Printer Friendly

Grendel's glove.

Edda (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 61.

36 Lokasenna, in Neckel (note 35), stanza 60. Translation from Terry (note 35), 82. I have altered Terry's translation of the last line of the Lokasenna stanza to make it echo precisely her translation of the third line of the Harbardzliod stanza, for the two lines in Old Norse are identical.

37 From Young (note 26), 73-74. The entire episode at Utgard summarized here can be found ou 73-78.

38 On the nature of Utgard, and in particular, on the figure of Utgarda-Loki as either the transformed Skrymir himself or as an antitype of Loki (who Returning from his exploits at the Danish court, Beowulf comes home to Hygelac to tell of his adventures. He recalls events at Heorot, digresses on the moral implications of heroic action, tells the story of the Heatho-Bard feud, and presents abbreviated versions of the fights with Grendel and his mother.(1) The sequence of events he offers will be familiar to the poem's audience, and Beowulf himself announces that the struggle with the monster is a story not unknown (undyrne, 2000) to many of his potential listeners. The poem's audience will hear again of the hospitality of Hrothgar, the voracity of the monsters, and the success in underwater combat. That he had fought beneath the mere, he states again, is now a fact well known ("pe is wide cud," 2135), and it would seem that Beowulf's own story offers little more than a review of what we, and his audience, already know.

But in the middle of the narrative, Beowulf proffers information neither we nor they have heard before. There is the naming of the first Gear killed, Hondscio (2076), and the description of Grendel's monstrous glove in which he was wont to put his victims (2085b-88). Moreover, in its protestations of excessive length and its self-consciousness of telling, Beowulf's story of the fight seems strikingly unlike anything he has performed before. Early-twentieth-century critics construed this episode as sharing in the legacy of Norse mythology, with Grendel's glove hearkening back to the troll gloves of folktale.(2) Tolkein glossed over many of the details of the passage, noting only that "without serious discrepancy, it retells rapidly the events in Heorot, and retouches the account."(3) More recently, James Rosier found in the passage a complex pattern of wordplay that apposed the Geat's name--a transparent appellation cognate with the modern German Handschuh, "glove"--and the monster's glof in a punning set of references to the "play of hands" within the poem. The "identity of the missing thane," Rosier argued, "became artistically relevant" to the Beowulf-poet's thematic concerns with repayment, guardianship, and political control.(4) Building on Rosier's arguments, I have suggested elsewhere that Beowulf's speech to Hygelac's court represents a species of social entertainment: an attempt to turn heroic action and horrific violence into humor and self-deprecation, much like the self-accounts presented by the heroes of romance who, in turning past actions into present words, transfer a physical ordeal into conventions of poetic eloquence and thereby signal their return to civilization from the wilderness.(5)

I would like to reconsider some of these arguments here to assess Grendel's glove and Beowulf's narration from a different critical perspective, one shaped by recent scholarly and theoretical preoccupations with the body in archaic and medieval cultures. Such meditations on the body, both as the figuration of an epistemic site and as the historically definable locus of the social status of the self, have long acknowledged the controlling tension between wholeness and dismemberment. The marked or mutilated corpus has been taken as the focus of cultural understanding, the place where social organizations represent themselves both to their controllers and their controlled.(6) In Beowulf, such mutilated or dismembered forms become the foci for reflections on the poet's craft and on the place of imaginative fiction in society. The hero's story of the monster's glove, and its analogues and sources in Scandinavian mythology, offer a specific case of such self-reflection. More than a relic of a Northern legend, and more than a piece of narrative exotica, Grendel's glove comes to symbolize the meaning of the monster and the very resources of literary making that articulate that meaning.(7) It represents, in frightening yet also playfully enigmatic ways, the union of hand and mouth that defines the rapacious creature. It distills Grendel's grasp and gape into a piece of artifice, a thing of craeft and ordonc, that stands as the otherworldly alternative to those works of human craft that guard the body and the body politic from a potentially chaotic nature.(8) Grendel's glove is thus a literary rather than an archeological phenomenon: an object crafted out of ancient myth, narrative archetype, and social ritual. Its recollection offers Beowulf a narrative theatrics, a way of locating himself as both a comic and heroic figure in his entertainment before Hygelac's court. It offers us a riddle of representation whose solution takes us to the very workings of Germanic figurative diction.

Beowulf is in many ways a poem of the body.(9) Its actions celebrate that strength of sinew, mastery of breath, or power of the grip that define Beowulf as the victor over social challenge or monstrous invasion. Elaborate armaments and ornaments, while dressing and protecting the heroic form, more often fade into the background, or even fail, before the prowess of the victor or the wiles of the vanquished. The fight with the sea monsters during the swimming match with Breca, the combat with Grendel in Heorot, and the vanquishing of Grendel's mother in her lair, all center on the hero's maintenance of the intact body. By contrast, the results of these victories, and indeed, the consequences of non-Beowulfian encounters with such creatures, leave dismembered bodies. The poem's landscape is littered with ripped trunks, severed heads, and fragmentary limbs. Grendel's arm, AEscere's head, and the decapitated forms of the monster and his mother become the landmarks along which the poem's characters and its readers mark their progress towards heroic victory. And at the poem's end, when Beowulf's blade fails and his mail cannot save him from the dragon's fiery breath, it is a war of body parts that he loses, as the dragon's head-bone breaks the sword Naegling and the hero's own hand fails.(10)

To call Beowulf a poem of the body is, of course, to affiliate it with those traditions of the corporealized self that distinguish European heroic poetry from the Homeric epics to the Song of Roland. Indeed, many of the features I will attend to in the Old English poem--mutilation and dismemberment, the social expectations of physical violence, the cultural importance placed on eating, drinking, and their rituals--have long been seen as central to an epic world in which the hero and his victims share in the rites of self-display and bodily purification.(11) Part of my purpose in this essay, then, will be to locate Beowulf and Grendel in this world: to find in figurations of repast and sacrifice the legacy of Indo-European ritual and, furthermore, to locate in the hand and head, the mouth and belly, the emblems of what Pietro Pucci has called, writing on the Iliad and Odyssey, "heroic etiquette."(12) Such etiquette looks back to stories of the hunt and kill, and to the complex social legends that domesticated ancient violence into public ritual and shared religious action. Walter Burkert has detailed the manner in which each part of a sacrificial creature took on special meanings in these rituals: blood, flesh, viscera, bone, and skin all played a role in the propitiation of the gods and the feeding of their human subjects.(13) In the activities of offering and eating, and the myths which grew up to explain and to maintain them, Burkert finds models of society itself. Taboos of social interaction, hierarchies of class or function, and notions of the human interrelationship with the natural world are all encoded in the sacrifice. In tandem with this work, the group of researchers clustering around Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne in Paris have sought to understand "relationships between religion and society through inquiry focused on the phenomenon of sacrifice."(14) In the great myths of Dionysus and his slaughter, of Orpheus and his beheading, or of Thyestes and his dismemberment, as well as in the archetypal Homeric accounts of dining, these scholars have found tales both cosmogonic and sociogonic.(15) So, too, has Georges Dumezil and his later Indo-Europeanist heirs and critics.(16) The "general narrative" of creation, in which "a primordial being is killed and dismembered," comes to share in the accounts of social organization, as the body bears a broad relationship to both the structure of the universe and that of human society.(17) Analogies between, for example, the head and the heavens, the flesh and the earth, blood and water, are embedded in the myths of Indic, Iranian, Germanic, and the Greek and Latin peoples. Such stories as the killing, dismemberment, and burial of Romulus constitute veiled retellings of the story of creation while at the same time they domesticate, by rendering in literary form, the old brute practices of cultic sacrifice or social hunt.(18)

These narratives have, in addition to their cosmogonic and sociogonic purposes, a literary one as well, for bodies whole and broken lie at the center of many myths of poetry's own origins. The Old Norse legends of the mead of Odinn and the ritual dismemberment of Kvasir share a common Indo-European ancestry with the great myths of Sanskrit, Avestan, and Old Irish cultures.(19) Read together, they define what might be thought of as a bodily poetics: a conception of the birth of literary form out of the same shared ritual conventions as the birth of cosmic structure or of social life. The human body--marked and dismembered, reduced to its constituent elements or its disassembled limbs--is often taken as the site of allegory in the ancient traditions of literary speculation.(20) Metonymically or synechdochically, the body locates and explains phenomena of social life. It makes the processes of literary understanding part and parcel of the public apprehension of the self. To see the body as a world and the world as a body is not simply to metaphorize experience in corporeal terms (to live, say, in a body politic), but to experience the metaphorical as fundamentally corporeal. Poetic making is a matter of the body, as its parts and processes provide a visible, if not palpable, basis for figurative expression.(21)

This basis had, in fact, long been recognized by practitioners and theorists of the Germanic poetic tradition. The workings of the kenning, that distinctive marker of the figural and figurative, often hinge on bodily possession or adornment. So, too, does the Anglo-Saxon riddle with its predilection for rephrasing works of human artifice or natural creation as the objects of corporeal, if not sexual, human function.(22) The Old Norse skalds traditionally placed the body at the center of poetic imagination, as much of their metaphorics hearkened back to stories of the death of Kvasir and the genesis of poetry out of the liquid distilled from his broken form. As Carol Clover's reconstruction of the "skaldic sensibility" of medieval Scandinavian court poetry shows, the Old Norse skalds had generated their poetic lexicon and imagery out of the cosmogonic legends of corporeal dismemberment. To locate poetic performance in the breast and mouth, to find its inspiration in the figurative ingestion of Odinn's mead, is to link the body with the word.(23) So, too, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), in his syncretic codification of these traditions in his Skaldskaparamal, understood the techniques of transforming the human body and its parts into the terms of literary fiction. In this, an ars poetica of old Germanic culture, the myths of cosmic and social origin write allegories of poesis and interpretation. The body's parts, attributes, or possessions constitute the origins of kennings that characterize cosmic or meteorological phenomena. And, in particular, it is the parts and possessions of giants on which Snorri locates some of the most expressive of the kennings for the workings of the natural and social world.(24)

By finding Beowulf's announcement of Grendel's glove in the inheritance of this Old Norse poetics, I hope to do more than just reassess a source. Rather, I hope to illustrate the ways in which both Beowulf and Snorri draw on traditional accounts of bodily dismemberment and human ingestion to define the rituals of literary making. Both, I believe, present late literate reworkings of an older myth about heroic escape from the belly of the beast--a belly playfully defined as the enormous glove.(25) Read in tandem, these texts illustrate the workings of poetry itself, the mechanisms by which violent legends are transformed into courtly entertainment. But they also reveal the possible transgressions and violence barely hidden behind social rituals. If Beowulf is to be praised for his verbal prowess at Hygelac's court, it is at least in part because his tale shows how his bodily prowess had stanched a threat to social harmony. Now, in his brief story of the monster, the shattered body of Grendel and the whole returning body of the hero stand before us, side by side. Their bodies, like those of the creatures in the Old Norse legends, are the places where heroic action and poetic self-reflection come together. Grendel's glove and its Old Norse analogues share in these literary meditations, as they stand not only for the artifacts of the imagination but for the act of imaginative representation itself.


Perhaps the best known, and for my purposes the most apposite, of Snorri Sturluson's collected stories is the narrative of Thor's adventures towards the end of the Gylfaginning.(26) In response to Gylfi's inquiries about the marvelous adventures of the Aesir, one of the gods proceeds to narrate the experiences of Thor and Loki on the way to Utgard, the hall of the giants. The story (clearly a self-contained narrative unit) runs as follows. Thor and Loki set out on a journey when they come to a farmhouse. Thor sacrifices the goats with which he was traveling, cooks them, and invites the farm family to a feast. Against the god's wishes, the family's son, Thjalfi, splits the thigh bone of one of the goats to get at the marrow, and the following morning, when Thor consecrates the bones and skins and the goats rise up alive again, the lameness of one of them betrays the boy's misdeed. Fearful of the god's visible anger, the family gives Thjalfi and his sister to the god as bondservants, and together they set out for Utgard. In the course of their travels, they encounter the giant Skrymir, into whose enormous glove they accidentally wander; they reach the hall of the great giants, where they engage in a series of contests, most of which center on feats of eating, drinking, or social competition, and all of which they lose; and finally, having been humiliated by the giants, they find themselves in the open air, the hall having miraculously disappeared.

At first glance, the story of Thor and his goats bears a striking set of resonances to the early rituals of the Indo-European peoples: "En um kveldit tok Porr hafra sina ok skar bada; eptir pat voro peir flegnir og bornir til ketils, en er sodit var, ... [During the evening Thor took the goats and slaughtered them, then had them skinned and put into a cauldron. When they were cooked ...].(27) That his goats are boiled (sodit) in a ketil goes back to the oldest European practices of sacrificial cookery. Boiling in pots, as Burkert notes, is central to the rituals of early Greek, Latin, and Hittite communities.(28) J. - L. Durand has shown that, for the Greeks, the difference between roasting and boiling carried, in addition to the ritual distinctions outlined by Burkert, a certain practical logic: "Tough, freshly-killed meat that has been cut up... is barely edible if it is not boiled. For the Greeks, boiling is the most complete form of cooking."(29) And Jan de Vries, while discussing Snorri's vignette from the perspective of Vegitationsriten, nonetheless offers valuable analogues to the practice of boiling the sacrificial animal in Germanic rituals.(30)

If Thor's boiling of the goats goes back to early European practice, then his invitation to the family to share in the meal similarly resonates with ancient patterns of communion. By transforming the sacrifice into an act of social interaction, Thor initiates what Burkert would call "a circle of participants ... segregated from the outside world."(31) The various activities of killing, flaying, cooking, and distributing the meat mark out social hierarchies in which "each participant has a set function and acts according to a precisely fixed order." "The sacrificial community," Burkert continues, "is thus a model of society as a whole," where each individual has a certain role to play and certain taboos to avoid. It is precisely this question of taboo behavior which, as Burkert illustrates, defines sacrificial ritual as subject to "sacred laws" and, potentially, as disordering social and familial relations. In the case of Thor and his goats, it is Thjalfi who transgresses, cutting open the thigh bone to get at the rich marrow. It is not simply that Thjalfi has violated a general custom, but that he has taken for his own the piece of animal traditionally reserved as the god's portion. Burkert notes that, in many archaic rituals, "it is the bones, especially the thigh-bones, that belong to the gods," and he summarizes the research of critics and anthropologists on this matter:

The bones are not to be used for the subsequent meal, so they are "consecrated" beforehand. The bones, above all the thigh bones and the pelvis with the tail, are put on the altar "in the proper order." From the bones, one can still see exactly how the parts of the living animal fit together; its basic form is restored and consecrated.(32)

In Snorri's tale it is Thor himself who restores and consecrates his once-dismembered and digested animals; it is not an act of cultural imagination but the testimony to his power as a god. When he beholds the lame goat, therefore, his intense anger has behind it the old rituals of thigh-bone sacrifice, and it is in the context of Burkert's formulation that we should take the measure of Thjalfi's crime. Beyond offering an insult to the god, his act violates the principles of social hierarchy and the patterns of a ritual designed to maintain order through correctly performed sacrifice. He transgresses a code of conduct fixed to social eating, and at the beginning of the Utgard narrative, that transgression inaugurates a pattern of ingestive imagery central to the adventures.

Snorri tells tales of ritual and civilization. He draws on the deep myths of culture to illuminate the ways in which human society is centered on the structures of cooking, sacrifice, and communal eating and drinking. He offers what we might call fables of social ingestion: exemplary tales that show how food and its uses define men as men and gods as gods. His method, however, is to offer those tales as stories of transgression. Violations of ritual sacrifice and the conventions of the social meal predominate in the sequence of Thor stories. By turns comic and satiric, these tales map out the boundaries of acceptable human behavior. Snorri, in short, tells stories of threateningly bad table manners.

It is natural, therefore, that when the travelers encounter Skrymir it should be hunger that motivates their actions and a feed bag that tests their strength. Now, having left the goats behind--and with them the communal rites of sacrificial control--Thor and his companions have only his knapsack (kyl) to bear their food, an unremarkable accoutrement that, even though it is the god's, does not seem to provide them with enough. Thor and his companions then find what they think is an open hall, and spend a night inside terrified by the loud roars and rumbles of the earth. Upon awaking in the morning, they encounter Skrymir, who informs them that this hall is really his great glove (hanzka), and that what the travelers thought was an anteroom was in fact the glove's thumb. Then, after deciding to pool their resources into Skrymir's provision bag (his nestbagge), Thor discovers this bag so tightly and so intricately laced that he cannot untie it and retrieve the food.

The transgressions of the table are transformed here from the potentially horrific moment with the goats into the comic deprecations of a dwarfish Thor. To a certain extent, Snorri is developing motifs learned from the older Eddic poems that depicted the god as the butt of insult. Passages in the Harbardzliod and the Lokasenna allusively remark on Thor's foolish encounter with the giant, and their similarities of phrasing have suggested to some scholars that behind the story of the glove is an extended narrative, a hypothetically envisioned ancient Skrymiskvida.(33) In these poetic treatments Thor's adventures fit into the drama of the flyting, and here a disguised Odinn taunts the unsuspecting Thor as coward, fool, and dwarf before the giant called Fjalar.(34)

Porr a afl oerit, en ecci hiarta; af hroezlo oc hugbleydi per var i hanzca trodit, oc pottisca pu pa Porr vera; hvarki pu pa pordir fyr hroezlo pinni hniosa ne fisa, sva at Fialarr heyrdi. [Thor is brawny but not very brave: fear made you cram yourself into a glove's finger-- none would have thought you Thor; so great was your dread you didn't dare sneeze or fart lest Fjalar hear you.](35)

In the Lokasenna, Loki taunts the threatening Thor:

Austrforom pinom scaltu aldregi segia seggiom fra, sizt i hansca pumlungi hnucpir pu, einheri, oc pottisca pu pa Porr vera. [You shouldn't talk of your travels eastward to anyone alive! When you, great hero, hid in the thumb of a glove, none would have thought you Thor.](36)

The myth that has been reconstructed from these texts has been understood to center on the god's reduction to the status of a dwarf. The picture of the giant's glove so large that one could hide in even its thumb has the feeling of a fairy tale, and together with the tone of insult in these stanzas, it suggests that the story is both a funny and an embarrassing one: a challenge to the power and the pride of a divinity.

When Snorri tells the story it becomes a comic fable of the threats to social eating detailed in the Utgard story as a whole. Here, Thor enters with his traveling companions; here, it is they who are terrified and the god who is strong. And when Skrymir explains that the "hall" they wandered into is in fact his glove, they are revealed not so much for their cowardice as for their stupidity. This, then, like the other vignettes that surround it, is a story of ingestion and interpretation. The god and his friends, hungry from lack of food, find themselves in a hall which is no hall. They safely exit from the glove, only to meet the giant and, in an inversion of this narrative's motif, confront a provision bag too tightly laced to open. Images of entry and enclosure, concealment and digestion, motivate these scenes, and they are funny in a way that the encounter with Thjalfi and the goats decidedly is not.

Thor and his friends are dwarfs not just in stature but in intellect, and the associations between rituals of eating and ideals of understanding is continued in the story of the god's encounter with the inhabitants of Utgard. The first of their tests responds to Loki's boast that no one can eat faster than he can. But when a trencher is placed before him he cannot eat as quickly as Utgard-Loki's servant, Logi, for while "Loki had left only the bones of his meat, ... Logi had eaten all his meat, bones and trencher into the bargain."(37) Then, after Thjalfi's loss in a race against someone called Hugi, Thor is challenged to drain the drinking horn. But after three huge swallows, Thor can only make a "slight difference" in the level of the drink. In lifting up the cat, and finally in wrestling with the old woman, Thor again fails, and in patient condescension, Utgard-Loki finally explains the nature of the spells he had used to deceive the god and his followers.

Each of these scenes dovetails the public expectations of a social accomplishment with the private understandings of personification allegory. Racing and wrestling represent the forms of athletic competition sanctioned and regulated by the social order. Playing with the cat is, as Utgard-Loki admits, a game for children, while the acts of eating and drinking emblematize social celebrations fitting for adult communities. But these contests are not what they seem. Perversions of social behavior, they make sport of dining conventions and celebratory play. Confronted with a horn that cannot be drained or an eater who consumes like wildfire, Thor and Loki cannot compete fairly. They are trapped in a hall where the conventions of eating and drinking are upended. They are "civilized" figures confronted with aberrant practices, visitors to an enclosed space paradoxically outside the enclosures of society. Indeed, the very name "Utgard" signals the paradox at work here. It can mean the hall out side, the ut gard in contrast to the mid gard, the middle yard or hall that constitutes the realm of men. Or, it may also mean the hall of those outside, the hall of the "other" and thus may present a parody of that dwelling of the gods themselves, Asgard, the hall of the Aesir.(38)

In either case, Utgard is a community in which the rules of social action do not apply, and if the drama of the Utgard stories is the drama of food and play gone wrong, it is also one of understanding gone awry. Each moment in the narrative centers on a problem of interpretation, a decipherment of riddles in which Thor and his companions humorously fail to see an object or discern an individual properly. The servants of Utgard-Loki are enigmas to the visitors, until the giant god reveals the transparency of their names and we, as well as Thor and his friends, soon know them as abstractions, habits of mind, or mythological beings. Utgard is a community ruled by the laws of literature rather than of life. Its residents and visitors engage in rituals of social living that are not so much transgressive (as Thjalfi's handling of the goats was) as parodic. Indeed, what Utgard parodies is allegory itself. The fact that Thor and his companions cannot see that Logi is "wildfire," Hugi "thought," and Elli "old age" signals that this is, at one level, a world of radical literalism, a world of personification allegory turned upside down, whose figures simply are the objects or conditions denoted by their names. By contrast, Utgard-Loki's explanation that the eat is the Midgard serpent and that the drinking horn is the ocean depends on things that neither Thor nor we could possibly intuit. As the giant says, "The other end of the horn was in the sea, but you did not perceive that," and "that eat was not what it appeared to be."(39) Here, Thor has taken literally what is only later explained to be allegorical. He strides through a landscape of creatures that both demand and confound interpretation. In effect, he becomes a reader who consistently reads incorrectly, an interpreter manipulated into mistaking the real for the imaginary, and vice versa. As in the hollow of the glove, this hero loses himself and his friends in an adventure that is both a fantasy of ingestion and a lesson in allegory. That they escape is, in the end, testimony neither to his heroism nor his cunning, but to the consequence of a controlling--one might even say authorial--release.

The joke on Thor is thus a joke on us, a comic way of illustrating how figurative language works and, in turn, how the kennings and the idioms of poetry can playfully opacify a world of experience. We may think of these scenes in the Gylfaginning as dramatizing the concerns of the Skaldskaparamal, as they turn into narrative form the embedded allegories or metaphors of the poetic diction governing the Old Norse literary inheritance. One of the purposes of that work, as Snorri stated, was to educate the poet in the techniques of understanding "what is expressed obscurely" ("er hulit er kvedit").(40) "What is the rule for poetry without periphrasis?" Snorri will later ask. "To call everything by its own name."(41) Yet it is clear from Snorri's own account, and from the comprehensive catalogue of tropes and kennings, that the business of poetry lies precisely in not calling everything by its own name. The personification allegories of the contestants at Utgard are but one form of such substitution, and in their encounters Thor and his companions act out an allegory of allegoresis. They represent, in other words, the reader of a metaphorically charged poetry, one confronted with the names of creatures who must stand for other things and, indeed, for whom the very idea of allegorical writing must be explained.

Snorri deploys these stories of sacrifice, communal dining, and comic ingestion to move from the cosmogonic and sociogonic to the hermeneutic and, thus, to locate these myths in the inherently corporeal basis of literary metaphorics. Such locutions as, say, Ymir's skull, flesh, and blood for the sky, the earth, and the sea, respectively, illustrate how the world of experience can be mapped onto the godly body.(42) By contrast, for example, calling the mouth "land or house of tongue or teeth," or calling the "upper limb" "the ground of weapons or shields, tree of shoulder and sleeve," or the "bow-forcer," present each individual human's body as itself both a cosmos and a lexicon of the imagination.(43) Each body contains all the parts that may describe the world; in turn, the things of the world may describe in full all of the body. Within these paradigms of a corporeal poetics, "Skrymir's glove" may stand as something of a kenning in nascent form. Like those that take the objects of the world or the phenomena of meteorology and define them by the possessions of a creature, a kenning based on Skrymir's glove distills the ritual impulses of the communal feast and the physical impulses of individual hunger. Bags become the image in which mouth and hand unite, and Skrymir's hanzka comes to emblematize the monstrous nature of that union. Thor's escape from the glove is an escape from being eaten, an escape from the potentially horrific capture and ingestion by the giant. In the end, he comically survives, and the only thing that Skrymir puts into his own nestbagge is the puny knapsack of the travelers.

Such an escape motivates Beowulf's account of his fight with Grendel when he comes home to the court of Hygelac. In his allusive narrative of hands and mouths lies both the matter and the mode of Norse mythmaking. We see the hero in his comic and instructive mode, a hero who, in telling his escape from Grendel's glove, gives us a story that defines the principles of literary representation for the poem itself. This is a story more Eddic than epic in its contours and its emphases, and I return to it now to suggest how it inscribes onto the body of the beast the poem's understanding of the allegorical in literary narrative.


Beowulf's concern with being eaten is voiced from the first of his narrative self-accounts at court. Challenging Unferth's version of the swimming match with Breca early in his stay in Heorot, Beowulf recounts not only his success in swimming but the attacks of the sea monsters. "Thurh mine hand" (558b), through my hand, he avers, he broke the grasp of a creature who had ensnared him. Having dispatched all of the monsters with his sword, he states:

Naes hie daere fylle gefean haefdon, manfordaedlan, paet hie me thegon, symbel ymbsaeton saegrunde neah; [They had no joy at all of the feast, the workers of malice, that they should eat me, sit around a banquet near the sea bottom.] (562-64)

At one level, Beowulf defines his victory as a success against the possible reversal of the norms of civilized human life. The feast and the hall, those loci of the social gefea, have been imaginatively transferred to those who would eat neither sacrificial animal nor prize of the hunt, but Beowulf himself. Their feast, their banquet, would not have taken place on the benches of the hall, but near the bottom of the sea. But, at another level, Beowulf introduces into the poem a motif central to the figurations of heroic success, and one that looks back, I believe, to the archetypes of the Thor stories. In Beowulf's victories--like those against Grendel and his mother--the hero's escape from being eaten is followed by his mutilation or dismemberment of the body of the creature who would have eaten him. During the match with Breca, the sea creatures have been wounded with the sword ("mecum wunde," 565b) and left stranded on the shore, their dead forms left so that they do not hinder any future voyages. "Yet," he states, "I came out of the hostile grip alive" ("hwaebre ic fara feng feore gedigde," 578). In this aside, Beowulf defines the trope of the heroic life: the escape from the grasp and swallow, from the hand and mouth, that testifies to the successes of the body's prowess and, furthermore, to the hero's necessary mutilation of those who would threaten to ingest him.

These tropes control the account of Beowulf's defeat of Grendel in his speech at Hygelac's court and, at first glance, these two performances seem very similar in tone and purpose. But they differ in detail. Beowulf's rejoinder to Unferth, for all its self-references, is unmarked by verbal play or literary enigmatics. When it is punctuated at all, it is with the gnomes familiar from the Anglo-Saxon wisdom traditions--gnomes that give a maximal and sententious, rather than a comic and elusive flavor to the telling.(44) At Hygelac's court, however, Beowulf's account is given to the trickery of pun and wordplay, interlace and allusion, that makes this performance a heroic one not in its recounting of events, but in its skill at presentation. It is, too, like the conquest of the sea creatures, a story of artifice; yet here that artifice is transferred from the body of the hero to the corpus of the beast. What helped save Beowulf when swimming against Breca was his body armor, "hard and handlinked" ("heard hondlocen," 551a). Beautiful as well as functional, it covers his breast "adorned with gold" ("gelde gegyrwed," 553a). Such adornments may exemplify what Fred Robinson has seen as the protective and civilizing function of elaborate artifice in Beowulf. Here, the brute force of monsterly corporeality contrasts with the beweaponed and well-armed body of Beowulf himself, and it is clear that part of the poem's overall dynamics lies precisely in this contrast between the unadorned threatening chaos of the natural world, and the elaborate, artificial structures of a civic, social life that guards against it.(45) The body of the beast is always, it would seem, just that: pure body, unadorned and unprotected by the workings of craft.

It thus comes as a surprise to find, in Beowulf's returning speech, an item of distinctive craft attributed to Grendel's own possession.

Clef hangode sid ond syllic, searobendum faest; sio waes ordoncum eall gegyrwed deofles craeftum ond dracan fellum. [The glove hung wide open and weird, laced with cunningly wrought bands; it was completely adorned with works of artifice, the work of the devil, and made out of dragon skin.] (2085-88)

Grendel's glove stands as something of an antitype to the protective, wonderfully magical creations that preserve the hero's body and his home. Laced up, searobendum faest, it recalls the human works of skill (searoponc, 775) that kept Heorot together, bound fast in its iron bands during the fight with Grendel (773-75). As a work of personal artifice, the glove also recalls the near magic armor whose locked rings kept Beowulf safe (his searofah mail shirt, 1444), or the searonet that clothed his men (406). It also recalls the vision of Grendel's severed arm, hung up in Heorot as a searowunder for Hrothgar's men to see (920).(46)

Yet Grendel's glove is a grim work of horrific craft, a thing whose ordonc exemplifies neither the ingenuities of men nor the inherent artistry of God.(47) Unlike that armor, "golde gegyrwed," which saved Beowulf, this is a thing "eal gegyrwed" with a devilish skill. And unlike armor that would keep the human body whole, this is a monsterly accessory itself made of the pieces of another creature: dragon skin. Like Skrymir's hanzka or his tightly laced-up food bag, Grendel's glove appears as a mechanism of the inhuman that can entrap the unsuspecting. Moreover, as that figurative version of the hand and mouth assembly that defines the monstrous, the glove stands for the gross processes of digestion that lie at the center of both the Grendel and the Thor stories. Much like the characters of the Gylfaginning, or, for that matter, much like the rapacious sea beasts who would make a meal of Beowulf, Grendel is a creature of unbridled appetite. His hunger motivates a cruelty that transgresses the most fundamental of social taboos--cannibalism--and makes him a being ruled not by the mind but by the mouth. Indeed, all that we know of Grendel and his kin (aside from the allusions to his genealogy and their potential exegetical resonances) is centered on the body parts that they use to eat: the massive hand that snatches men and the mouth that swallows them.

In the section of Beowulf's speech devoted to him, Grendel is a creature all of hands and mouth, and Beowulf's words construct an elaborate verbal interlace of these two body parts to reify the creature's features. It was, from the start he claims, a hand-fight (hondraes, 2072); the first Geat killed, now named Hondscio (2076), has a name that clearly resonates with the manual imagery of Grendel's threat. Grendel, too, is a mudbona (2079), one who can swallow up the lives of men, and whose own face is reduced to the synechdochic blodigtod (2082). He grasps the hero with an eager hand ("grapode gearofolm," 2085), and while he would not leave Heorot empty handed (idelhende, 2081), it is his own empty hand that remains behind as a token of Beowulf's greater grip ("swade weardade / hand on Hiorte," 2098-99).(48) The image of the glove is thus, for the Beowulf-poet and for Snorri, a playful way of bringing together these two defining body parts. As a hand-shaped cavity that swallows men, the glove is both limb and mouth. It is as if these writers had both asked themselves a riddle: when is a hand like a mouth--or, perhaps, more in keeping with the spirit of the Exeter Book collection, what is it that looks like a hand but swallows like a mouth? Answer: a glove.

This notion of the glove as the solution to a riddle both complements my earlier suggestion that the giant's glove functions in Snorri's Gylfaginning as the core of a kenning and, furthermore, may help explain something of Beowulf's larger purposes and effects in his speech before Hygelac. The patterns of interpretive deception, word-play, and personification allegory operating in the Old Norse stories present striking parallels to the Hondscio / glof pun in the Old English. Both scenes transform the potentially horrific into comedy; both use the ruses of pun and transparent etymology to educate the audience in entertaining ways. "Hondscio" here is a joke, a contribution to the tame and reassuring retelling of Beowulf's story.(49) Far from Denmark, and distanced from his exploits, Beowulf transforms the terror of his experience into a form of social entertainment. The play on name and glove effectively dramatizes the horror of the Geat's death and the monster's appetite. It makes the story an acceptable social performance, one that will not--as Grendel's own disembodied head did--frighten men and queen (1647-50).

In one sense, then, Beowulf's verbal humor turns socially disruptive action into illustrative play. It enacts something of that tradition of docere et delectare later vernacularized for the Germanic tradition in Snorri's own Skaldskaparamal, when he offers his own compendia of kenning-compounds and allusive verses as both "scholarly inquiry and entertainment" ("til frodleiks ok skemtunar").(50) But, in another sense, Beowulf's wordplays and his references to Grendel's glove take us directly to the matter, as well as the method, of the Norse myths. These references, I believe, are to be construed as direct allusions to the vision of Thor the comic dwarf and to the flytings preserved in the Harbardzliod and Lokasenna. Confronted with a need to tell his own tale, Beowulf presents himself as something of a comic Thor, a hero on a journey filled with transparent names, monstrous objects, and enigmatic verbal challenges.

But, of course, unlike the misapprehending Thor, or the unfortunate Hondscio, Beowulf does not find himself in Grendel's glove. His escape is what makes him heroic; his actions take on a power and significance when shown against the foil of the Old Norse analogues. For the real point is that Beowulf presents a comic scene in order to define his heroism as a social performance. He presents a literary narrative of his actions that is not so much epic as Eddic--or to put it more precisely now, skaldic--in its pace, allusiveness, and verbal play. Faced with the request to tell of his adventures at the court, this Scandinavian hero performs a characteristically Scandinavian verbal act. He tells a pointedly allusive and succinct report, one that trades on not only a familiarity with Eddie tales of Thor and his escape from Skrymir's glove, but one that relies on a certain courtly sensitivity to puns and wordplay and to the self-consciousness of poetic telling. His is a performance richly aware of its own performativity, a story interrupted with announcements either of intention or excuse. The opening claim, "Ic steal ford sprecan," and the interruptive aside, "To lang ys to reccenne" (2093), announce, in effect, that Beowulf's narration will inform his audience less about the details of the struggle than about the hero's own skills at personal narration. We are not offered the horrific details of the fight; nor are we given a moral interpretation of its action in the gnomic terms that the Beowulf-poet, or Hrothgar, had earlier presented. Instead, what we get is entertainment, a self-conscious display of Beowulf's abilities to sprecan and an ironic aside when he knows that he may have spoken for "to lang."

These are what Carol Clover has identified as the key features of the "skaldic sensibility," the highly wrought, self-conscious literary style at work in Scandinavian courts from roughly the ninth through the eleventh centuries.(51) It is a style of first-person intrusiveness, a way of recapitulating familiar mythic or legendary matter not so much to recount their plots as to display the "poet's range of emotional response" to them. The skalds, as Clover puts it, turned the inheritance of myth "into a performance metaphor," spinning their stories of the origins of poetry and their displays of skill out of the myth of Kvasir and the many kennings generated by its tale of a broken and reconstituted body. The emphasis on wordplay, on what Clover calls the "ludic quality of skaldic poetry," is thus an integral part of this fascination with the origins and social function of poetic making.(52) More than showing off the skald's command of technique or archana, puns and allusions contribute to the thematic preoccupation with the limits of language itself. Skaldic performance, at its most extreme, pushes the resources of language to the point of near-incomprehensibility, as the proper understanding of the poem becomes akin to the solving of a riddle or the elucidation of a kenning.

In these terms, Beowulf's performance, while not nearly as elaborate as that of the professional skalds, does show us something of the verbal trickery at work in Scandinavian court versifying. It shows the hero in his courtly mode, a hero serving as his own best poet, one acutely conscious of the expectations of his audience to be both challenged and amused. The pun on Hondscio's name and the account of Grendel's glove thus function less as added details designed to enhance the realism of the monster's threat than as allusions calibrated to enhance the mythic quality of this self-presentation. They draw the poem's audience into the ambience of cosmogonic and sociogonic legends, recalling the comedy of Thor, the great myths of communal ingestion and bodily breakage, and finally, the ways in which Scandinavian poets relied on such myths both to display and reflect upon the nature of their verbal craft. Both Beowulf and Gylfaginning draw on the motif of the monster's glove to fix the point of contact between social ritual and literary habit. Both sets of stories offer tales of eating and its transgressions. Both use patterns of wordplay designed to illustrate the etymologies of certain terms and the centrality of verbal decipherment in the adventures of the hero and the teachings of an audience. They transform the stuff of ritual into the logic of comedy and the narrative of literary making.

Such transformations may enable us to reconsider Grendel's killing as a kind of sacrifice within the narrative and mythic archetypes that had developed out of the social rituals of bodily dismemberment and communal ingestion. Bones, skulls, and skins have always been, as Burkert notes, the stuff of the rites of purification, and the telos of the sacrificial act lies in the cleansing of the community. "Sacrifice transforms us," Burkert writes: "Killing justifies and affirms life; it makes us conscious of the new order and brings it into power."(53) So, too, does Beowulf's elimination of the monsters, an act defined throughout the poem as a cleansing. When he arrives in Denmark, he boasts that he will "Heorot faelsian" (432), and the narrator, introducing Grendel's severed arm as a token, states that the hero had indeed "gefaelsod ... sele Hrodgares" (825-26). Wealhtheow, too, believes "Heorot is gefaelsod" (1176), and when Beowulf kills Grendel's mother and severs her son's head, then the waters of the monster's mere are also "eal gefaelsod" (1620). Finally, looking back over his adventures in old age, Beowulf himself remembers how he "sele faelsode ... at gude forgrap" (2352-53)--that is, how he cleansed the hall and gripped Grendel completely to death. These acts are grounded in the verbal idiom of sacrifice. The verb used to describe them, faelsian, is the vernacular equivalent of such terms as lustrare, purificare, and expiare: Latin terms for the cleansing of the social self and the purification of that which has been defiled. As a place in need of such a cleansing, Heorot becomes the site of ritual, and Grendel's left-behind and returned body parts--the long bones of the arm assemblage and the skull of the severed head--become the tokens of this purification. Faelsian connotes in these contexts the act of dismemberment itself. Its repeated appearance in the poem signals that the killing of the monster necessarily requires the display of body parts, their communal beholding, and their understanding as the signs and tokens of the creature's death.(54)

Read in this way, the death of Grendel shares with the great myths of decapitation and dismemberment a resonance with the creation of the world and the establishment of culture. Like the many literary versions of the tales of Romulus, Thyestes, Dionysus, and Orpheus, this version of the death of Grendel relies on an ancient set of tropes to make a statement about the fragility of the human community and the power of literary narrative to bring individuals together into a shared awareness of their origins. If Grendel's killing partakes of the deep structures of ritual dismemberment, then much like Thor's goats or the older practices detailed by Burkert, the arm and head together should enable the beholder imaginatively to reconstruct the beast from which they came. Such reconstructions, as the story of the goats illustrated, had become part and parcel of the consecration of the slaughtered animal, and ultimately point towards the purification or cleansing of the community through sacrifice.

But the whole point of Beowulf's narration is that we not reconstruct--either physically or narratively--the severed body. The hand assembly is, throughout the poem, offered as fragment of the body left behind, a thing signifying, marking, or directing human action, emotional reaction, or interpretive response. Each thing, each part, becomes a symbol, a tacn.(55) The poem specifically identifies the head and arm as objects whose significance must lie beyond their bloody apparition.

Thaet waes tacn sweotol, sythdan hildedeor hond alegde, earm ond eaxle--thaer waes eal geador Grendels grape--under geapne hrof. [That was a clear sign when the battle-brave man set up the hand under the curved roof--the arm and the shoulder: there all together was Grendel's grasp.] (833-36)

Beowulf, too, speaks in terms of tokens when he returns Grendel's head to Hrothgar.

Hwaet, we the thas saelac, sunu Healfdenes, leod Scyldinga, lustrum brohton, tires to tacne, the thu her to locast.

[Behold, we have brought you this sea booty, son of Healfdene, man of the Scyldings, gladly, as a token of glory--what you look on here.] (1652-54)

Similarly, in Beowulf's retelling before Hygelac, the hand is left as a swade (2098), a track or pathway.(56) Indeed, the word swadu carries with it a whole host of hermeneutic resonances in Old English. In King Alfred's famous lament on the decline of English learning, for example, the word alludes to the example left by earlier English scholars: "Her mon maeg giet gesion hiora swaed, ac we him ne cunnon aefter spyrigean" [Here one can still see their track, but we cannot follow after it].(57) And in the Exeter Book Riddles, the word refers to the tracks left by the pens and ink of the scriptorium: the "swathu swithe blacu" left by the pen and fingers of Riddle 51, or the "swathe" made clear to the reader at the close of the last Riddle, number 95. The word swathu in the Old English Riddles shares a semantic field with last (leavings, track, or pathway), and often appears paired with it.(58) Similarly, in Beowulf, the metrical construction of line 2098b, "swade weardade," is clearly modeled on (or part of the same formula as) the phrasing "last weardian" in Beowulf's original account of the battle to Hrothgar:

Hwaethere he his folme forlet to lifwrathe last weardian, earm ond eaxle. [Nonetheless, he left his hand remaining as a mark or track in order to save his life, the arm and the shoulder.] (970-72)(59)

In Beowulf's telling, then, Grendel is symbolically dismantled into his constituent parts: not, as in the story of Thor and his goats, so that the hero can restore the body whole again in consecration, but so that they may remain as parts, safe in their symbolism and inactivity. They must remain as parts or objects, the swadu of the hand or the orthonc of the glove, things for the delectation or interpretation of the viewer.

Beowulf's story is thus a profound enactment of and challenge to the mythic archetypes of heroic escape. On the one hand, it replicates the tenor of the comic Thor--transforms the heroic escape from death into comic exaggeration and glib wordplay. But, on the other hand, it recognizes that to cleanse (faelsian) the hall is not to bring the sacrificial body back to wholeness but to leave its shards and ornaments scattered across the landscape of the telling. Grendel must stay here, in the hero's self-reportage, as the synechdochic self: the bloody-toothed one, empty-handed, bearing a weird glove. All mouth and hand, he is reduced to trope and type--poeticized, as it were--according to the techniques at work in Old Germanic performance and later plotted out by Snorri. Though we have seen Grendel in his living body, but for the self-narrations of the hero he cannot come back to life. The horror of his grim rapacity must be displaced onto the glove: not body, but artifice.

If Beowulf is a poem of the body, it is, then, a poem of the fragmented and symbolized body. Grendel's severed head and arm are, much like the bladeless sword-hilt Beowulf recovers from the mere, symbolic remnants of a violent world. While they may once have threatened social life or cosmic order, they survive within the poem's telling as tame representations of a former horror. They are signs and symbols, figures for a violence that has gone on long ago.(60) The hand and head are thus not only objects in need of interpretation. They exemplify the symbolic itself, the building blocks of allegorical and mythic literature that facilitate the hero's display of his verbal skills and, in turn, the audience's understanding of the nature of poetic craft. The idea of the tacn or the swadu is the idea of representation itself, of the display of symbols in the organization of narrative meaning. Beowulf's listeners at Hygelac's court--much like Thor and his companions or the deluded Gylfi himself in Snorri's tale--are confronted with strange names and odd inhuman things. To understand them is not just to crack the codes of allegory but to share in the successes of the social rituals of poetic performance. Such rituals are ultimately comic. On the one hand, they are funny, in that plays on name and etymology or visions of the dwarfish god defuse the tensions of a violent tale and make socially acceptable the recitation of a horrific battle. But they are also comic in a darker sense, one that, as Carolyn Walker Bynum has phrased it, "undergirds our sense of human limitation," and that, in its revelry in broken or disfigured bodies, shows us a narrative of human history where the "pleasant [has been] snatched from the horrible by artifice and with acute self-consciousness and humility."(61)

In effect, this is precisely what the courtly Beowulf has done. By drawing on the tropes and tricks of Scandinavian myth and verse, he snatches something, if not pleasant, then at least amusing from the horrible. That his report of the fight with Grendel says more about a piece of artifice than about the monster, and shows more of Beowulf's self-consciousness and humility than of his physical heroism, is fully in keeping with the comic flavor of his telling. But such comedy, as Snorri Sturluson had recognized, needs to be understood, and both the Old English poem and the Old Norse scholar spend considerable time seeking to educate their audiences in the techniques of that understanding. These techniques, as I have sought to illustrate throughout this study, represent the literary and intellectual end-product of a lengthy cultural process, one beginning with Old Germanic narratives of bodily dismemberment and alimentary ingestion that draw on deep structures of sacrificial ritual, and that have been elaborated into myths of sociogonic and cosmogonic epistemes. Beyond their applications as didactic works for the instruction of an audience or celebrant, these narratives also constitute a way of teaching something about figurative understanding. The inherent tendency of such narratives to reflect not only on the workings of allegory but on the corporeal foundation of allegoresis itself is what both Beowulf and Snorri have exploited. Old English and Old Norse poetic practices provide the larger paradigm for understanding the figure of the giant's glove--be it Skrymir's hanzka or Grendel's glof--as a possible kernel of a kenning or a riddle: that is, as a possible mythological signifier for a natural referent that, in some sense, would participate in the narratives of a god's or hero's comic escape from captivity and ingestion. The many body parts that litter Beowulf's landscape thus come to function in an emerging corporeal poetics for the poem: a poetics of dismemberment, where sacrificial, social, and poetic ritual performances use the occasion of the separation of the body to give rise to public utterance.

Beowulf's conjuring of Grendel's glove, then, testifies to his command of the poetic resources of his culture. His performance is, in one sense, a social ritual: a fulfilling of a contract between the returning hero and the welcoming community for an account, both entertaining and instructive, of his adventures. It is, too, in another sense, a reflection on the problems of ritual itself: a recognition of the place that bodily dismemberment has in the deeper forms of cosmic, social, and poetic self-representation and explanation. To speak of a poetics of dismemberment, then, or to find in Beowulf's performance a commanding display of traditional materials and methods, is to speak of poetry itself and to see how the hero's literature takes the shards and fragments of dead bodies or inhuman artifacts and transforms them into reflections on the poet's craft and on the place of imaginative fiction in society.

Stanford University


Earlier versions of this material were presented to audiences at Rutgers University (1989), the University of California at Berkeley (1990), and UCLA (1993). I am grateful to many in those audiences, especially to Joseph Nagy, John P. Herrman, and John Ganim, and to Mary F. Godfrey for the opportunity of directing her dissertation on a topic related to that of this study, "The Severed Head: Images of the Body in Old and Middle English Literature," Princeton University, 1992. In preparing this essay for publication, I have benefited greatly from the detailed responses of Lee Patterson and the supportive suggestions of Nicholas Howe.

1 Beowulf, ed. F. Klaeber, 3d ed. (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1950), 1999-2162; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by the line number. All translations from this text, as well as others, are my own unless specified otherwise.

2 Edward D. Laborde, "Grendel's Glove and His Immunity from Weapons," Modern Language Review 18 (1923): 202-4; Johannes Hoops, Beowulfstudien, Anglistische Forschungen 74 (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1932), 118.

3 J. R. R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95, reprinted separately (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1958), 30.

4 James L. Rosier, "The Uses of Association: Hands and Feasts in Beowulf," PMLA 78 (1963): 8-14, especially his remarks on 11-12: "[The poet's] use of the words hand and glof in turn suggested, as he realized the appropriateness of particularizing Beowulf's lost companion, a Germanic equivalent--a form of hantscuoh--which he decided to adapt as a personal name, since as a compound it contributes to the hand motif and in a sense picks up or puns upon the allusion to the glove." See also the discussion in Mary F. Godfrey, "Beowulf and Judith: Thematizing Decapitation in Old English Poetry," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 35 (1993): 1-43, especially her remarks on 3-4.

5 Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1991), esp. 183-94, which draws on the suggestive criticism of R. Howard Bloch on the conventions of heroic return and recitation (see Medieval French Literature and Law [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977], 198-202) and on the critical tradition surrounding Odysseus's return and self-disclosure to Penelope in the Odyssey (see Shiela Murnahghan, Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987] and the scholarship summarized therein). Though the passages from Beowulf that I discuss here have not received much attention from modern critics, Beowulf's speech to Hygelac is commonly regarded as the closing gesture of the poem's first part. A representative formulation is that of Edward B. Irving, Jr., Rereading Beowulf (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 153: "This scene occupies an important pivotal position in the narrative. It comes after the real end of the Danish portion at line 1887 and forms a strong epilogue to that section in its general tone, maintaining Part I's highly social atmosphere and its heavy stress on the royal political activity for which a hall is the proper venue. Beowulf's report is thus the last great hall-scene of the poem." Though offering a perceptive reassessment of the monsters in the poem from an anthropological perspective that complements my own, Ward Parks neglects to discuss Beowulf's own account of the fight with Grendel and, indeed, conflates the poet's first report of Grendel killing the unnamed "slsependne rinc" (741a) with the later announcement by Beowulf that his name is Hondscio ("Prey Tell: How Heroes Perceive Monsters in Beowulf," JEGP 92 [1993]: 1-16, esp. 2).

6 For the philosophical and psychoanalytic inheritance behind this formulation, see the surveys of critical positions in Carolyn Dean, "Law and Sacrifice: Bataille, Lacan, and the Critique of the Subject," Representations 13 (1986): 42-62, and Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986). For historical approaches to the body's place in late antique and medieval social systems, see the following: Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988); Carolyn Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991); John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980); Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991). See, too, Sarah Beckwith, Christ's Body: Religious Culture and Late Medieval Piety (New York: Routledge, 1993), and the studies collected in "Boundary and Transgression in Medieval Culture," the special issue of the Stanford French Review 14 (1990), esp. Stephen G. Nichols, "Deflections of the Body in the Old French Lay," 27-50, and Milad Douelhi, "The Lure of the Heart," 51-68; and the highly influential article of Nancy Vickers, "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme," Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 265-79. For arguments and evidence enabling the construction of the Middle Ages as an "age of the body," see Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury, eds., Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), esp. vii-xiv.

7 The only account of the glove that gestures in the broader critical directions I am positing here is that of Paul Beckman Taylor, "Grendel's Monstrous Arts," In Geardagum VI (1984): 1-12. Taylor reviews some of the Old Norse sources associated with the episode, as I do below, and recognizes that the glove-bag constitutes a work of "primeval cunning" (6); yet he is unconcerned with the larger function of the glove-episode either in the structure and meaning of Beowulf's speech as a whole or in the broader contexts of Germanic literary allegorical and narrative attitudes.

8 See the review of issues in Taylor (note 7), and the fundamental formulation of the role of artifice in Old English literature by Fred C. Robinson, Beouwolf and the Appositive Style (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1985). I have developed some of these approaches in Literacy and Power (note 5), in particular seeking to define the centrality of the term ordonc in the Old English Riddles (97-125).

9 Though Beowulf awaits a comprehensive assessment in the terms of the theory and history of the body sketched above, some gestures in this direction have been made by Godfrey (note 4); Janet Thorman, "The Body of the Mother in Beowulf," delivered at the Modern Language Association of America Convention, Chicago, 29 December, 1990; and by Gillian Overing, Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1990), esp. 33-67. For an approach to Old English poetry that seeks to corporealize the idea of verbal performance itself, see Eric Jager, "Speech and the Chest in Old English Poetry: Orality or Pectorality?" Speculum 65 (1990): 845-59.

10 For a sensitive reassessment of these motifs in the poem, see Irving (note 5), 92-99.

11 See, for example, Charles Segal, The Theme of the Mutilation of the Corpse in the Iliad (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971); Pietro Pucci, Odysseus Polutropos: Intertextual Readings in the Odyssey and the Iliad (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987), esp. 157-90; Peter Haidu, The Song of Roland and the Birth of the State (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993).

12 Pucci (note 11), 171.

13 Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, trans. Peter Bing (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1983), esp. 1-82.

14 See the studies collected in Jean-Pierre Vernant, ed., The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks, trans. Paula Wissing (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), this quotation from Marcel Detienne, "Culinary Practices and the Spirit of Sacrifice," 1.

15 See, for example, Marcel Detienne, Dionysos Slain, trans. Mireille and Leonard Muellner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979); Pierre Vidal-Naquet, The Black Hunter, trans. Andrew Szegedy-Maszak (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986).

16 See in particular Georges Dumezil, Gods of the Ancient Northmen, ed. and trans. Einar Haugen (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1973). For an extension and a powerful critique of Dumezil's methods and his legacy, see Bruce Lincoln, Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).

17 Lincoln (note 16), 2.

18 See Lincoln, 42-43, working with reference to the interpretation in Burkert, "Caesar and Romulus-Quirinus," Historia 11 (1962): 356-76. Lincoln summarizes: "The distribution of Romulus's bodily parts is thus a mythic sociogony, describing the creation of a differentiated social order in which no gens could claim totality or absolute supremacy, but in which each had a role to play in the functioning of the city. Every meeting of the senate, therefore, was nothing less than a reassembling of the primordial totality, that is to say, a convocation of all the Roman gentes reunified the pieces of Romulus's dismembered body. At other times, however, as the genres carried on their separate existence, Romulus's body remained scattered, and each adjournment of the senate repeated the dispersion of his bodily parts" (43). For bibliography on the myth and its interpretations, see 184-85. For an application of these paradigms to the narratives of beheading in Old English and Old Norse narratives, see Godfrey (note 4), 6-12, 34 n.26.

19 For nineteenth-century comparative philological accounts, see the bibliography assembled in Jan de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2 vols., 2d ed. (Berlin and Leipzig: Walter de Gruyter, 1956-57), 1:x-xlix. For more recent discussions of the origin of poetry in narratives of bodily dismemberment and the ingestion of the body's fluids, see the accounts in Dumezil (note 16), 20-25; Lincoln, 65-86, 196-97; Carol Clover, "Skaldic Sensibility," Arkiv for Nordisk Filologi 93 (1978): 63-81; Roberta Frank, "Snorri and the Mead of Poetry," in Speculum Noroennum: Norse Studies in Memory of Gabriel Turville-Petre, ed. Ursula Dronke (Odense: Odense Univ. Press, 1981), 155-70; and Godfrey (note 4), 7-10. In Literacy and Power (note 5), I argued that Bede's story of Caedmon similarly traded on these legends of ritual ingestion and shared poetic performance, contrasting them with the monastic traditions of ruminatio and the ideals of a Christian eucharistic ingestive imagery (see 42-48).

20 The idea of the human body as the site of allegorical imagination has been traced for a variety of literatures. For the coporealization of physical processes in what may be the originary allegorizing gestures of the Greek Scholiasts, see Felix Buffiere, Les Mythes d'Homere et la Pensee Greoque (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1956), 85-132. For the traditions of an alimentary metaphorics in Late Antique and medieval literatures, see Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1953), 134-36. See, too, Robert M. Durling, "Deceit and Digestion in the Belly of Hell," in Allegory and Representation, Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1979-80, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1981), 61-93. The classic account of the political allegories of the body is Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957). See, too, Jacques Le Goff, "Head or Heart? The Political Use of Body Metaphors in the Middle Ages," in Fragments for a History of the Human Body, part 3, ed. Michel Feher (New York: Zone, 1989), 13-26, and for later medieval civic and dramatic traditions, Mervyn James, "Ritual, Drama and Social Body in the Late Medieval English Town," Past and Present 98 (1983): 3-29.

21 Durling's remarks (note 20) succinctly sum up the position I am offering here: "The various models of the larger unity of humanity--the body of Satan, the body politic, the body of Christ--are all patterns in which individuals are contained as organs in the larger structures they only party know. In these larger structures... we are each allegorized beyond our knowledge and perhaps against our wills, contained by our limitations and our devices" (84).

22 Margaret Clunies Ross (Skaldskaparamal: Snorri Stulruson's Ars Poetica and Medieval Theories of Language [Odense: Odense Univ. Press, 1987)) has identified the principle of kenning-making as inherited and codified by Snorri as one in which "the base-word is the name of a possession, body-part, etc. of the determinant, which is a proper name, e.g., 'fire of Aegir,' 'meal of Frodi.'" A subset of this group is the kind of kenning in which "the relationship between the base-word and referent is often metaphorical, often mythologically sanctioned, e.g., 'storm of Odinn,' 'wheel of Hildr'" (95). In discussing this procedure at length, Clunies Ross concludes that "it is a tendency... implicit in the entire Old Norse kenning-system" (145). For a provocative reassessment of the traditions of Anglo-Saxon riddling in this light, together with a review of the critical inheritance on the riddles, see Craig R. Williamson, The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1977), esp. 23-28. For a discussion of the historical and structural links between riddles and kennings in ways that will bear directly on my later arguments, see John Lindow, "Riddles, Kennings, and the Complexity of Skaldic Poetry," Scandinavian Studies 47 (1975): 311-27. 23 Carol J. Clover (note 19), esp. 68-73.

24 See the discussion in Clunies Ross, Skaldskaparamal (note 22), on the term nygervingar, literally "novelty" or "neologism," but in certain contexts explicitly concerned with allegorizations of body parts (see esp. 50, 76-77, 117, 132, 149-50). In his recent translation of the Skaldskaparamal, Anthony Faulkes renders Snorri's nygervingar as Modern English "allegory" in the discussion of kennings for the body parts head and limb (Snorri Sturluson: Edda [London: Dent, 1987], 153-54). For a discussion of the subtle range of connotations of the term nygervingar, as well as for an assessment of Snorri as a literary critic of skaldic verse, see O. D. Macrae-Gibson, "Sagas, Snorri, and the Literary Criticism of Scaldic Verse," in Ur Dolum til Dala: Gudbrandnr Vigfusson Centerary Essays, ed. Rory McTurk and Andrew Wawn, Leeds Texts and Monographs, n.s. 11 (1989): 165-86. On Snorri's uses of the giants as "embodiments of the workings of nature," see Clunies Ross, 168. She also remarks on how the body parts of giants (for example, Idunn's eyes and Aurvandill's toe, 171) and their possessions (for example, Hrugnir's whetstone, 171) figure prominently in Snorri's narratives as hearkening back to the older tradition of metamorphic narrative inherited from Ovid.

25 Though this is not the place to review extensively the debates on the dating of Beowulf (see Colin Chase, ed., The Dating of Beowulf [Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1981]) or Snorri's use of received and possibly orally transmitted poetry and myth, some statement of position is in order. By referring to Beowulf as "literate," I do not necessarily mean to deny the possibilities of the poem sharing in a larger European oral-formulaic tradition of composition. Instead, I refer to the poem as it has survived in the unique late-tenth- or early-eleventh-century manuscript copy, and in torn, how certain aspects of the poem's narrative may thematize its own modes of composition and transmission. For approaches to the institutional histories and ideologies controlling the scholarly discussion of these issues, see Allen J. Frantzen, Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and the Teaching of the Tradition (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1990), esp. 179-200, and Michael Near, "Anticipating Alienation: Beowulf and the Intrusion of Literacy," PMLA 108 (1993): 320-32. For a valuable reconception of the historicity of Anglo-Saxon oral poetry and its transmission, see Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990). For Snorri Sturluson's status as a literate compiler of traditional mythographic material and a synthesizer of Germanic popular and learned traditions of literary theory, see the general survey in John Lindow, "Mythology and Mythography," in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide, ed. Carol J. Clover and John Lindow (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), 21-67, and the more specialized studies of Joseph Harris, "The Masterbuilder Tale in Snorri's Edda and Two Sagas," Arkiv for Nordisk Filologi 91 (1976): 66-101; Roberta Frank (note 19); Ursula and Peter Dronke, "The Prologue of the Prose Edda: Explorations of a Latin Background," in Sjotiu Ritgerdir Helgadar Jakobi Benediktssyni, ed. Einar G. Petursson and Jonas Kristjansson (Reykjavik: Stofun Arna Magnussonar, 1977), 153-76; Arthur D. Mosher, "The Story of Baldr's Death: The Inadequacy of Myth in the Light of Christian Faith," Scandinavian Studies 55 (1983): 305-15; and the commentary in Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning, ed. Gottfried Lorenz (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984). The only book-length survey of Snorri's work in English is Marlene Ciklamini, Snorri Sturluson (Boston: Twayne, 1978), a work which, however, has received a mixed critical reception (see Liudow, 33 and n.24).

26 Quotations from Gylfaginning will be from the selection edited by Anne Holtsmark and Jon Helgason. Snorri Sturluson, Edda: Gylfaginning og Prosefortellingene av Skaldskaparamal (Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1950), with translations (unless otherwise noted) from Jean I. Young, The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1954). Quotations from Skaldskaparamal will he from Finnur Jonsson, ed., Snorri Sturluson Edda (Copenhagen, 1900), with translations from Faulkes (note 24).

27 Holtsmark and Helgason (note 26), 49; Young (note 26), 69.

28 Burkert (note 13), 89-90, and the extended n.29 to texts and scholarship on the Greek, Latin, Hittite, and Germanic traditions.

29 J.-L. Durand, "Greek Animals: Toward a Typology of Edible Bodies." in Vernant (note 14), 87-118, this quotation from 103. See, too, Claude Levi-Strauss, The Origin of Table Manners, trans. John and Dorreen Weightman (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 471-93, who argues that the distinction between boiling and roasting signifies the difference between culture (that is, cooking with implements) and nature (cooking without).

30 Jan de Vries (note 19), 1:419 and n.1.

31 This and the following quotations in this paragraph are from Burkert (note 13), 37.

32 Burkert, 6, 13.

33 For the literary genealogy of Skrymir, and the reconstructions of a legend surrounding his encounter with Thor, see Lorenz (note 25), 529-31; de Vries (note 19), 2:143-45; Detlef Brennecke, "Gab es eine Skrymiskvida," Arkiv for Nordisk Filologi 96 (1981): 1-8; and Michael Chesnutt, "The Beguiliug of Porr," in McTurk and Wawn (note 14), 35-63 (who makes claims for the roots of this cluster of stories in the Gylfaginning in the traditions of Celtic mythology).

34 On the flyting as a genre and the critical appropriateness of that term, see Carol J. Clover, "The Germanic Context of the Unferp Episode," Speculum 55 (1980): 444-68, and Ward Parks, Verbal Duelling in Heroic Narrative (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1990). On the status of the Harbardzliod in this generic context, see Clover, "Harbardzliod as Generic Farce," Scandinavian Studies 51 (1979): 124-45, and the response of Marcel Bax and Tineke Padmos, "Two Types of Verbal Duelling in Old Icelandic: The Interactional Structure of the Senna and the Mannjafnadr in Harbardzliod," Scandinavian Studies 55 (1983): 149-74.

35 Harbardzliod, in Edda, Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmalern, ed. Gustav Neckel, 4th ed., rev. Hans Kuhn (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1962), stanza 26. Translation from Patricia Terry, Poems of the EIder
COPYRIGHT 1994 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Lerer, Seth
Date:Dec 22, 1994
Previous Article:'Absalom, Absalom!,' Haiti and labor history: reading unreadable revolutions.
Next Article:'Social things': the production of popular culture in the reception of Robert Greene's 'Pandosto.'

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters