As monster, Grendel struggles with the concept of beauty. He can objectively describe what we consider earth’s beauty without directly recognizing it as such, but human beauty and feminine beauty are foreign concepts. Captivating, intoxicating beauty, so strong it easily quells drunken men’s verbal brawls, softens old men into children, and even settles the score between two feuding nations paralyzes Grendel. A perfect of example of Susanne K. Langer’s assertion we can only conceive what we can express, since Grendel cannot express feminine beauty, by being a beautiful woman, nor even do the next best thing by having a relation with one, he cannot conceive feminine beauty and is thus “fill[ed] with terror” (Langer). Grendel proves we fear what we cannot understand.
The first sight of the Queen, and the resulting fear she imbues, literally incapacitates Grendel. On the brink of sobbing uncontrollably or “bring[ing] down the night with [a] howl of rage” Grendel simply “keep[s] still” (Gardner 100). In this first instance, though beauty conjures a potentially violent brew of emotions—a mix of fear, amazement, and desire Grendel ironically describes as “a monstrous trick against reason,” –he is powerless to act (100). It isn’t (yet) a choice. Grendel must stand by as children flock Wealtheow though he desperately wants to throw himself down at her feet. Also significant, her beauty doesn’t initially anger Grendel; his first instinct is to worship her. Grendel mocks humans’ religion but pictures himself “groveling at her small feet” howling “Mercy” (101). Perhaps his uncharacteristic instinct to worship Wealtheow is why he deems his reaction to her a “violation of sense” and “trick against reason” (100). Grendel has the power to destroy her and yet he’s the one moved. Grendel, moreover, isn’t just moved, but moved in the same way as the humans, affected identically as the vilest among them—King Hrothgar. The King also, in Wealtheow’s presence, loses sight of his power. The virgin bride for grabs facilitates Hrothgar to call a truce with the Lord of the Helmings though his allies are on stand-by to attack.
Wealthow isn’t the only one who affects Grendel and Hrothgar identically; the Shaper also influences the enemies similarly. The Shaper is under Hrothgar’s commission, paid to revise the past and spread the King’s influence. In spinning tales of Hrothgar’s greatness the Shaker actually serves the opposite purpose of Wealtheow. While the Queen leads Grendel and Hrothgar to forget their power and act uncharacteristically, the Shaper affirms both the King and Grendel’s power. He moreover, leads them to continue the same course of action because he can spin any reality, “make it true by the sweetness of his harp” (55).
Wealtheow moves like the Shaper’s music, exhibiting an even stronger power to manipulate. Rather than conjure the past or fabricate the future she employs her “present beauty that [makes] time’s flow seem illusory… [Suspending] some lower law” (102). The key is time. Both figures tilt, even shatter, the sandglass changing human perception of what is was or will be.
Grendel’s identity, however, is grounded in human perception. He builds an identity with his first raid as opposed to discovering his own. He has no conception of Self without humans. And because his identity is externally as opposed to intrinsically derived, it is vulnerable to the Shaper and Wealhtheow’s manipulation. Not just what they say about him, but also what they say about humans affects Grendel’s identity as monster. The Shaper constantly strums and Wealtheow’s beauty charms, so while Grendel wants a cement presence he finds himself in constant flux.
Of the two manipulators, though, one is much easier for Grendel to defend his identity against in that his form less contrasts his function. Gardner best highlights this disparity between the Shaper and the Queen when Wealtheow relieves Unferth of his past. In a moment of self-shaming, Unferth dares to raises his eyes to the Queen. She interprets his gaze as a signal of readiness to dismiss the past and just like that it’s gone; her smile and simple pronouncing “that’s past” drop Unferth’s title brother-killer. “The demon [is] exorcised” (104). Unlike the Shaper, Wealtheow doesn’t alter the past; she accepts it and, almost excuses it—even for its ugliness.
Interestingly, even Wealhtheow’s acceptance of ugliness is beautiful. Her smile “is like roses blooming in the heart of December” (104). While this should be more aligned with Grendel in that Wealtheow is honest, perhaps Grendel wants her form to match her function. All other truth bearers, namely Grendel and the Dragon are gigantic and imposing. Why then, is it fair Wealtheow is so beautiful while handling the truth? Lies are beautiful—illusion is beautiful—the truth is ugly hence Grendel’s agitation.
Grendel’s frustration with his identity ferments in “the rattling darkness” of his cave climaxing with his next attack on the mead-hall (108). Abandoning his previous desire for a cemented identity, Grendel plays the Shaper/ Wealtheow’s game and “wreck[s] another theory” (110). He enters the meadhall determined to kill the Queen by gruesomely “squeezing out her feces between his fists,” but Grendel wrecks the human’s theory that he is the ultimate destroyer by sparing her.
His motivation is questionable. Just as he is contemplating Wealtheow’s murder he discovers even she has an ugliness; an un-severable connection to man lies between her legs. In this instant when Grendel realizes Wealtheow is not purely beautiful Grendel and Wealtheow are more alike than ever—both tainted and empowered with truth. Thus, we must wonder if Grendel sees himself in Wealtheow and doesn’t kill her for the same reason he doesn’t kill himself: to preserve his identity. He claims to save her because “it would be meaningless, killing her. As meaningless as letting her live” and to save himself “because he changed his mind” but he even mocks his own philosophy by interrupting with “end quote”(110).
Grendel truly restrains himself from taking their lives to preserve his identity as ruthless monster. If he kills the Queen and upsets the balance of human evil and beauty, thereby wiping out the Shieldings, he also kills himself. Grendel actually considers suicide “for love of the Baby Grendel that used to be” (110). He longs to be “Baby Grendel” because children have the firmest identities ironically because they are least self-aware. They don’t see themselves as separate entities from their surroundings; they are the world. But Grendel, knowing he cannot revert back to this state, decides to try affirming his individual identity once more. Poor Grendel. How Foolish. Breaking human’s theory he is ultimate and ruthless destroyer induces the theory’s evolution, placing his fragile identity, once again, in flux.