The clash between good and evil has been a prominent theme in literature. The Bible presents the conflict between good and evil in the story of Adam and Eve. Many authors use the scene in the Bible in which the snake taunts and tempts Adam and Eve to take a bite of the apple of knowledge to demonstrate the frailty of humankind. John Gardner provides these same biblical allusions of good and evil in his novel, Grendel.
One of Grendel's archenemies is the human. Humans refuse to look beyond Grendel's unattractive exterior, and spend most of their days trying to kill Grendel. One night when Grendel is watching their mead hall, he sees them "treating their sword-blades with snake's venom" (Gardner 29). Another conflict between humans and serpents develops when Grendel is watching the Shaper for the first time. As he listens, he "snatch e[s] up a snake from beside [his] foot" (40), and holds it in his fist as he listens to the Shaper sing.
The snake represents the deceptive weaving of history that the Shaper performs in Hrothgar's mead hall. Grendel interacts with one of the priests, Ork, in the circle of Gods, by pretending to be the Great Destroyer. Ork predicts that the Great Destroyer will eventually fall, foreshadowing Grendel's battle with Beowulf. Ork tells his fellow priests about his conversation with the Great Destroyer, but they just "look down at him as they would at a wounded snake" (118). In Grendel's eyes, all humans are evil, because they refuse to take the time to understand him. Because of this, Grendel battles the humans throughout the novel until one of them finally takes his life.
The only human brave and strong enough to defeat Grendel was the powerful Geat, Beowulf. Grendel watches Beowulf and his band of Geat land their ships on the shores of Hrothgar's kingdom. Grendel observes Beowulf speaking to the coastguard, and notices that Beowulf's eyes are "slanted downward, never blinking, unfeeling as a snake's" (135). Grendel's observations about Beowulf's destructiveness are proven true as he engages in mortal combat with the Geat.
When Beowulf takes hold of Grendel's arm, Grendel feels as if Beowulf's "fingers are charged like fangs with poison" (148). After this battle, Grendel's arm is pulled off at the socket, and he retreats to his cave to die. Another human that attempted to defeat Grendel was the top man in Hrothgar's hall, Unferth. During Grendel's first encounter with Unferth, Grendel notices a "table piled with glossy apples... [and] an evil idea came over [him]" (72). As Unferth ran at Grendel with his sword drawn, Grendel threw an apple at him and continued until it "was raining apples at [Unferth]" (73).
Unferth tries to fight through the barrage of apples by dropping to his knees, but Grendel simply tips a table over on top of Unferth. This allusion refers to the apple of knowledge, the source of Adam and Eve's temptation in the Garden of Eden. Later in the novel, Grendel observes Unferth as having "eyes like a couple of fangs" (140). Once again, Unferth is portrayed as a source of evil. The final source of evil in the novel is not human, but instead is the dragon that Grendel embraces for companionship and counsel. While the dragon converses with Grendel, "the corners of his mouth snake up as he chuckle[s]" (50).
As their interaction continues, Grendel realizes that he may not make it out of the dragon's cave alive, because the dragon is "serpent to the core" (53). The dragon further fills Grendel with fear as Grendel senses the "venom in [the dragon's] breath" (54-55). The dragon urges Grendel to battle and torment the humans, which ironically leads to Grendel's downfall. The two books, Grendel and Beowulf, present very different perspectives on the conflict between good and evil. In Grendel, the humans and the dragon are portrayed as the antagonists while Grendel is the protagonist of the story. However, the opposite is true in Beowulf.
The plots in these two novels contradict the frequently held view that good always triumphs over evil. The stories of Adam and Eve and Grendel are similar in their depiction of the outcome in the clash between good and evil, evil triumphs. Works Cited Gardner, John. Grendel.
New York: Vintage Books, 1971.