Grendel’s encounter with the dragon is one of the most important events of the novel. Cranky and vulgar and undeniably funny, the dragon’s characterization draws from sources as diverse as traditional Christian and Asiatic mythology, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. The incredible scope of the dragon’s knowledge and vision has left him weary and cynical. The dragon perceives the entirety of time and space. Against this vision, man’s complete history seems no more than “a swirl in the stream of time.” Because nothing man creates—religion, poetry, philosophy, and so on—will survive the destruction of time, the dragon sees all such endeavors as pointless and ridiculous. Grendel senses the essential truth of this statement, but part of him still yearns for just the sort of pursuits the dragon dismisses.
After the encounter with the dragon, Grendel continues to sense the dragon’s presence as a smell in the air, particularly when the dragon’s fatalistic words are nagging him. We may interpret this lingering presence as a manifestation of the dragon’s awesome, omnipotent power; alternatively, some critics take it as a sign that the dragon only exists in Grendel’s mind. The fact that Grendel’s journey to the dragon appears to be a mental rather than physical voyage seems to support the latter hypothesis.