John Gardner's Grendel serves as a prelude to the eighth century epic poem, Beowulf. The novel's content is largely philosophical, based on all-encompassing themes of humanity and isolation. Gardner drew inspiration from Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, which provides a basis for existential elements in the text.

While this novel is an excellent companion to Beowulf, it presents a high level of complexity to readers because of its philosophical nature. Before students begin reading, it may be helpful to prepare a lesson on existentialism, nihilism, anarchism, and other philosophical themes Gardner weaves throughout the story.

Students must be familiar with Beowulf in order to have a full understanding of Gardner's novel. As an exercise, students should draw parallels between the poem and the novel. Open discussion will provide rich and nuanced interpretations of both texts.


In his 1971 prequel to Beowulf, John Gardner explores the nature of one of literature's most famous villains. Inspired by philosophy and existential theory, the author gives depth to Grendel's character, showing that Grendel is not quite the monster that everyone knows him to be. Grendel's isolation and his intelligent musings evoke insight into the nature of existence and mankind.

Content Warning

This novel contains some violent imagery.

Objectives for Teaching Grendel

  • Discuss parallels between Grendel and its source text, Beowulf.
  • Analyze the specific ways with which John Gardner develops Grendel's character.
  • Discuss how philosophical elements such as existentialism, nihilism, and anarchism fit into the story's narrative.
  • Determine whether or not readers can consider Grendel a reliable narrator.
  • Identify and analyze symbols in the novel.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allusion
  • Antihero
  • Foreshadowing
  • Paradox
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

  • Isolation — The antihero, Grendel, is seen as a monster and is isolated from the world of men.
  • Morality — From the perspective of a universally viewed antagonist, the lines between good and evil, and right and wrong, are blurred.
  • Individual vs. Society — Grendel antagonizes the Danes throughout the novel, which provides the basis for Beowulf's story and illustrates the juxtaposition between the community and the antihero's isolation.

Related Works

Theme of Isolation


Theme of Morality


Theme of Individual vs. Society

Key Facts

  • Length: 174 pages
  • Publication Date: 1971
  • Lexile Measure: 920
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12


  • Nominated for the Mythopoeic Award for best novel (1972)


A 1981 Australian animated film titled Grendel Grendel Grendel is based on Gardner's novel.

Your students will love:

  • The fresh perspective on the hero/villain archetype
  • The philosophical themes and ideas of morality

Students may have problems with:

  • Understanding or sympathizing with the idea of the antihero
  • Interpreting philosophical complexities

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