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  • The Exquisite Tempers of Grettir the Strong
  • Slavica Ranković

Hermeneutic Pendulum

In his 1965 edition of The Saga of Grettir the Strong, Peter Foote identified "the causes for Grettir's downfall" as the saga's "central problem" (x). Indeed, the question of whether these causes are predominantly supernatural and external (Glámr's curse, witchcraft, ill luck, envy of lesser men, etc.) or whether the hero's ruin is the product of his own actions and irascible temper has dominated scholarly discourse on Grettis saga for quite some time. And while most readers readily acknowledge that both the "outer" and the "inner" causes play a role, different attempts to apportion to each type a finer, more precise measure of influence resulted in what could be conceived of as a "hermeneutic pendulum," with opinions oscillating and settling at various points between the two extreme positions.1

Thus, for instance, Peter Foote himself advocated the dominance of the "inner" causes, pointing to Grettir's actions and character traits as crucial factors contributing to the hero's tragic end. He argued that "it would be difficult for a Christian [saga author] in the medieval world to think of destiny and character as set on different courses, with no contact between them," and hence, drew a causal connection between "Grettir's immoderate self-confidence and his lucklessness" (Foote 1965, xi). In particular, the hero's brooding aimlessness just prior to his fateful encounter with the revenant Glámr, his aching need to test [End Page 375] his strength, is perceived in terms of a hubris, an "excess" (Foote 1965, xi) from which his ill luck stems.

At the end of the same decade, Hermann Pálsson argued along similar lines in an article that became so influential as to make its author the chief representative of this "Christian" perspective (1969, 372–82). There, Grettir's eagerness to take on Glámr against his uncle's warnings is interpreted as a symptom of "his pride, 'the chief sin, which plays a major role in Grettir's actions and is his major curse'" (Hermann Pálsson 1969, 378; translated and cited by Cook 1984–1985, 147). In other words, Glámr's curse is perceived as the reflection of Grettir's own accursed pride, and so it is to be viewed not simply as "an actual supernatural interference which changes the course of his life," but "perhaps more usefully, as a literary device, a manifestation of Grettir's own character" (Fox and Hermann Pálsson 1974, xi).

With the publication of Kathryn Hume's seminal article, "Thematic Design of Grettis saga," in 1974, the hermeneutic pendulum swung toward the "outer" causes position, as Hume rejected Hermann Pálsson's view as "moralistic" (476) and argued instead that Grettir's actions are best understood from within the inherited heroic paradigm, which is pitted in the saga ingeniously (and to an inevitably tragic conclusion) against the needs and the ethos of a regulated, predominantly peaceful farming society. According to Hume, the hero's greatest misfortune is that he was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. A late scion of the heroic ilk that thrived in the long-gone Scandinavian heroic age, Grettir finds himself displaced, obsolete, and hence, doomed to failure in the vastly different world of medieval Iceland. While, focusing more closely on the narrative at hand, Hume acknowledges that Grettir's temper and laziness "contribute to his downfall," she nevertheless maintains that "witchcraft remains the prime cause" (1974, 476).

A decade later, Robert Cook also challenged the validity of working from a "Christian point of view" and questioned, in general, scholarly quests "for a thesis," including Hume's (1984–1985, 148). His combination of close reading and reader-response approaches to the saga is more concerned with the internal logic and style of the narrative than with its ideological underpinnings, and thus Cook understands as only natural (i.e., narratively justified) Grettir's need to test his extraordinary talents: "Grettir has had from his earliest youth a proper sense that he was not cut out for the ordinary tasks and conflicts with men.… The curse placed on him by Glámr...


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