Written in the 8th century, Beowulf is an Old English poem that is considered to be one of the most important compositions of Anglo-Saxon literature.  Grendel, a monster Beowulf defeats, is a quintessential example of “freakery” in literature in that he embodies humanistic characteristics, as he is still a half-human creature with enough perception of good to be able to recognize that he lacks it, but is still considered to be one of the villainous, monstrous freaks that the author of Beowulf describes.  The poet in Beowulf tells the audience that “Grendel is directly descended from the biblical murderer, Cain” (Farrell 935).  At this point in time, Grendel is still portrayed as “a harbinger of violence . . . looking for a meaning to his own existence” (Farrell 947).  This insecurity and struggle for identity is a common theme among freaks that are often exiled and live their lives as outcasts.  Grendel’s freakish qualities are the root cause of his own exile.  However, in 1971, John Gardner, author of Grendel, his adaptation of the original story of Beowulf, humanizes Grendel by giving him the ability to rationalize and sympathize with his victims.  Moreover, Gardner brings in an interesting perspective to the original story by bringing in the concept of existentialism, as Grendel exiles and shuts out other people in the world.  Eventually as time progressed, Grendel evolved from an incomprehensible, savage killer to an ambiguous symbol of darkness within the human psyche, especially with the onset of Matt Wagner’s adaptation of the original story.

Farrell argues that the sense of freedom that comes with being an outcast like Grendel allows us to live vicariously.  Modern artists, such as Lady Gaga, have embraced this notion and remind people to embrace their individuality and differences, even if they may be considered to be freakish.  In her Manifesto of Little Monsters, Lady Gaga discusses the idea that loneliness can establish a sense of community among those who are isolated or exiled, like Grendel, because together, they are all perceived to be unusual or freakish.  However, Lady Gaga believes that individuals are nothing without their image or who they perceive themselves to be.  By embracing their image, individuals, especially those considered freakish, can live their lives freely without judgment or succumbing to conventional lifestyles in society.  In addition, Lady Gaga reiterates a sense of community among the “freakish” individuals by stating that she will be lonely whenever others are lonely.  As a result, though he initially is considered nothing more than a savage beast killing human beings, Grendel becomes a sense of hope, optimism, and idealism for those struggling to accept themselves and their place in society and identifying who they are.


Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print.

Esolen, Anthony. “Secular Grendel.” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 24.1 (2011): 20-23. EBSCO. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Farrell, Jennifer Kelso. “The Evil Behind the Mask: Grendel’s Pop Culture Evolution.”  Journal of Popular Culture 41.6 (2008): 934-949. EBSCO. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Hume, Kathryn. “Medieval Romance and Science Fiction: The Anatomy of a Resemblance.” The Journal of Popular Culture 15.1 (1982): 15-26. Google Scholar. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Milosh, Joseph and John Gardner. “John Gardner’s ‘Grendel’: Sources and Analogues.” Contemporary Literature 19.1 (1978): 48-57. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.


One response to “Grendel

  1. You’ve done a great job narrating the evolution of Grendel. I’m wondering if you might draw a comparison between Grendel and Frankenstein, in that both figures seem to persist across time. Your post made me wonder: how might we think about the relationship between monstrosity and adaptation? And might these monsters’ “fame” (to use the title of one of Lady Gaga’s songs) provide them with a sort of escape from their own loneliness?

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