Cthulhu is a big deal. Kaiju are big, too. But it was cover model Grendel who gave us our first look at the Bestiary 4. And B4 returned the favor, because Pathfinder did not skimp on one ounce of Grendel.
Now, you have to figure the Grendel of the Beowulf epic is probably somewhere in the CR 8–10 range—a serious threat to the ordinary warriors of Hrothgar’s hall, but one that a young hero like Beowulf could kill with his bare hands. After all, he’s got to leave room for Grendel’s mother and a dragon, right?
But since he’s been marinating in our imaginations since somewhere around 700 AD, Pathfinder’s Grendel got a slight power boost…okay, more than slight…okay, a lot.
Basically, he’s Doomsday.
I mean, come on, this is a CR 19 monster with seven mythic ranks and a power called Gruesome Dismemberment (Ex). He regenerates all but natural attacks. “Unstoppable” isn’t just an adjective for him; it’s in his stat block. On a cloudy day this Grendel could kill Superman.
And it is totally fine if you want to play him that way. Fighting that Grendel could be a hell of a campaign finale.
That said, if you want to echo the true Grendel of myth, consider trying to work in some of these themes.
Grendel is nature waiting in the dark. Grendel is the thing just outside the firelight. Grendel mocks the very notion of civilization with his assaults. If you need a force of nature—not even nature wronged or despoiled, just nature dangerous and raw and hungry and bloody in its purest state—use Grendel. When you need a super-fey or a monster wilder than Cernunnos on his worst day, use Grendel.
Grendel is envy. Something in Grendel hates the fellowship of Hrothgar’s hall. Though he’d never want to sit at those tables, he hears the happy voices and seethes. If you have a sin-based adventure or need a (likely manipulated or conscripted) servant for an archdevil (say, Mephistopheles) or demon lord (perhaps Shax) of envy, use Grendel.
Grendel is other. Grendel isn’t human. He’s not an orc. He’s not a giant. Even other monsters don’t know what he is. He doesn't fit the established taxonomies. Supposedly he’s a descendent of Cain, but that just feels like a desperate Christian attempt to make sense of something far darker and older. Even the Lovecraftian powers and Rovagug don’t claim him. He’s one of a kind…or he would be if he didn’t have a mother.
Finally, and most importantly, Grendel makes a mockery of hospitality. Hospitality was big deal in the ancient world. You had a duty to treat your guests well, and once they were under your roof, to defend them as if they were of your household. Gods like Odin and Zeus were reputed to travel incognito and reward or punish hosts for their behavior toward penniless strangers. Likewise, guests were expected to be good conversationalists, take up arms in defense of their host, and not bring their troubles to his door without warning.
Grendel makes a mockery of all that. Grendel comes into the hall and snatches warriors right out of their beds. Men the lord has a duty to protect, he simply devours—and then vanishes, so no retribution can be made. And then he returns night after night to do it again, underlining the lord’s powerlessness. In a tradition where blood must be avenged in blood if weregild is not paid…where entire family lines are wiped out because one man says another’s daughter has snake eyes (Njal’s Saga)…and where the gods and the universe itself are destined to fall because when Odin became Loki’s blood brother he obligated himself to the half-giant forever after…if you treat that mindset as real, then Grendel is a big deal.
Grendel should kill PCs’ retainers, their friends, their families. Grendel should strike and then vanish before they can respond. Facing Grendel should be lose/lose/lose. If they fail to protect those in their care, those innocents will die. If they fail to answer their liege’s call to fight Grendel, friends and enemies alike will turn their backs on the PCs forever. But if they fight Grendel, they will suffer just as badly. Make them lose limbs. Have Grendel attack when they're out of heals and wishes and miracles, or make fighting Grendel cost them these things so that they're out of boons for the next crisis. Grendel should make them feel like nowhere is safe and that they have no good options.
One final important question: If Grendel CR 19/MR 7…what’s the CR of his mom?
The rejects of existence, a cabal of svartalfars and a family of taninivers team up with the daemonic servitors of the Horseman of Pestilence to unleash a plague that will wipe out mortals and fey alike. With the right moves, adventurers can remove the svartalfars and daemons from the board. But the diseased dragons have nothing to lose, and their machinations unleash Grendel upon the adventurers as a last retributive strike.
In a rush to stop the countdown to Ragnarök, adventurers must face death cultists, giants, fungal creature night hags, and a school of language-erasing sorcerers. Their steps are dogged by Grendel, who hunts them for no discernible reason. Is he simply a spoiler or does he, too, have an agenda involving the end of all things?
Adventurers craft a palace protected by a node of Lawful energy and alchemical signs worked into the very street layout. Soon a gleaming city is under their care. But like a body rejecting an organ, nature itself seems to reject this bastion of hope and civilization, attacking in the shape of Grendel. Should he be defeated, the adventurers’ woes are not over. Grendel’s mother—a larger, aquatic version of her son—soon attacks. If she is brought close to death (reduced to 50 hp) or is able to consume any part of her son’s body, she convulses and turns inside out, dying to give birth to her true form: a jabberwock.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 4 145
I don’t think it says so in the stat block, but I’m pretty sure Grendel should be able to breathe water. Certainly his mom can.
I know zero about the pop culture Grendels (aside from the fact that there’s a comic Grendel who Venom kind of ripped off, looks-wise). But John Gardiner’s novel Grendel is a must-read, one of the first “the tale from the monster’s point of view” books.
My myth and folklore professor Verlyn Flieger used to have a bone to pick with the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf, because he began it with “So.” This one single word turns the great Old English epic into an Irish one—quite the offence to a serious Tolkien scholar.
This matters because Beowulf really mattered to Tolkien—his scholarship is why we study it as a poem and not just a historical artifact. Beowulf also matters because it’s supposedly the only truly English myth. Arthur is a British story, a distinction I can barely make sense of but that was really important to J.R.R. (and besides, the French embroidered it like crazy anyways). Yet paradoxically, the quintessential English saga doesn’t take place in England, but in Denmark…which also drove Tolkien nuts. Then English are almost unique in the world in that they do not live where their epics take place—a Greek can visit Thrace or Argos no problem, but a Midlander’s travels will never take him past Heorot—and in Tolkien’s eyes this divorce of language and terroir was a problem. In fact, his frustration with this state of affairs led him to dreams of creating “a myth for England”…and that is how The Silmarillion and Middle-earth were born. (So in the final analysis, did he make a myth for New Zealand? But anyway…)
Autobiography time. Indulge me.
I first studied Beowulf with one of my favorite teachers, Laddie Levy, in tenth grade. In my memory, my high school and middle school English teachers Des and Cathy Corcoran gave me a copy of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf as a graduation present. But the Heaney translation didn’t come out until 1999. So did they give me another book? And if so, who gave me the Heaney? Or did they mail me one for my college graduation? Memory is weird. Ever since I got my copy, I’ve been silently promising Des and myself that I would sit down and read the entire saga one summer day, when I could really devote myself to it. Was I even making promises to the right person? I still haven’t read it, and now I don't even know for sure who I’m letting down.
(I also just missed the chance to see Heaney read in person, during a blizzard no less. My home county has an Irish poetry night I started attending a single year too late. I did catch Frank McCourt in time, though.)
Cathy Corcoran was one of the first people to encourage me to write my own poetry. And Des taught me Harding, Joyce, Gordimer, and more, as well as a few handy words in Irish (“Dia dhuit”). He was also from Dundalk, Ireland (with a back-of-the-throat, almost Yiddish soft K at the end), which caused no end of amusement to those of us who knew only Dundalk, Baltimore (with the mandatory “hon” at the end), a challenged region a girlfriend of mine once described as “the place of no beauty.” (I say, “challenged” because I am not allowed to say certain words in public anymore.)
I would later go back for one magical semester to teach with Laddie, but Des was retired and not really seeing visitors by then. And now he’s dead. I went to the memorial service. We won’t be talking about Beowulf.
I’m thinking about that, and about how in 2015 I’ve already sat by
two three hospital bedsides, had a bout of (knock on wood) hopefully
temporary partial facial paralysis, and will be (weather permitting) attending
my grandfather’s funeral this coming week. I’m thinking this needs to be the summer I finally read the
Heaney Beowulf, so I can talk about
it with someone, anyone, God willing, while I can.