“Whatever the reason, his heart or his pains,
He stood there that evening just hating the Danes.
... At the warm lights of Heorot away by the town.”
Grendel would go on to kill more than 30 Danish men as they slept in the Heorot that night and for many years after that incident. Despite his role in bringing our hero, Beowulf, to King Hrothgar’s kingdom, why is Grendel a flat character in Beowulf?
Grendel is one of the flat characters in Beowulf because he exhibits a one-dimensional personality. The monster remains shrouded in mystery throughout the text as it’s told from a third-person perspective. Grendel is descended from an evil being, has evil thoughts, and constantly acts unilaterally without consideration for anyone else.
He is a descendant of Cain, which does not dissuade the audience from his evil nature. Grendel does not exhibit a lot of character development. He does not appear to change throughout the play. We get vague descriptions of Grendel, and all the audience knows about him is hatred and anger.
The audience is introduced to Grendel by comparing the boisterous Danes and Grendel’s evil nature. We also learn the monster lives with his mother, who’s not named in the original text. This further shows the vague nature of his character since we cannot use his family to discern whether Grendel grows as a character.
It is important to note that Grendel immediately attacks the Danes at King Hrothgar’s Mead Hall. He does not consider the possibility of making peace with King Hrothgar and his men. Grendel does not note that the king does not send expeditions to kill him. He forgets his own words at the beginning of the story;”…they forgot how to care.” Grendel does not care about his actions; his focus is driven by hatred rather than trying to communicate with the Danes about the noise.
Grendel does not grow in any way throughout the story. He does not have a complex backstory despite being descended from Cain. Grendel illustrates the typical portrayal of a hateful, murderous, and unforgiving monster. His lack of deviation from a set plan shows his disdain for changes. He appears every night at Heorot for twelve years without considering any other method to deal with his misery.
One could infer that Grendel does not feel the need to conduct introspection as he lives in isolation. He lives with his mother, who also shows disdain for humans, giving him fewer individuals that could help him change his opinion of people. Grendel does not consider Heorot’s importance to the Danish community but deems it a nuisance. This is an interesting take, as he is the only one that does not attend Hrothgar’s celebrations.
Another interesting theory about Grendel’s flat character is that he does not need to adapt to his proximity to people. He is a strong being that attacks Heorot daily, alleviating his anger at the noisy hall and killing those within it. Grendel does not face any challenges when killing people and has done it for a decade. He does not need to change without problems, seeing that death works in his favor.
Finally, we should consider that Grendel is alien to human experiences. He does not see that King Hrothgar cares about his subjects, lavishing them with gifts and feasts at his mead hall. Grendel cannot discern the absurd nature of his attacks after experiencing similar conditions for twelve years. He does not need to shine; Grendel’s interests are purely physical, noise and food. It is improbable to imagine the Danes would continue celebrating that night after watching their kin die a few minutes before!
Could it be possible that Grendel continued attacking the Danes as he could satiate his hatred for people while getting a feast for his trouble? The poem’s author notes that Grendel did not have to worry about a full meal when he first attacked Heorot. He may have seen the people as an easy source of food. Therefore, why not kill them and eat simultaneously if they kept making noise?
Grendel may be a flat character, but he is the reason we meet Beowulf. The epic introduces us to one of the oldest Old English texts. Grendel does not help the audience develop in any way. He does not evoke thought and appears to be a mindless beast. One way to recognize Grendel’s lack of impact is when Beowulf rips off his arm. Most people would picture a beast’s savage nature losing out against man’s valor.
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