Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Grendel's Glof: Beowulf Line 2085 Reconsidered

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Grendel's Glof: Beowulf Line 2085 Reconsidered

Article excerpt

While reporting on his fight with Grendel to Hygelac's court (2069b-2100), Beowulf interrupts the building suspense of his narrative at the very moment when Grendel is grasping for him with an eager hand to describe what appears to be a dragon-skin glove hanging at Grendel's side:

        Glof hangode
   sid ond syllic, searobendum faest;
   sio waes ordoncum eall gegyrwed
   deofles craeftum ond dracan fellum.
   (2085b-88) (1)

[A glove hung, broad and strange, fastened with cunningly wrought clasps; it was cleverly adorned with the devil's crafts and a dragon's skins.]

The reason for the sudden appearance of this odd detail so late in the poem has prompted divergent, though almost exclusively brief, critical discussion. (2) Despite the variety of interpretations, most readings accept E. D. Laborde's assertion that "a large glove was a characteristic property of trolls" to explain its origins. (3) Specifically, Laborde states that Grendel's glove represents an established folk motif "probably inherited from the glove episode of Thor and the giant Skrymir as told by the Edda." In order to confirm that a glove was indeed the "special mark of a troll," he broadens the discussion to include a later example from Scandinavian folklore.(4) judging from the frequency with which editors, (5) critics, (6) and translators (7) have cited Laborde's folk-motif theory to help explain away the sudden appearance of Grendel's glove, it would seem that a kind of consensus has been reached on this once troubling issue.

In the first section of this article, I challenge this consensus by investigating Laborde's specific claims as well as the secondary scholarship that helped to establish his authority on the relationship between Grendel's glove and those gloves of Old Norse legend. There is, I conclude, surprisingly little support for the notion that the Beowulf-poet had Laborde's folk motif in mind or that such a motif even exists. Without a convincing source or motif to help explain the glove's presence, I recommend that the glove is more likely a literary invention of the poet himself. In the second section, therefore, I examine the glove passage within the contexts of the poet's fascination with poetic variation, his predilection for dramatic effect achieved through figurative language and fragmentation of detail, and, above all, the narrative circumstances within which these effects are sought. Bearing these factors in mind, I suggest that the Beowulf-poet's invention of Grendel's glove can be better appreciated as a feature of what James L. Rosier describes as the poet's "composition by association." (8) The repeated emphasis on hand imagery in Beowulf's retelling of the Grendel fight thus opens the possibility that the poet's choice of the term glof may not be employed as an out of place reference to a physical artifact, but as a figurative description of Grendel's hanging belly, now swollen with the recently ingested Hondscioh, whose name also conveniently means "glove." Taken in conjunction with the details Beowulf provides, this metaphorical interpretation of Grendel's "glove" likewise provides a possible, though certainly more speculative, answer to Grendel's invulnerability to weapons.

1

In early editions and translations of Beowulf, the term glof was rendered and understood literally as "glove." (9) Though the term was easily translated, it was remarked upon as an oddity, prompting Benjamin Thorpe's rather apt observation that "this about Grendel's glove is not very intelligible." (10) Commentary on the glof tended to arise almost exclusively in conjunction with debate concerning the term hondscio at line 2076. On one side were critics who, like N.F.S. Grundtvig, understood hondscio as the name of Beowulf's companion. This theory was popular, but opponents of Grundtvig's interpretation were quick to point out the reference to Grendel's glof as an indication that the poet was focusing in on the glove and not the man. …

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