Where Did Grendel Come From?

Throughout Beowulf, ancestory and family lineage is a well-known and highly valued characteristic of every individual. In fact, the opening of the tale begins by recounting the family history of an ancient king of the Danes Shield Sheafson (Beowulf 1-80). Additionally, the preface of the work has a detailed layout of all “tribes and genealogies”, tracing characters as far as five generations back. Thus, it is safe to assume that individual origins are highly publicized and highly regarded within Beowulf’s society. However, despite the overwhelming emphasis on lineage, the origins of Grendel remain virtually unknown. It is stated that Grendel is a descendant of the biblical character Cain (105-110), yet this claim could have merely been created due the overly-religious nature of the citizens of Hrothgar’s Kingdom in an attempt to draw a similarity between the murderous acts of Grendel and the murderous acts of Cain in the Bible. Regardless, even if Grendel is in fact a descendant of Cain, there is still an incredible gap of unknown lineage between the two. As stated by Hrothgar, “They [Grendel and his mother] are fatherless creatures, / and their whole ancestry is hidden” (1355–1356). The shadow of mystery over Grendel’s origin casts a negative, and almost sinful, connotation. To truly know a man in their society, one must also know that man’s entire family history. This lack of knowledge helps fuel the hatred and distrust towards Grendel.

Another interesting aspect of Grendel’s family lies in the fact that his father is nowhere to be found. The society of the Danes and Geats is an extremely patriarchal one, yet the strong parent figure for Grendel is his mother. With regards to the traditional family structure of the time, Grendel’s seems to be reversed. Not only is Grendel himself an unknown creature, described as a “grim demon” (102), his lack of the traditional and socially accepted family makeup is also extremely foreign. This highlights the differences between Grendel and his human counterparts, and only makes him seem even more unnatural and alien.

As a character, Grendel is known by all the townspeople and brings them overwhelming death and destruction. Because of his major role in the opening of the story, the fact that Grendel has a very foggy past is exceedingly peculiar. Whether it was an intentional act by the author to invoke a deeper symbolic message, or merely just done out of laziness or lack of importance, the origins of Grendel and his family remains a mystery.

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