“Once upon a time, someone decided that we were the losers. But there are two sides to every story. And our side has not been told!” says Prince Charming to a room full of “villains” who are left to rot after their adversaries were given “happily ever after” (Shrek the Third). They feel wronged, and justifiably so. Why are they labeled the “bad guys?” How is the hero of a story determined? Is he the victim of fate, against whom all odds are set? The one who fights for their glory and the honor of their ancestors, no matter what the cost? Or, as Norse mythology would say, the one who fights the hardest, but still comes up short (Hamilton 443)? What about the villain? After all, there must be someone for the hero to fight against, an adversary. But how can one tell the difference? In Beowulf, it is almost universally accepted that Beowulf is the hero meant to defeat the villain, Grendel. But a close look at the story reveals the rarely told tale of Grendel, who despite dishonor and pain still fights to right the wrongs done to him and his ancestors. He follows a traditional Norse hero pattern, fighting to the last of his strength, but ultimately coming up short. When Beowulf is explored from Grendel’s point of view, it becomes apparent that the division between hero and villain lies in the eyes of the beholder.
Grendel’s life prior to the story can be seen as tragic and cruel by most standards. From the beginning, he has been an outcast of the world, for no greater crime than his existence. His “whole ancestry is hidden in a past / of demons and ghosts” (Heaney 1356-7). Immediately he is set as inferior to men, since it is said he has no father. In Medieval Norse society, a person’s identity was based so heavily on their father, that to claim someone does not have one is to steal an element of their individuality. He was also from “Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed/ and condemned as outcast” (Heaney 106-107). Cain, who had killed his brother Abel in the early days of creation, had doomed himself and his descendants to be “a fugitive and a wanderer” (Coogan Gen 4:12). Grendel has no control over his ancestry, yet because of their crimes he daily suffers the hatred of not only humanity, but also the divine. God, “the creator,” has turned his back on Grendel, making his life a living hell. Now he is reduced to “dwell[ing] for a time/ in misery among the banished monsters” (Heaney 104-5). For company, Grendel has only those more lonely and dejected than himself. He is not welcome among more civilized crowds. It is from these humble and humiliating beginnings that a hero is formed. It is in Grendel’s already lowly position that insult is added to injury. Grendel’s peace is disrupted daily by “the din of the loud banquet” that occurs every night from “Heorot,” the drinking hall of King Hrothgar (Heaney 88). Even the author of the poem, who seems to side with the Danes, implies the noise created by the celebration is excessive. What are they celebrating? The very thing that cuts Grendel to the quick. They sing “of man’s beginnings,/ how the Almighty had made the earth/ a gleaming plain girdled with waters” (Heaney 91-3). They hearken back to that time before Cain had fallen, of everything that Grendel and his ancestors had lost – the beautifully created plains and waters, the favor of God. For this beauty that man now enjoys alone, the Danes are praising the God who has banished Grendel to his life of misery. The Danes even have the nerve to sing of it as their own glorious beginning, without a thought for those to whom the last little bit of paradise has been taken. Such bitter memories aroused in such an unpleasant manner are enough to upset anyone.
This arrogance on the part of the Danes in the face of Grendel’s misfortune causes Grendel to seek out justice. In the face of such insult, what is there left for Grendel to do? In the world of the medieval Scandinavia, it would be cowardly to let such injustice slide. Grendel takes the only option that will not lead him to disgrace. He fights back savagely, killing many. Victory is almost his. He would be able to avenge not only his own plight, but also that of every demon that has come before him. He becomes the champion of the demons. Grendel is able to destroy that wretched mead hall, something that “no Shielding elder would believe/ there was any power or person upon the earth capable of wrecking” (Heaney 777-9). It was an ornate, human built structure where men were merry in their pride and power. The Danes had thought it indestructible. But is seems Grendel is about to succeed. No one can hurt him, since “no blade on earth…could ever damage their demon opponent” (Heaney 801-2). After all of these years, justice will be served, as seen by the seemingly mystical protection that surrounds Grendel. Grendel seems to have the victory finally, and rightfully, secured. But in true Norse fashion, Grendel comes up just short of victory. For where many men fail, one man with an iron grip is able to outlast even Grendel. For “Beowulf was granted/ the glory of winning; Grendel was driven under the fen-banks” (Heaney 818-9). In the end, Grendel has gained little honor and lost so much more. He dies in disgrace, driven from the hall, while his adversary is honored with more drink and fine jewels. Beowulf, is rewarded with yet another feast, so big that “no group ever gathered in bigger numbers” (Heaney 1010). The whole of the Earth is celebrating Grendel’s pain. The champion of the demons has fallen to a meddler. The victor could hardly be less deserving of such honor.
Though orphaned at a young age, Beowulf grew up in the care of the king, treated “no worse…than one of his own boys” (Heaney 2432-3). Unlike Grendel, Beowulf has had every advantage in life. He has been treated well by his adopted parents and has never been shunned or isolated. Even when he was little, he had a place of honor among mortals. His family is also without shame. Though Beowulf might not know his real father, his father’s glory still lives on in him. He is often called “son of Ecgtheow,” passing the father’s honor onto the son. Before Beowulf can even walk, he has respect from his ancestry of warriors, something that Grendel could not even imagine. Beowulf has nothing to redeem and little to prove. He is simply a giant bully, fighting for the sake of fighting. It is to this unworthy man that Grendel falls. The fact that Beowulf will be honored for generations to come is the icing on the cake of Grendel’s tragic story.
Despite the story’s clear bias to Beowulf as the hero (his name is the title of the story after all), upon closer inspection it becomes clear that in the Norse tradition, the true tragic hero is Grendel. Grendel fights to redeem his ancestry and his past, challenging the humans who have shunned him for years in order to gain back the respect that was once lost. Unfortunately, he is unable to gain the justice he seeks so desperately. Instead, he is forced to leave in disgrace, and be forever remembered as the evil demon who almost destroyed the Danes. It is only through close investigation that the plight of Grendel comes into focus. Before making a judgment of who are the heroes and the villains, it is important to hear both sides of the story.
Coogan, Michael David. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocrypha : An Ecumenical Study Bible. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Back Bay, 1998. Print. Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2001. Print.