

    I too have always had a particular empathy and curiosity towards the antagonist.
    I like the conclusion you drew from why Grendel detests the music of the mead hall. Being that he is excluded from Gods intended delights; his envy is almost pitiable from this perspective. The distinct connection between outcasts and monsters was also interesting; especially considering how you drew the line down through Grendel’s lineage, the villainous role Grendel is intended to play begins to shift into that of a victim. Upon examining your web my first thought, forgive my childish allusions, was of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the natural relationship that developed between the gypsy and the “monster” due to their shared title of “societal outcasts/misfits.” Could it be that Grendel’s hatred towards the jovial sounds of the mead hall stems from the frustration that, before he had a choice, he was forever barred from natural connection?
    You’ve raised many questions in this post that will definitely make my next reading of Beowulf a new experience. Final thought – why is Beowulf regarded as God’s emissary if his sole delegation appears to be breaking commandment and killing off God’s creatures?

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