Monday, August 21, 2006

Grendel's glove

Good piece by Adam Roberts on Grendel's Glove at The Valve. No, this isn't the little yarn mitten that his mommy knitted for baby Grendel so that his fingers wouldn't get cold in the family lair. The glof is meticulously crafted, woven of dragon skin by an unknown maker. We learn of the strange object only as Beowulf renarrates his battle at Hrothgar's hall late in the poem, asserting that Grendel desired to stuff him inside.

Here is Roberts's closing paragraph, a powerful ending for the fine essay:
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.

I just left this in the comments section:
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 does it mean that Grendel wanted to engulf Beowulf inside his own work of art (the glove) but instead Grendel winds up encased in someone else's artwork (the poem Beowulf)? That the glove is made of dragon skin has to be important, too, given the twinning of the hero with his last adversary, the dragon, 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 ...


Eileen Joy said...

I literally almost had a gasket-blowing, Emile B.-style "the horror the horror" reaction when I read the piece at The Valve on Grendel's glove, and then I calmed myself down. Okay, first of all, it is, as JJC points out, 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 really had to gasp 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 important issue being overlooked in Roberts's mini-essay:

How can Roberts so assuredly claim that "Beowulf" was "not hand-made, not produced cum manis onto manuscript" [because it is oral--supposedly 100% authentically, totally, purely 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. It is written. Period period period. 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. It is, as are many works of art, an entity of many hybridities--aesthetic and otherwise. But I, frankly, 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. Monks were not automatons working on battery power, either, let us not forget [if, indeed, the MS. of "Beowulf" was written in a monastery]. 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).

Number Two: 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" cannot, in any way, 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. By way of now shamelessly plugging: please buy "The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook" [forthcoming from WVU Press in Jan. 2007] and read the chapters by Susan Kim, Seth Lerer, Alfred Siewers, John Niles, and Carol Braun Pasternack, as they all attend to the issue I am trying to delineate here [although perhaps not very well].


Eileen Joy said...

In case I left an ill impression in previous posting, I didn't mean 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 [aha--another instance of a "cultural appropriation"!] and creates what is generally known "in these parts hereabouts" as--gasp!--an "artwork." It is precisely because Heaney did this, in my mind, that "Beowulf" can still breathe, albeit under different skies.

Eileen Joy said...

But [she writes, continuing from last post], 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.

J J Cohen said...

Hey, who is unleashing the Scolding Inner Schoolmarm now?

But, as is always the case with schoolmarms, you can't argue with the corrections imparted. I would like to admit a big mea culpa in (1) being so overly enthusiastic that The Valve should have anything medieval but more importantly (2) not knowing that Seth Lerer essay, which is (like everything Lerer writes) terrific.

Thank you, thank you Professor Joy for giving the Roberts piece the deeper and more critical reading that I did not.

As to Heaney's translation, no one gives it its due better than -- who else? -- Seth Lerer (who shall now be called "the ubiquitous Seth Lerer"; is there anything this uberscholar hasn't published on?) in his piece in Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages, where he reads it as a productive piece of art in sympathy with the art it translates.

Eileen Joy said...

I also say "mea culpa"--I did not mean to "unleash the inner school marm," and I hope that readers of this blog know by now that I'm open to almost any conversation about "all things medieval & modern," and I generally don't like to be in corrective mode. I read the Lerer piece, also, in "Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages," and also loved it.

J J Cohen said...

No apologies ever necessary -- you gave us a substantial and useful post.

Adam Roberts said...

Hi, Adam R. here. Very sorry to have occasioned so severe a reaction in Eileen Joy with my Beowulf piece. You're quite right, Eileen, that really all it did was demonstrate my lamentable ignorance of Beowulf scholarship. I've not come across the Lerer article, though I will seek it out. No excuse for me passing off ''there hasn't been substantial criticism of the glove ...' when I should have written 'there hasn't been substantial criticism of the glove that I have come across...'

No excuses for my ignorance; I can only apologise. On the other points:

The version of "Beowulf" that we have is, indeed, written WITH HANDS on the vellum leaves of a manuscript, dated circa 1000. It is written. Period period period.

Really? The version I have was printed by machine. I'm tempted to add 'period period period', but I wouldn't want to be facetious. If Beowulf is not the relict of an oral poem, then I'd like (respectfully) to suggest that proper Beowulf critics and scholars could do a better job of disseminating this information to people such as me, the Beowulf-unwashed. I had always assumed that Beowulf was straightforwardly an oral poem. My mistake.

""Beowulf" cannot, in any way, represent anything other than the literate, textual, Alfredian, post-colonized, almost "nation-state" in which it was set down in writing"

We could agree to disagree here, except, as you point out, my great ignorance of Beowulf and criticism renders my disagreement rather irrelevant. I might suggest, however, that 'cannot, in any way, represent anything other than' is a rather egregiously dogmatic way of making a point that might, rhetorically, be more compelling if made with less insistence.

I shall certainly look out for "The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook". One more suggestion: it might be worth your while posting a comment actually on the Valve under the piece, saying what you say here, so that innocent readers of my post are made aware of its deficiencies: the Valve comments are open to all.

I am suitably chastened, and shall retire from the world of OE; certainly won't try writing anything about Beowulf again in a hurry.

Eileen Joy said...

Adam--I think in my post-"Postmodern Beowulf" editing phase, I probably reacted with a bit too much bombast to your piece on Grendel's golve over at The Valve. Please accept my apologies--seriously. One of the reasons we really need "The Postmodern Beowulf" is that scholars in my field [as you have correctly pointed out] have been somewhat negligent in conveying to non-specialists what has been happening in our field over the past 10 to 15 years. In fact, if you survey the anthologies of "Beowulf" criticism over the past twenty years, they have not adequately captured recent theoretical developments and they often just reprint the same essays over and over again [i.e. Tolkien's "The Monsters and the Critics," etc. etc.]. So, yes, we could do a better job, and some of us are trying. And, yes, I can make my points more gently and without such absolute qualifiers as "cannot, in any way," etc. Also, the question of the poem's "orality" is not closed, per se, just more conflicted and nuanced than people often realize. Please keep thinking and writing about "Beowulf"--people who know me know that I don't believe in anyone having proprietary rights over any particular field of scholarship. If I did believe that, I would have to stop writing on Tony Kushner, Malory, Chechen suicide bombers, Levinas, Leonardo, Bruno Schulz, and the like, and stick only to Old English poetry. And I don't want to, and neither should you. And yes [finally], I will post a frindlier version of my comments to your post on The Valve. Cheers, Eileen