The Consequences of Grendel’s Solipsism
In 1971, John Gardner changed the way people think about the English epic Beowulf when he published his novel Grendel. In his retelling of the story from the monster Grendel’s perspective, he repeatedly makes references to the philosophy of solipsism: the belief that one’s self is the only thing that exists and matters. As Gardner’s narrative progresses, Grendel’s solipsistic perspective proves to be exactly the trait that leads him to commit awful and sometimes evil acts.
In the beginning of the novel, as Grendel sets the stage and explains how his battle with the Scyldings began, he also establishes his solipsism. He states that he, “understood that the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears. I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly — as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink” (22). This is a classic outline of solipsism. Grendel believes that the rest of the world he can see and interacts with only exists in relation to himself. In this way, the Danes only exist to provide Grendel with an enemy or with amusement and relief from his boredom. Grendel also believes that he has the power to control what exists around him, changing things into what he wants them to be by will of his mind. He says, “The mountains are what I define them as.” (28).
However, solipsism becomes a harmful life philosophy when it comes to how one interacts with others. Because solipsists believe that no one outside themselves truly exists or matters, they can reason that their actions against others have no consequences. In regards to others, Grendel says, “The world is all pointless accident,” (28) and “all that I do not see is useless, void.” (29). Since Grendel believes these things to be true, it does not seem morally wrong for him to torture and kill humans. After all, to him they do not really exist. It is morally acceptable to Grendel to terrorize them for his own gain and amusement because he is the only thing that really exists in the world. Therefore, can we really hold Grendel accountable for things that he did while only ever knowing and believing in a branch of philosophy that tells him it is not morally incorrect to do this?
In Chapter 7 of the novel, Grendel for the first time stops short of an evil act when he leaves Wealtheow alive after attacking her and intending to murder her. Grendel acts morally, leaving her alive because Wealtheow challenges Grendel’s solipsism, which is what leads him to commit immoral acts. In contrast to the belief that only oneself exists, Wealtheow is the picture of selflessness, putting others before herself. Wealtheow has willingly agreed to marry her brother’s enemy in order to save her own people. She acts with kindness towards Hrothgar’s people, even serving them in their meadhall. Her actions confuse Grendel and, though subconsciously, cause him to doubt his own beliefs. This is why he allows her to live, even though solipsism tells him that her life does not matter.
In the final stages of the novel, Grendel is forced by Beowulf to reject his solipsism. After Beowulf slams his head into a wall, forcing him to admit that the wall exists outside of him and that he did not create it, Grendel says, “Every rock, every tree, every crystal of snow cries out cold-blooded objectness…I understand” (172). In his last moments, Grendel accepts that his solipsistic view of the world is incorrect. He is aware that everything and everyone he has encountered throughout his life actually does exist. He says, “Animals gather around me, enemies of old, to watch me die. I give them what I hope will appear a sheepish smile” (173). Now that Grendel has rejected solipsism and understands the existence of those around him, he has a chance to understand morals and to not act as a monster. However, because Beowulf has torn off his arm, it is too late for Grendel.
The motif of Grendel’s solipsism appears repeatedly throughout the novel, giving the reader a way to understand why Grendel commits the horrendous acts he does. This is important to the novel, because one of the main things the novel aims to do is turn a character who was previously seen only as a villain into one towards whom people can be sympathetic. Readers understand that Grendel’s solipsism is what causes him to lack a moral compass, giving more insight into the iconic character from Beowulf.
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In 1971, John Gardner changed the way people think about the English epic Beowulf when he published his novel Grendel. In his retelling of the story from the monster Grendel’s […]