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Monday, August 21, 2006

Grendel’s Glove

Posted by Adam Roberts on 08/21/06 at 06:35 AM

About two thirds of the way through Beowulf the titular hero recalls his fight against the monstrous Grendel.  Here, for the first and only time in the poem, we hear about Grendel’s enormous glove.

He had this roomy ‘glof’,
a strange accoutrement, intricately strung
and hung at the ready, a rare patchwork
of devilishly fitted dragon-skins [‘dracan fellum’].
I had done him no wrong, yet the raging demon
wanted to cram me and many another
into this bag – but it was not to be.  [lines 2085b-90; this is Heaney’s translation: Beowulf (Faber 1999), p.67.]

A glove?  It’s a strange detail, so much so that translators often try and gloss it over, rendering the word as ‘bag’, ‘satchel’ or ‘pouch’ (for instance: having just quoted Seamus Heaney’s justly celebrated version of the poem I should note that he translates ‘glof’ as ‘pouch’).  But ‘glove’ is most assuredly what the word means.

Critics on the glove don’t know quite what to make of it.  And there’s more: Andy Orchard [in his Critical Companion to Beowulf (Brewer 2003), 121-22] notes that it’s not until Beowulf’s retelling, here, that we readers learn ‘the name of the Geat devoured by Grendel’ in the original attack.  His name is Hondscio, which means, basically, ‘glove’ (‘compare,’ Orchard suggests, ‘modern German Handschuh’).  So the glove is in a sense doubly pointed-up here.  But this doesn’t explain why it is.

In fact, on this point critics don’t do much more than point out a couple of legendary analogues.  An article by Earl R. Anderson, called ‘Grendel’s glof (Beowulf 2085b-88) and Various Latin analogues’ [Mediaevalia 8 (1982) 1-8] points out, er, various Latin analogues.  Some other editors and critics make reference to an Icelandic legend recorded by Snorri Sturluson (and why, incidentally, has the most excellent first-name ‘Snorri’ dropped out of regular usage?) – the god Thor is travelling towards the land of Giants and is finds shelter from darkness and thunder in a ‘a very big hall’ with a ‘side chamber’. In the morning he discovers that he has been sleeping in the glove of the giant Skrymir; and the thunder was the giant’s snoring.  (Orchard points out that this glove is ‘evidently more of a mitten, since there are apparently no fingers to it, and the “side chamber” turns out to be the thumb’).  But does this illuminate the Beowulf passage?  Skrymir’s glove is clearly on a completely different scale to Grendel’s; and simply drawing out parallels from myth doesn’t explain the function of this reference in this specific text.

So, why a glove?  I’d like to suggest that to read Beowulf is to understand that Grendel’s glove is no anomaly.  What function does a glove serve except to cover a hand, to give it grip, to keep it warm or to protect it?  And hands occupy an extraordinarily significant place in the representational economy of the poem.

Now, one simple explanation of the ‘glof’ might be simply to emphasise the might of the beast’s arm: look at the size of his glove!  His hands must be pret-ty big!; large enough to fit several men into a garment fitted to them.  This in turn only serves to emphasise Beowulf’s own strength in defeating him.  But actually it’s the craft, not the sheer size, of the glof that gets stressed in the poem: the ‘rare patchwork/of devilishly fitted dragon-skins.’ This is an interesting detail.  It’s not stated unambiguously that Grendel made this glove, but it is surely as likely that he did as that he did not.  Yet because Grendel is so consistently and emphatically bestialised in the rest of the poem this strikes an odd note.  We think of him very much as more animal than human; but here we cannot avoid the suspicion that he is a maker.  Grendel Glover; great-great-grandfather of Danny.  Or Brian.

Of course, the notion that Grendel is more beast than man is something suggested by other details in the poem.  There is for instance the fact that, apart from the giant glove, he uses no tools.  He does not, for instance, wield a sword; and it is part of the carefully balanced symbolic logic of the poem’s universe that he cannot be defeated by a sword either.  Beowulf’s repudiation of weaponry appears at first to be as reckless as the monster’s:

The monster scorns
in his reckless way to use weapons;
therefore, to heighten Hygelac’s fame
and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce
sword and the shelter of the broad shield,
the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand
is how it will be, a life-and-death
fight.  [15-16; obviously, and for ease of reference, I’m cting the page-numbers of Heaney’s translation here]

But later we discover ‘something that they [the Geatish warriors] could not have known at the time’, namely ‘that no blade on earth … could ever damage their demon opponent.’ This is because ‘he had conjured the harm from the cutting edge’ [26]: suggesting an ability to create magical charms again at odds with the notion of him as a mere beast.

If Grendel does not use a sword, we might think that this is because he is too animal-like; that he is incapable of making, obtaining or using one.  But the glove, and his skill in magical charms, suggests that the truth might be simpler: he does not need one.  Over and again the poem stresses his deadly strength of hand:

Greedy and grim he grabbed thirty men … [6]

No counsellor could ever expect
Fair reparation from those rabid hands.
All were endangered; you and old.  [7]

He grabbed and mauled a man on his bench … [24]

Venturing closer,
his talon was raised to attack Beowulf … [25]

The Danes have presumably bolted their hall-door against this attacker, but nevertheless ‘the iron-braced door/turned on its hinge when [Grendel’s] hands touched it … he ripped open/the mouth of the building’ [24].  But in Beowulf, of course, he meets his match in terms of strength-of-hand.  Grendel grabbed thirty men, but Beowulf has ‘the strength of thirty/in the grip of each hand’ [14], the emphasis presumably being on the each.  Grendel attacks:

He was bearing in
with open claw when the alert hero’s
comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly.
The captain of evil discovered himself
in a handgrip harder than anything
he had ever encountered in any man.  [25]

The poet stresses the manual element of the conflict to an almost hyperbolic degree: ‘he had never been clamped or cornered like this … [he] got a firm hold.  Fingers were bursting … the latching power/in his fingers weakened … [Beowulf] kept him helplessly/locked in a handgrip’ and so on.  It follows from this that it is precisely Grendel’s hand that becomes the trophy of his defeat.

Clear proof of this
could be seen in the hand the hero displayed
high up near the roof, the whole of Grendel’s
shoulder and arm, his awesome grasp.  [27]

… the awful proof
of the hero’s prowess, the splayed hand
up under the eaves. [31]

In fact it’s the monster’s whole arm, of course, ripped from its shoulder by Beowulf’s strength: but it is the hand that is the key element for all that.  Later Beowulf boasts Grendel ‘broke and ran.  Yet he bought his freedom/at a high price, for he left his hand …’ [31]; and then again later still:  ‘although he got away/to enjoy life’s sweetness for a while longer,/his right hand stayed behind him in Heorot’ [67].

Hands.  When Beowulf boasts that he will kill Grendel with his bare hands it is, in part, just that: a boast, a vaunt of strength.  Clearly it requires greater strength, and closer quarters, to kill with bare hands than it does to kill with a weapon.  But something more than that is going on. Using his hands signifies, for Beowulf, agency.  Hrothgar praises the strength of Beowulf’s father to his face (‘…your father./With his own hands he had killed Heatholaf…’ 16).  Beowulf himself recalls killing a huge sea monster: ‘through my own hands,/the fury of battle had finished off the sea beast’ [19].  When he fights Grendel’s mother his sword fails and he realises ‘he would have to rely/on the might of his arm … [he] gripped her shoulder’ [50].  And as an old man, Beowulf recalls killing ‘Dayraven the Frank’ in open battle:

No sword blade sent him to his death,
my bare hands stilled his heartbeats. [79]

And he goes on with evident regret that he won’t be able to challenge the dragon in the same manner:

I would rather not
use a weapon if I knew another way
to grapple with the dragon and make good my boast
as I did against Grendel is days gone by. [79]

So he takes his sword, but in the event it doesn’t do him any good. At the crucial moment in the battle is snaps, and the poet notes that Beowulf’s hand is simply too strong for his weapon:

When he wielded a sword
No matter how blooded and hard-edged the blade,
His hand was too strong, the stroke he dealt
(I have heard) would ruin it. [84]

Hands.  What is happening here, over and above the sheer vaunt of physical strength, is the weighted construing of a particular triad that in turn determines the structures of power in the text.  Beowulf is a poem about power in the first instance.  The narrative, which concerns the physical power (and courage, but mostly power) of the hero is interleaved with passages that elaborate the logic of political power.  The poet gives us advice from the start, on how to win and keep allies, on how not to alienate one’s people.  The authority of specific kings may be challenged in the poem, but authority itself (which is to say, power) is consistently respected.

Often the highest authority, God Almighty, is invoked; but beneath God come kings, and beneath kings the king’s men (you and I, plebs that we are, don’t figure in the poem at all; unless it is as the low-down thief who sneakily steals from the dragon and wakes him to rage near the end).  Indeed, one of the core relationships in the poem is that between Hrothgar the King, ‘protector of the Shieldings’ [14] and Beowulf, who for most of the poem is not a king.  We might ask why the protector of the Shieldings doesn’t, you know, protect his Shieldings against Grendel; why, in other words, he requires an outsider, a Dane, to do that job for him.  But to ask this question, of course, is to misunderstand the role of Kings.  Kings do not fight hand-to-hand with monsters (Beowulf’s combat with the dragon at the end of his life is very much a key exception here of course).  Kings send in their champions, or warriors, to do that sort of thing.

To put it concisely: there are three ways of killing mentioned in Beowulf.  Most directly, one may kill with one’s bare hands.  Then again, one may kill with a weapon: sword, knife or spear.  Or, finally, (and this is the mode of kings) one may kill with a word.  Kings speak and others die; and they are able to do this because they have subjects who will wield swords, or their bare hands, to make those words come true.  Beowulf in a figurative, but also more than figurative, sense becomes Hrothgar’s hand.  The King wills the blow, and Beowulf executes it.

This in turn implies that metaphorical or metonymic conception of the King as the whole kingdom, or as the kingdom as a sort of leviathan man.  Beowulf’s actual hand become a synechdoche for himself as a warrior, and in turn for the power that a king can muster; at the same time that Beowulf himself becomes a metaphorical ‘hand’ of the king himself. 

There’s a some evidence in the poem (though not, if I’m honest, much) that this mode of conceptualisation, the metaphor/metonymy dialectic so beloved of contemporary theorists, is consistent with an Anglo-Saxon mindset.  Late on an outcast is described as mourning ‘as he moved about the world … lamenting his unhappiness/day and night, until death’s flood/brimmed up in his heart’ [72]—as if he simultaneously inhabits a landscape and, metaphorically, is a landscape himself, capable of inundation.  More straightforwardly Hrothgar discourses on the dangers of kingly power, figuring the king as a kingdom-in-little, his soul guarded by a sentry, external dangers pictured as an assaulting army: ‘the whole world conforms to his will/until … the soul’s guard, its sentry, drowses,/grown too distracted … the arrow flies beneath his defences’ [56].

Why are hands so prominent, then?  There is something honest about the ‘hand’ here: hand-to-hand seems to be presented as a more straightforward and honest mode of conflict than swordfighting.  It predominates because of its honesty, in a sense.  This connects, I think, with something that Heaney says about the tone of the piece in his introduction to his translation.

I remembered the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method something oblique. What I had always loved was a kind of foresquareness about the utterance, a feeling of living within a constantly indicative mood … [p.xxvii]

There is, in other words, a ready-at-hand-edness about the poem’s tone.  It is a poem that feels hand-worked, a poem whose occasional roughness of texture and construction seem to be the fingerprints left by the sculptor’s or potter’s hands in the medium he has worked.  And it is a poem that celebrates not merely strength, but strength-of-hand.

Why would a warrior wear a glove?  The dandy adornment of the body is presumably not to the point; but protection of course is exactly the issue.  And here we come up against another notable oddity in the account of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother.  Quite apart from his supernatural ability seemingly to breathe under water, there is the counter-intuitive protection afforded him by his chain-mail.

So she lunged and clutched and managed to catch him
In her brutal grip; but his body for all that,
remained unscathed: the mesh of the chain mail
saved him on the outside.  [49]

But this is patently not right.  Were she using her talons like swords, as she subsequently does (‘her savage talons/failed to rip the web of his war-shirt’) we can understand how chain mail help prevents the blow cutting into the warriors skin.  But how can something as flexible, as woven-wool-like as chain-mail help should a giant monster try to crush the life out of you in a ‘brutal grip’?  Sheet metal might act as a rigid exoskleleton, but chain-mail cannot do this.  So what is going on here?

Chain mail offers the warrior protection, as sheet-metal (or a shield) does; but chain-mail is flexible, like skin.  Its protection is to do with the difficulty a weapon has in penetrating, not in tensile-strength.  The warrior’s own skin must be both flexible and strong, as well: and if hands are to become death-dealing then they will need to combine flexibility and rigidity.  Beowulf’s strange flexible-and-rigid chain mail merely enacts this essential quality of the warrior’s own body; a transference of his strength onto his outward wear.  Grendel’s glove does something similar: an external emblem of the monstrous capacity for death that the creature’s hand represents.

This, I think, is my point.  The manual quality in the poem is precisely what endears it to so many readers and critics.  Beowulf is a poem with which we, as readers, grapple; it admits us to a world that flatters our sense of the strong touch.  It is a poem that we feel we can grasp, take in our hands and feel, not just admire in a distant or cerebral sense.

To put this another way: if later poetry sometimes reads as too polished, too (we might say) machine-tooled, Beowulf with its rough-edges and burly awkwardnesses, its inconsistencies and narrative jolts, feels like something hand-made.  Its appeal was therefore always likely to increase after the cultural aesthetic shifted from admiring finish, polish and regularity as the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tended to do, towards admiring the individual craftwork as we do today.  Hand-made is now a term of approbation, after all; and all the little niggles and glitches in the product are things in which we symbolical invest our admiration, precisely because they represent the craftsman’s touch.  No longer to be explained-away as ‘not silk’, the Hessian-cloth-texture of the poem is presented as the very ground of its appeal.

But this is the irony of the piece, of course.  Because of all the works admitted to the canon of English literature Beowulf is the only one that was not hand-made, not produced cum manis onto manuscript.  It was not written.  Oral composition is the work of the spoken word and the memory, not the processes of hand-writing or hand-typing than nowadays characterise composition.  But Grendel’s glove, the magical and threatening hand-covering, is exactly the right emblem for the strong-manual, dextrous-manual and above all the intimate, connective, hands-on quality that the poem exhibits.


Great piece. Love that closing paragraph, too.

I think you’re right to connect the intricate glove to artwork, especially because the poem is so obsessed with transforming mere things into luminous aesthetic objects (even Grendel’s severed head is described as if it were a “beauty-sight"). What deos it mean that Grendel wanted to engulf Beowulf inside his own work of art (the glove) but instead winds up encased in someone else’s (the poem Beowulf)? That the glove is amde of dragon skin has to be important, too, given the twinning of the hero with his last adversary, the monster that is most like him. If Grendel had succeeded, Beowulf would have wound up inside dragon skin. Yet Beowulf, having succeeded, ends up interred with dragon treasure in a burial mound very like a dragon’s home ...

By JJC on 08/21/06 at 10:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Two things. One, if you look at the cerebral cortex, you find an extraordinary fraction of both sensory and motor tissue is devoted to the hands. The reason should be obvious enough. We are, as you say, manual creatures.

Two, FWIW, hands are a very important motif in Disney’s Fantasia.Hands: Obviously, we have Stokowski’s hands in the interstitials; he conducted without a baton. At the end of the Bach he appears conducting the final bars against a brilliant orange background. As his hand gestures direct the invisible orchestra we see large washed of color move at their behest.

In the Dukas the wizard uses hand gestures to conjure a butterfly shape at the beginning and to part the waters at the end. Mickey uses hand gestures to bring the broom to life. This is given a great deal of emphasis, with large hand shadows on the wall behind Mickey. The animated brooms have hands to carry the water buckets. In the dream sequence Mickey uses his hand to direct the forces of nature. This is a clear parody of Stokowski.

Some of the creatures in the Beethoven use their hands to play musical instruments. Others use them in grooming. In the Ponchielli the alligators use their hand to manipulate other creatures.

Hands are a <BIG>big deal</BIG> in the Mussorgsky. Chernobog uses his hands to summon his minions. They dance on his hands, seen in close up. He crushes them, and they fall into the fires. In contrast, in the Schubert we see lots of religious devoutly walking through the woods to chapel, but we don’t see their hands at all; they’re <SMALL>too small</SMALL>.

By Bill Benzon on 08/21/06 at 10:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(damn it I should not make light of this piece, damn it, Greg, say something intelligent, damn Greg, damn it, damn it, damn...oh well).

And let’s not forget Mystery Science Theater’s translation and interpretation of “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” or as pointed out by Crow: “So then it’s ‘Hands: The Hands of Fate’ right?”

By on 08/21/06 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Too much to read right now, but I’ve bookmarked it. It looks great.

By John Emerson on 08/27/06 at 09:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I realize I am coming late to this thread, but thought that I might share a few thoughts here, as the editor of the forthcoming “The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook” [West Virginia University Press, 2006]. For more information on this book go here:


As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen points out, Adam’s is a “fine essay,” and offers much food for thought, especially as regards “Beowulf” being a poem about power (and about the violence connected to power), but I had to pause a little at Roberts’s notion that there hasn’t been any substantial criticism on the glove, or that “critics of the glove don’t know quite what to make of it.” The indispensable article on the subject, in my opinion, and which Roberts does not cite, is:

Seth Lerer, “Grendel’s Glove,” ELH 61.4 (1994): 721-51 [available through Project Muse]

Allow me to quote how Lerer defines his project in that essay [which, for those who have read Roberts’s short piece, obviously touches upon, but with more detailed elaboration and rumination, some of Roberts’s concerns]:

--beginning of excerpt from Lerer--

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. 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. 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 cræft and orðonc, 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. 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.

-----end of excerpt from Lerer-----

Lerer’s essay goes on at great length to plumb precisely the issue of the glove’s [and Beowulf’s narration of the glove’s] connection to the “social imaginary” [and by implication, the artwork] of Anglo-Saxon England, and also to how bodies/parts of bodies [especially the hand] signify power, that Roberts may believe have not yet been fully addressed. So, that’s one thing, but here’s the other, more [to me, anyway] important issue:

I’m not sure if Roberts should so assuredly claim that “Beowulf” was “not hand-made, not produced cum manis onto manuscript” [because the poem is supposedly oral] and that the glove, therefore, is “exactly the right emblem for the strong-manual, dextrous-manual and above all the intimate, connective, hands-on quality that the poem exhibits”?

Number One: the version of “Beowulf” that we have is, indeed, written with hands on the vellum leaves of a manuscript, dated circa 1000. Of course, there has been much debate in Old English studies, for a hell of a long time now, over the “oral-formulaic” qualities of the poem, but most of us are happy to settle with John Niles’s idea that the poem is a kind of “tertium quid”: part-oral, part-textual, created at a kind of cultural interface between a “passing away” oral culture and the emerging textual culture [see John D. Niles, “Locating ‘Beowulf’ in Literary History,” Exemplaria 5 (March 1993): 79-109]. It is, as are many works of art, an entity of many hybridities--aesthetic and otherwise. But I sometimes despair that we still want [desire] “Beowulf” to be “oral,” which I believe is a dangerous romanticism of what is, quite obviously, a written piece of literature, although it may have made use of certain structures of traditionally oral composition. I suppose, on this subject, the touchstone text is still Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe’s book “Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse” (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England #4), as well as John D. Niles’s book “Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).

Further, to invoke the poem of “Beowulf” as being a poem that “we feel we can grasp, take in our hands and feel, not just admire in a distant or cerebral sense,” and that, “with its rough-edges and burly awkwardnesses, its inconsistencies and narrative jolts, feels like something hand-made,” comes perilously close, again, to romanticizing some apparently pre-literate/pre-aesthetic/premodern/prelapsarian sensibility, and also veers right into Seamus Heaney’s thinking on the poem in his preface to his translation, which Terry Eagleton then picked up on in his review of Heaney’s translation of the poem [that the poem apparently gives us access to the big-voiced “brawn” and “thud” of an earlier, pre-colonized England that is now lost to us, except through “Beowulf"]. “Beowulf” likely cannot represent anything other than the literate, textual, Alfredian, post-colonized, almost “nation-state” in which it was set down in writing [which is not to say that it does not also reveal the tensions between this “new world” and the “old world” whose materials were plumbed (stolen?) for this work of art. I don’t want to imply that I don’t like Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf"--I love it and use it all the time. Although scoffed at by many working in Old English studies because of the supposed “liberties” Heaney takes in his translation [one OE scholar accused him of--ack!--trying to “Irish-ize” the poem], he does, in my mind, precisely what the tenth-century author likely did: part-copiest, part-innovator, he adapts the poem’s “original” language to his own particular artistic and cultural purposes ["cultural appropriation”!] and creates what is generally known an “artwork.” It is precisely because Heaney did this, in my mind, that “Beowulf” can still breathe, albeit under different skies. But I also recognize much of what Heaney writes in his Preface to his translation as a dangerous romanticization of a supposedly “more Irish” past lurking in the subterranean depths of an “English” antiquity, which he feels he is uncovering and resuscitating. But hey--he’s a poet, and he’s entitled to these flights.

By Eileen Joy on 09/22/06 at 10:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Eileen ... very interesting indeed.

By Adam Roberts on 09/23/06 at 03:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This has not got anything to do with the old english poem beowulf

By on 10/06/06 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dominique--would you care to clarify your comment? In other words, “This [as in what, exactly] has not got anything to do with the old english poem Beowulf.” What is it, exactly, by way of either Adam’s or my comments, that has nothing to do with Beowulf, and why? Best, Eileen

By Eileen A. Joy on 10/07/06 at 11:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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