Snakes, throughout humanities’ ages of storytelling have always been a villain. Whether deceiving Eve in Eidon or mindlessly striking at children playing in the tall grass, snakes are portrayed as the enemy of mankind. John Gardner manipulates this image of snakes to associate them with man’s impulse to betray those weaker than himself in his novel Grendel. Gardner’s use of the motif of snakes suggest that humanity’s internal, malevolent impulses rules over their interactions with their environment and each other.
Gardner compares humans to snakes in their description to demonstrate them as dangerous. When thinking back on the beginning of his war against Hrothgar, Grendel dismisses Hrothgar’s first attack at him, recalling it as “as you remember a tree that fell on you or an adder you stepped on by accident, expect of course that Hrothgar was more to be feared than a tree or a snake” (Gardner 30). The comparison to Hrothgar and an adder writes Hrothgar as dangerous in his thoughtlessness, striking without forethought or any true malice. Gardner, by associating Hrothgar with mindless aggression, paints Hrothgar’s actions as an instinctive urge to harm, to conquer.
Added to Hrothgar’s kingly ability to think rationally, this makes the king capable of harming through deceit. Grendel sees Hrothgar’s reaction to other’s growing strength, striking out like an injured snake, and thus incorporating violence to his interactions with the surrounding world. Moreover, when first seeing Beowulf, Grendel describes Beowulf’s eyes are slanting downward, never blinking, unfeeling as a snake’s” (154). With eyes like a snake, Gardner paints him, like a snake gliding for no apparent purpose, able to hide his true purpose of acting, therefore Beowulf is unpredictable and untrustworthy, a snake in the grass. Grendel learns of Beowulf’s tricky, much at his own expense, in their final battle,as Beowulf pretends to sleep to watch how Grendel works. By comparing the men of the novel to snakes in this way, Gardner suggest that they cause havoc, not from preplanned thought, but as an inherent character trait. Gardner includes snakes into his depiction of things belongings continues to portray humans as instinctively treacherous.
As Grendel watches from afar as the men grow from small bands to large clans, he notes that the inner walls are “carved and gewgawed with toads, snakes, dragon shapes” (31). The men reveal their inner impulses by surrounding their literal inner walls with snakes. They may envision themselves as noble heroes, their own environment exposes the men as treacherous creatures that protect themselves by destroying and conquering each other. Furthermore, as the Shaper sings of their fights with Grendel, his “sly harp sounds like snakes in cattails, glorifying death” (54). The comparison of the Shaper’s song to snake, Gardner suggest that the Shaper is actively encouraging snake like behavior in the men. The possibly unjust reputation of snakes applies to the Shaper’s song cause the Shaper to appears to supporting hostility, strengthened with his glorification of death.
When applied to the trappings of the humans, the recurring snake imagery continues to cause an attachment to aggression. Grendel encounters snakes just before he encounters humans, further pushing their connection. As Grendel listens to the Shaper and watches the people, “smiling, peaceable, hearing the harper as if not a man in that lot had ever twisted a knife in his neighbor’s chest”, he feels an “invisible presence, chilly as the first intimation of death, the dusty unblinking eyes of a thousand snakes” (48,50). Though the presence is due to the dragon, the dragon is just another snake in Gardner’s novel, the feeling causes Grendel to be chilled by the hypocrisy of man. Gardner’s reference to snakes suggest Hrothgar’s people, wearing false friendliness as a mask over their hostility, wait for opportunity of personal gain even if through betrayal. Likewise, as Grendel listens to the Shaper’s “hopeful dreams”, he “touches a vine to reassure himself.
It was a snake” (54). Once again the connect between snake and human shows that the Shaper’s songs are deceptive. Man changing from friend to foe, as a vine to a snake.
While hopeful and filled with good intentions, humans would quickly betray one another for self benefit. The reputation of snakes, deserved or not, has been around as long as humans have told stories. Gardner manipulates this reputation of hostile, untrustworthy snakes to great effect in his novel Grendel. The continuous recurring motif of snakes pushes to portray humanity as partially bond to its basic instinct of negative actions.