1.1 (Winter 2017)

Ashley Donahoo
Fitchburg State University

In examining deeper into the characteristics of villains, scholars and readers are able to analyze motivations and intentions of villains because of each character’s specific personal experience. The villain of the story tends to react appropriately to his or her past and current environment and is sometimes even damned by fate beyond control. Here, I analyze the motivations and morals of villains from Lord of the Rings and Beowulf. Specifically, I look closer at Grendel and Gollum in order to uncover their true motivations and reasonings for their presence in each story. In comparing these two specific characters it is clear that both Grendel and Gollum derived from human-like creatures, making them relatable to both the protagonists of their respective texts and the readers. In doing this, we can see that both of the characters are doomed by fate they cannot control, yet continue to survive and attempt to live out their damned lives.

Grendel is damned to a life of misery due to his ancestor, Cain, and survives with his mother peacefully in the wetlands of Scandinavia. It is not until Grendel feels as if his territory is threatened (due to the noise and music that echoes from Heorot) that he puts up a fight against the happy and cheerful hall and is understood to be a bloodthirsty villain. However, if readers consider the history of Grendel and his uncontrolled fate, it may reveal new interpretations as to how the villain can be perceived. Comparing this to Gollum, the one Ring controls Gollum’s destiny, even when his inner Sméagol tries to reason with himself. Throughout Gollum’s adventure with Frodo and Sam, he has many moral arguments with himself over what he wants and what is meant for him. Though he struggles with emotion and misses his life as a Stoor Hobbit, he internally understands the destiny that has already been set for him. In analyzing Grendel’s and Gollum’s motivations, it is significant for readers to reflect on each character’s role in their stories with sympathy in order to truly understand their desires. This argument is significant because it changes the dynamic of the story for the readers, allowing a closer observation of each character’s motivations and histories. Instead of viewing the villain as evil and murder-driven, imagining them in a human manner allows readers to sympathize with their motivations. Instead of the traditional mindset of hero vs. villain, readers can consider each character’s role within the setting allowing sympathy for their motivations.

Beowulf is an Old English epic poem that tells the story of a Geat warrior who travels to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. A monster known as Grendel has targeted Hrothgar’s mead hall, Heorot, and Beowulf is the soldier the king relies upon to save them. Grendel is introduced in Beowulf as a “grim spirit called Grendel, / mighty stalker of the marshes, who held / the moors and fens; this miserable man / lived for a time in the land of giants, / after the Creator had condemned him / among Cain’s race- when he killed Abel / the eternal Lord avenged that death. / No joy in that feud- the Maker forced him / far from mankind for his foul crime” (ll. 102-110). Scholars most commonly debate the characteristics of Grendel and work to prove either his more monstrous or human-like characteristics. However, the history and ancestors of Grendel show that he is descended from the biblical Cain, and therefore possesses internal humanoid emotions. Within the translated description of Grendel’s history, the author uses words such as “mankind” and “man,” proving that Grendel has himself descended from man. The author then includes: “From thence arose all misbegotten things, / trolls and elves and the living dead, / and also the giants who strove against God / for a long while- He gave them their reward for that” (111-114). Therefore, it was through Grendel’s human ancestry that he became damned and monstrous. Due to the actions and history of others, Grendel is faced with hate and exile beyond his control. However, as noted in Norma Kroll’s article “‘Beowulf’: The Hero as Keeper of Human Polity,” it can be argued that Cain’s destruction of Abel “provides the moral pattern that is inherited by every man and woman in all times and places” (118). What cannot be denied are the human characteristics that remain in Grendel’s DNA; as Chih-chiao Joseph Yang points out: “In this sense, they are humans; they are considered ‘different’ only because their ancestors have been expelled from human society” (5).

Grendel’s life is set in Scandinavia, where he dwells the wetlands of Heorot. Within Brent Nelson’s article “Cain-Leviathan typology in Gollum and Grendel”, he argues that Grendel, “[m]arked by the guilt of his associated violence…is a wandering outcast living in everlasting exile from human society” (468). As a result of Grendel’s curse, he especially despises light, music, and noise. John Halverson claims that the characters in Beowulf mold to their world, leaving their relationships crucial to the story: “Such fears arise from the condition of the real world, or if more deeply embedded in the human psyche, they are at least activated and amplified by the condition of the world” (601). Grendel proves to be envious and angry with mankind. As pointed out by Yang, “they do not choose it themselves. Being ‘banished and accursed’ (1267), they are forced to leave the human world” (4). After considering Grendel’s loneliness and shame from exile, readers are able reconsider the effect that Heorot hall has on his existence. The contrast of the happiness and joy of the hall right outside Grendel’s gloomy and dark home can help readers better understand the sorrow that Grendel feels. Yang claims, “Like an alienated boy jealous of the joy in company and annoyed by the revels in Heorot, he finally goes on a rampage, breaking the harmony of the human society that excludes him” (5). Grendel had been a marsh-dweller for centuries before Beowulf arrives at Heorot and feels as if his dark territory is threatened by celebrations from the hall. Grendel has lived in his territory long before presence of human societies, and though he is exiled from humanity, he is left to deal with the noise and disruption that the humans put upon him.

The differences in motivations to attack can be analyzed through both Grendel and Beowulf. I will take a closer look at Yang’s argument regarding the morality of Beowulf versus Grendel in order to examine the comparison further. In Yang’s article, he argues that Beowulf proves to be even more monstrous and villainous than the three villains present in the poem. Yang claims that the three antagonists of Beowulf “possess more human characteristics than the hero” (1). He touches upon an important consideration, proving how Beowulf is portrayed in a super human way, allowing readers to compare his super strength and combat to Grendel’s. Yang explains that the poet of Beowulf intentionally gives the villains unique characteristics, leaving readers to sympathize with them as individuals. He argues that throughout the duration of the poem, the three antagonists simply protect their rights and territories from human beings and outside elements. Because these characters are damned and forced to live miserable lives, they separate and protect themselves from other characters.  Yang reminds readers how both Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain, proving that they are human-like, yet damned by fate. I believe by comparing and contrasting Grendel to Beowulf in the poem, readers will be able to identify Grendel’s more human characteristics. I do not agree that Beowulf turns evil and monstrous himself by the end of the poem. Instead, I would argue that the idea of glory and recognition is what leads Beowulf to his destiny, rather than villainous aggression.

In comparison to Grendel’s fate being beyond his control, Gollum within Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings proves fated by a single factor: the Ring. Throughout the series, the Ring works to control all of existence and dominates any other powers or plans. Sméagol’s friend, Déagol, discovers the Ring at the bottom of a river while fishing with Sméagol on his birthday. Sméagol is a Stoor hobbit, who live near a river and enjoy swimming and sailing. When Déagol shows Sméagol the Ring, Sméagol’s fate is changed forever and is controlled by the power of the Ring. Sméagol is immediately compelled to kill his friend in order to keep the Ring for his own, which he calls “precious.” Brent Nelson states, “Smeagol and Deagol are not biological brothers, but the rhyming of their names suggest kinship of some kind. They are at least brothers in a figurative sense, and the results are the same as in the Genesis story: the profound guilt of the murderer, his exile, and a subsequent growth of wickedness” (467). The history of Sméagol reveals that he was born into a powerful Hobbit family and that he had always had an eye for adventure and the world around him. Now with the possession of the Ring, Sméagol attempts to go on with his everyday life, but is faced with the effects of the Ring on his fate. After he discovers that the Ring will make him invisible, he moves to thievery and other villainous acts out of greed. He becomes suspicious of all the Hobbits around him and starts to gurgle a “gollum” sound in his throat as he praises his Ring. Because of Sméagol’s new personality, his clan of Hobbits grows to fear and dislike him and eventually drive him out of the community.

Now named Gollum, he adapts to the powers of the Ring. He is faced with a crippling loneliness and sense of betrayal from his initial clan. In Robin Robertson’s article, she argues, “As he wanders alone, feeling deeply sorry for himself over his mistreatment by his fellow Hobbits, Gollum’s tendency to look toward the dark rather than the light increases” (95). He becomes dependent on the Ring, and starts to despise the light of day. Due to his knowledge of water, Gollum is able to catch and eat raw fish for nutrients and attempts to run further away from light and warmth. He heads toward the Misty Mountains and imagines that beneath them awaits a cool and dark place he could call his own. Nelson connects Gollum’s territory to that of Grendel’s, stating, “Gollum occupies a similar place, both socially and scenically, to that of Grendel. Water is a dominant theme in Gandalf’s account of Gollum’s history with the ring” (475). This idea links Gollum’s and Grendel’s habitats to that of their curse, contrasting the dark and wet to the light and warm. This works to show readers how the curse affects each villain and the ways they live. Instead of striving for happiness and light, they learn to hate it all together and instead aim for cold, wet, and dark environments. Nelson reminds readers why wetlands are a fitting territory for these villains: “It is a place that is horrifying and repulsive to land creatures, but comfortable for the monsters and tolerable only for the superlative hero” (472).  For six hundred years, Gollum dwells in the caves of the Misty Mountains, until Bilbo changes the course of fate. As Gandalf initially informs Frodo regarding Gollum’s feelings toward the Ring: “He hated it and he loved it, as he hated and loved himself” (70).

Bilbo first meets Gollum at a pool surrounded by darkness, described as dripping and creepy. Bilbo is attempting to escape from Orcs through the Orc-mines beneath the mountains when he becomes lost. While wandering through the mines Bilbo spots a shiny, gold ring on the floor, which he picks up and puts into his pocket. As he continues to wander, he reaches where Gollum lives. Robertson reminds readers that, at this time, “Gollum has degenerated to such a point that no one would ever recognize him as being a Hobbit. After all this time cut off from the light of the sun, he is totally grey, with large, bulging eyes that help him to see in the darkness” (96). Instead of killing and eating Bilbo right away because of his handheld sword, Gollum offers to test his chances with a riddle game. Gollum follows through with his riddle game without breaking or disrespecting his part of the deal:   “This riddle game is a reminder that there is still a Hobbit alive somewhere in Gollum, for Hobbits love riddles, and the riddle game is respected by all creatures. The riddle game is life’s attempt to call back Gollum from the depths to which he has sunk. It is a reminder that he was once a Hobbit, and that there are rules that are respected by all—even by him” (Robertson 96). Though Gollum is introduced as unrecognizable as a Hobbit, his understanding and respect for the rules of the riddle game allow readers to consider his remaining morals and motivations. Gollum could have gone against his word and attacked Bilbo after he had won; however, he followed through with his responsibility to Bilbo. It soon becomes clear to Gollum that Bilbo is in possession of his precious, which is the point where he can no longer follow through with his bargain and springs to attack the fleeing Bilbo. Though Gollum attempts to attack Bilbo, it proves to be a defense of territory and possessions. Instead of portraying a vicious villain through his introduction, Gollum proves to be a somewhat reasonable villain when faced with danger, considering his riddle game and initial resistance to attacking Bilbo.

After two years of building strength, Gollum sets out to hunt down his precious through caves and dark forests, still avoiding any sign of light and society. With help that could have come from the call of the Ring, Gollum manages to follow Frodo and the Fellowship on their journey. As Robertson points out, “Sam and Frodo see Gollum differently. Sam sees him through realistic eyes and knows he’s a villain and not to be trusted. Frodo sees past the creature Gollum has become to the Hobbit he once was, and might be again. We all have to find the right balance between justice and mercy” (102). The perspective of both Frodo and Sam prove important due to the portrayal of Gollum to the readers. Given the reactions of the two characters, readers are better able to consider Gollum’s potential and inner battles. After Gollum attempts to attack the sleeping Frodo and Sam, he is consumed by darkness due to his pain and shrieks with the pain caused by the Elven rope. Gollum agrees to serve Frodo as his master after learning of his possession of the Ring and appears to change in front of their eyes. As Nelson points out, “In Tolkien’s depiction, he becomes instead a petty tyrant, a Leviathan on a small scale who manipulates a close personal relationship. His breach of this oath results in the most intense struggle of his divided self, pitting Sméagol, the voice of pre-fallen conscience, against Gollum and his Cain-like desire” (478). Gollum agrees to lead Sam and Frodo through the dead marshes that he knows so well and eagerly presses on. The effect of showing the readers how Gollum functions with the Hobbits allows a clear comparison of his damned life to the carefree life they embody.

Instead of blaming his master for the lack of food, Gollum travels in the dark of night on his own in search of muddy grubs and snacks. He rightfully returns to Frodo, as he is expected, after he has satisfied his natural need for food. When the group is approached by Black Riders, Gollum is thrown back into worry and fear, reminded of the fate laid out for him. As Robertson mentions, “The passage of the Black Rider has reminded Gollum that his fear of Sauron is greater than his momentary loyalty to Frodo. Though, for a while, Frodo’s kindness transformed him back into at least a semblance of the Hobbit that he once was, he now adopts a phony, friendly tone” (105). Sam is the first to witness Gollum’s inner battles as he argued with himself as if he was speaking to a different person. Readers are able to see the two sides directly debate their morals, emphasizing the hold and control that the Ring has on Gollum’s fate. As Robertson brings up, “The fact that such a moral argument can go on inside Gollum shows that he has not become totally evil. The fact that the evil side wins the argument shows, unfortunately, that even Frodo’s kindness is not enough to save Gollum from himself” (106). Alhough Gollum plans to lead Frodo and Sam through a path of a promised death, he finds that he brings them to the only path there is to complete the quest. Inside Shelob’s lair, Gollum informs Shelob about her upcoming snack and returns to fetch Sam and Frodo. At the sight of the two Hobbits sleeping, Gollum suffers yet another moral conflict: “Very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee—but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary Hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing” (323). As emphasized by Robertson, “For one brief moment, Gollum might have redeemed himself. But if he had, perhaps then he would not have fulfilled his destiny—the destiny tied so deeply to the fate of the Ring” (109). From the very start, Sméagol’s fate had been decided by the Ring. Although his conscious challenges and battles this fate, there is no altering its path or plan for each character.

At the top of Mount Doom, Frodo and Sam have finally reached the only element that can destroy the one Ring. As we see the hero fall into temptation over the Ring, fate works its way out to reveal Gollum’s destiny. Robertson reminds readers, “Before the Quest had properly begun, Gandalf speculated that Gollum would play some role in it, whether for good or for evil, he did not know. And so Gollum did play a role, a central role, both for good and for evil” (110). Not only does Gollum step in take the ring, he takes it in the natural way that he knows: to bite it off. Though Gollum is acting through selfishness, he completes the quest and therefore saves Middle Earth. Nelson works to connect the fates of both Grendel and Gollum, mentioning, “At this final moment, both Frodo and Gollum are implicated as Grendel figures (Gollum the cannibal and Frodo the dismembered) who represent a struggle with evil that afflicts all characters who come within the reach of the ring. In Beowulf the Ring is a device of social order and cohesion, associated with the fully digitated hand that builds comitatus” (479-480).

Analyzing the motivations of both Grendel and Gollum can work to change the story’s meaning from the simple “good vs. evil” to more of a humanized political battle. Instead of viewing the story as villains against heroes, it proves important to consider the true feelings and intentions of the villains. Although authors such as Michael Drout remind scholars that they frequently get lost in the idea that “the monsters are us” (5), it is significant to view the story through a different perspective. As a reader, the audience is more likely to sympathize with the protagonist of the story and deem the antagonist as evil. However, considering the villains’ history and inner feelings adds a different dynamic to the story that helps to understand the nature of each character. Robertson brings attention to an important topic: “Gollum, flawed as he was, fulfilled his destiny; he played the role of villain in order that heroes might live” (110). By attempting to sympathize with the antagonists, readers are able to grasp a different approach to the judgment they set upon them: “Tolkien acknowledges Grendel’s status as an enemy of God but contends that he is very much a denizen of this world. In his own monster Tolkien has made explicit what he misses in the subtlety of Grendel: the monster that is within, an inner struggle with a divided self” (Nelson 1).

Beowulf. New York: Dover Publications, 1992. Print.

Drout, Michael D. C. “‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ Seventy-Five Years Later.” Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R.Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature 30.1-2 (2011): 5-22. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

Halverson, John. “The World of Beowulf.” ELH 36.4 (1969): 593-608. JSTOR. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.

Kroll, Norma. “”Beowulf“: The Hero as Keeper of Human Polity.” Modern Philology 84.2 (1986): 117-29. JSTOR. Web. 5 Apr. 2017.

Nelson, Brent. “Cain-Leviathan Typology in Gollum and Grendel.” Extrapolation 49 (2008): 466-485. Academic OneFile. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.

Robertson, Robin. “Seven Paths of the Hero in Lord of the Rings: The Path of Tragic Failure.” Psychological Perspectives 52.1 (2009): 93-110. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 50th Anniversary ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. Print.

Yang, Chih-chiao Joseph. “Humanizing the Monsters: A Schematic Reading of Beowulf.” Tamkang Review 44 (2013): 3-24. Academic OneFile. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.



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Feudal Endeavor: Open Access Undergraduate Journal of Medieval Studies Copyright © by Kisha Tracy and Kisha G. Tracy, Editor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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