Fan ICHF: Grendel

This ICHF was written by Saurotitan, whose work you can find at I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!

At some unremembered point in the ancient past of pre-Christianity Europe, a handful of centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, one of the central narratives of heroic fantasy was created by a figure long lost to time. While it predates the horror genre (if we accept that said genre began with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto), the legend of Beowulf has plenty of elements that would fit perfectly into that genre if they were transplanted by a modern author, particularly where the figure of Grendel is concerned.

While he doesn’t present much of a challenge for the protagonist himself – getting his arm ripped off and bleeding out at the feet of his mother – it’s important to remember what Grendel was doing until that point in the story. We aren’t given a detailed description of Grendel, but the information we are given would have quickened the heartrate of any medieval audience on a dark torchlit night. Grendel is called a descendant of Cain, the Bible’s first murderer and the excuse used by monks in later translations to excuse supernatural beings from the pre-Church traditions; he’s tortured by the mere sound of praise music, he couldn’t touch the throne of a divinely appointed ruler, and he lived like a beast in the dark and unknown parts of the wilderness. To summarize, Grendel had a vague yet understandable backstory, reasonable yet non-crippling weaknesses, and was kept mysteriously unexplored by the author – he seems to fit the mold for a great horror villain on those merits alone!

If you need more convincing that Grendel was ahead of his time as far as horror story monsters are concerned, actions speak louder than words. Much like Godzilla in the original film, the dragons from Reign of Fire, or the megalodon from The Meg, it was technically humans who made the first move in the battle with Grendel. In the poem King Hrothgar built a grand hall called Heorot in his role as king of Denmark, a hall big enough to comfortably hold eight horses in addition to the royal court and other expected hangers-on of ancient nobility. This was the ultimate party shack, and although I have my doubts about whether or not the monks translating the story had anything to do with these parties consisting of all-night hymn sing-alongs, the core element of the narrative is that a manmade structure and the actions of its residents have awoken an ancient and inhuman being. Based on the original text, Grendel is said to be entirely removed from the concept of happiness and shunned by God, and he hates a joyful celebration – he was the prototype for the Grinch before English language would have allowed “cat” to rhyme with “hat”. Instead of simply stealing Christmas, however, Grendel was out for blood and was willing to work 365 nights a year.

While the idea of a rampaging monster in a myth was not new ground for ancient audiences, the way Grendel goes about it is what sets him apart. Any two-bit antagonist can destroy a city without all but a handful of survivors, but the legends and myths that would stick with us to the modern day had monsters with class. The minotaur wandered through a labyrinth that gave victims the choice between being lost forever or brutal murder, the sphinx offered a riddle that would have stumped an ancient audience, a gorgon would turn anyone scanning the shadows for threats to stone for their vigilance, and the fair folk would dance you to death. Grendel wasn’t anywhere close to that subtle, but still avoided the kind of unremarkable rampage a dragon would later display in the very same epic poem – instead, Grendel performed the type of selective murder we still see in horror films today. Every night, Grendel effortlessly bypassed the security of a royal household, brutally murders a few people, eats the bodies, and then leaves without any consequences for his actions. This goes on for twelve years, the kind of track record most modern horror franchises would drool over. Eventually a hero does arrive to kill Grendel, and although the battle seems incredibly one-sided our monster does manage to get away to die in front of his mother, introducing a trope we still see today in the original Friday the 13th and the TriStar Godzilla: an incredibly ticked off mother being a far bigger threat than their monstrous child.

Even though his relatively brief reign of terror is often seen as a warm-up for the heroic Beowulf, Grendel’s legacy is easy to recognize to this day. From an episode of Star Trek Voyager to video games and books, Grendel himself is doing quite well for such an old monster. In a way, he’s even become a grandfather, passing down traits like an antagonist stalking his victims in their own base, the first monster to be defeated being the child of a much stronger monster, and a long-forgotten supernatural foe opposing the encroaching influence of mankind. Not bad considering we’re never told what Grendel looked like other than he had at least two arms.

This entry was posted in Creepy Columns, Iconic Characters of Horror Fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Fan ICHF: Grendel

  1. saurotitan says:

    Yes, I wrote this one, and I’m glad you found an image to use


  2. Pingback: Snow Days: How My Interaction with Winter Weather Changed Over Time – The Archivist's Pen

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