The poem Beowulf and the novel Grendel have a similar plot. Both literary works characterize Grendel in the same way, with minor differences. In the poem, he is an angry man-eating creature with primitive human traits. In the novel, he is lonely and miserable. His inner world is emotionally complicated.
In 1971, John Gardner, an American author, wrote Grendel as a retelling of Beowulf. It describes only one part of the epic poem, where Beowulf faces Grendel. Almost a millennium lies between these two books. That is why their comparison raises much interest.
Grendel is one of the secondary characters in the poem, but he is the protagonist of the novel. Gardner tried to rethink Grendel’s motivation for killing people. In the original Beowulf poem, Grendel shows only the most primitive qualities. In Grendel, he is a smart and thoughtful monster. He struggles between his rational and irrational side, which causes emotional outbursts. The modern novel depicts him as a human being, like any other character in the book. But for the ancient writer, he is just a monster that needs to be stamped out of existence.
Such a difference between the narratives owes to Grendel’s life story. He was Cain’s descendant, so he shares some lineage with people. But the shared history between Grendel and other humans led to their hostility. Gardner’s Grendel teaches us to be more loyal to those who are different and walk in their shoes.
Beowulf and Grendel diverge only in the depth of analysis of Grendel’s character. In the poem, he resembles a heartless monster, uninterested in the life of humanity. But nobody knows if it was really so. Gardner gave us food for thought. Sometimes people are more than meets the eye.