John Gardner's Grendel serves as a prelude to the Old English 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.

Summary of Grendel

Key Facts

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

In the original Beowulf, Grendel is depicted as a monster who terrorizes Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, and his people. The heroic Beowulf comes to Hrothgar’s aid and eventually defeats Grendel in battle.

In his 1971 prequel to Beowulf, John Gardner explores the same story from Grendel’s perspective. Inspired by philosophy and existential theory, the author gives depth to Grendel's character, showing that Grendel is not quite the evil being that everyone knows him to be. Grendel's isolation and his intelligent musings evoke insight into the nature of existence and mankind.

Content Warning: Grendel contains some violent imagery.

What Your Students Will Love About Grendel

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

Potential Student Struggles With Grendel

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

Learning Objectives for 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.

Literary Elements in Grendel

  • Allusion
  • Antihero
  • Epic hero
  • Foreshadowing
  • Metaphor
  • Paradox
  • Personification
  • Simile
  • Symbolism
  • And more!

Major Themes in Grendel

Isolation — The antihero, Grendel, is seen as a monster and is isolated from the world of men.

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Morality — From the perspective of a universally viewed antagonist, the lines between good and evil, and right and wrong, are blurred.

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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.

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Other Resources for Grendel

Order Grendel Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
Grendel Paperback Student Edition
Grendel Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Grendel AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Grendel Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Grendel Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Grendel Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Grendel Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set

This free guide was originally posted in February 2015. It has been updated as of August 2021.