Associated with: Old English folklore
Also known as: nothing
Earliest recorded mention: sometime after 1000 CE
Major text: Beowulf
As I wrote yesterday's post I found myself thinking about the nature of bullies and bullying. I have been a bully in my time, and once in a while, I'm afraid I still am. I'm ashamed of that. It's something I've worked hard on since childhood, when my mother got in my face — literally — after I punched my younger brother in the stomach. I'd scared him, and she scared me: "How do you like it?" she said. I didn't. I try to remember that, but I don't always know when I'm scary. I'm taller, larger, smarter and more articulate than average. Sometimes it's just too easy for me to make other people feel terrible, and I don't realize I've done it until it's too late to take back.
But most bullies don't realize they're bullies, and most monsters don't realize they're monsters. Most evil in the world isn't deliberate evil; it's expediency, or laziness, or maybe even misplaced good intentions. Eugenicists, for example, honestly believe they're improving the human race. The Westbrook Baptist Church honestly believes - I think - that they're working toward God's glory.
The monster Grendel appears early in the saga of Beowulf, "a fiend of hell:/The wrathful spirit . . . The joyless being". Grendel, whose appearance is never clearly described in the original text, is identified as a descendant of Cain, banished from human society for all time. Compare him to the "Scylding's beloved folk-king," Beowulf, the perfect hero, admired and loved by all.
Grendel didn't ask to be the descendant of Cain, any more than Cain had asked to have his offering rejected by the Almighty. (Genesis 4: "Yahweh looked with favour on Abel and his offering./But he did not look with favour on Cain and his offering, and Cain was very angry and downcast.") It is one of the very oldest human questions: why? Why are some loved, and some not? Why do some have much, and others have none? Why are some people golden from birth, and others permanently outcast?
Cain killed Abel. Therefore he chose to be evil, even if he wasn't evil to begin with, and thus God's rejection seems justified in retrospect — look, he didn't deserve to be loved in the first place. And Grendel, Cain's descendant, is cursed from birth, and never deserves to be part of the community. So he decides to wreck it. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't any of us?
John Gardner's wonderful novel Grendel explores this at great length, and made a huge impression on me when I read it in 10th grade. Grendel knows that he is something other and outside, and the only way he can deal with that is to see the world as something rotten and not worth having: "...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."
This, of course, is Evil with a capital E: the idea that your will is the only thing that matters. But what terrible sorrow, rage and despair drove Grendel to this conclusion. If someone had invited him to dinner, or offered to brush his hair, all of English literature might have been different.