Grendel (meaning “The Destroyer”) is one of three antagonists, alongside with Grendel's mother and the dragon, in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf.
Beowulf is an English heroic epic poem set in Scandinavia and cited as one of the most important Anglo-Saxon literature works of all time. Dated between the 8th and early 11th century (AD 700–1000), this epic poem tells the story of Beowulf, a great hero who comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, by defeating a beast known as Grendel who had been terrorizing and threatening the entire of Hroðgar’s kingdom.
Despite it's fame, the exact description of Grendel is a source of debate among scholars because his exact appearance is never directly described by the original Beowulf poet.
Some scholars have linked Grendel's descent from Cain to the monsters and giants of the Cain tradition (as an archetype of fratricide).
In his translation of Beowulf, author Seamus Heaney, describes Grendel as vaguely human in shape, though much larger:
…in the shape of a man, moves beyond the pale
bigger than any man, an unnatural birth
called Grendel by the country people
in former days.
Later in the text, when Grendel's torn arm is inspected, it's describe as being covered by impenetrable scales and horny growths:
Every nail, claw-scale and spur, every spike
and welt on the hand of that heathen brute
was like barbed steel. Everybody said
there was no honed iron hard enough
to pierce him through, no time proofed blade
that could cut his brutal blood caked claw
More modern interpretations of the poem, such as those from Peter Dickinson (1979), show that seeing as the considered distinction between man and beast at the time the poem was written was simply that men walk on two legs (bipedal), the given description of Grendel being man-like (or “in the shape-of-a-man”) does not necessarily imply that Grendel is meant to be human-like, just that he walked like on his two feet. Dickinson goes as far as suggesting that Grendel could easily have been envisioned as a bipedal dragon, hence the “Every nail, claw-scale and spur, every spike,” verse included in the description.This version of Grendel’s appearance holds some support from other scholars considering that both Grendel and the Dragon share a progenitor (Grendel’s mother).
Archaeological research has verified that the great hall commissioned by Hroðgar (where Grendel terrorizes many of Hroðgar loyal citizens) did indeed exist, and was located in Denmark's earliest royal capital —Lejre— 45 km west of modern Copenhagen. Whether Grendel originally existed in some less legendary form —perhaps symbolizing a malevolent spirit responsible for disease and death, or a particularly fierce-looking human enemy— is as yet unknown.
-Klaeber, Frederick (1950). Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. Third ed. Boston: Heath.
-Kuhn, Sherman M (1979) .Old English Aglaeca-Middle Irish Olach". Linguistic Method: Essays in Honor of Herbert Penzl. Eds. Irmengard Rauch and Gerald F. Carr. The Hague, New York: Mouton Publishers, 213–30.
-Tolkien, J.R.R. (1937). Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics, British Academy, 1936. London, Humphrey Milford.
-Cawson, Frank. (1995). The Monsters in the Mind: The Face of Evil in Myth, Literature, and Contemporary Life. Sussex, England: Book Guild.
-Thorpe, Benjamin (trans) (1885). The Anglo-Saxon Poems of Beowulf: The Scôp or Gleeman's Tale and the Fight at Finnesburg Oxford University Press.