The HearmscaÞa and the Handshake: Desire and Disruption in the Grendel Episode
- Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies
- University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies
- Volume 47, 2016
- pp. 1-36
- Additional Information
This essay exposes a foundational misreading that occludes three puzzles in the Grendel episode: the anomaly of Beowulf’s hand-to-hand grip, the lack of counterattack, and the absence of heroic action in Grendel’s mutilation. I trace this misreading to Frederick Klaeber’s analysis of two analogue episodes from Grettir’s Saga. Within the saga I outline a shared plot structure that uses patterns of strategic interaction to confirm heroic agency. Conversely, I show how the Grendel episode subverts this masterplot, in favor of a sacred plot that confirms the agency of God. The shift is accomplished in a riddling design forged in Beowulf’s unwavering tenacity and Grendel’s unwavering attempt to flee. As this unvarying opposition replaces anticipated interaction, it charges Grendel’s hyperbolic reaction with enigma. The essential counter-clue comes, however, as demonic signs insinuate Grendel’s metaphysical antipathy to Beowulf’s inadvertent handfæstung (hand-fasting), an iconic gesture of covenant. Yet even as metaphysical tropes spotlight Grendel’s impotence, figures of equivalency extend to Beowulf, the Danes, and the Geats, eventually scuttling every confirmation of heroic agency. Accordingly, a farce of unintended outcomes ultimately subsumes the masterplot, as the tension between superhuman tenacity and superhuman desperation makes inevitable Grendel’s demonic self-destruction.