Grendel and the gifstol

December 21, 2006 at 1:50 pm (beowulf, reading notes, theory, thesis)

… or, Fun with Lacan and Zizek.

…Wæs seo hwil micel;
twelf wintra tid torn geþolode
wine Scyldinga, weana gehwelcne,
sidra sorga; forðam secgum wearð
ylda bearnum, undyrne cuð
gyddum geomore, þætte Grendel wan
hwile wið Hroþgar, heteniðas wæg,
fyrene ond fæhðefela missera,
singale sæce; sibbe ne wolde
wið manna hwone mægenes Deniga,
feorhbealo feorran, fea þingian,
ne þær nænig witena wenan þorfte
beorhtre bote to banan folmum;
ac se æglæca ehtende wæs,
deorc deaþscua, duguþe ond geogoþe,
seomade ond syrede; sinnihte heold
mistige moras; men ne cunnon,
hwyder helrunan hwyrftum scriþað.
Swa fela fyrena feond mancynnes,
atol angengea, oft gefremede,
herdra hynða; Heorot eardode,
sincfage sel sweartum nihtum;—
no he þone gifstol gretan moste,
maþðum for Metode, ne his myne wisse. (146-169)

The figure of the scop looms large in Beowulf, not least of all because the poem itself is a tale told to an audience who can recognize itself and the speaker in phrases like, “…We Gar-dena in geardagum, / þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon, / hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!” (1-3). The self-aware voice of the poet thus opens the poem, and the scop’s presence figures frequently throughout: in the hall the night before Grendel’s struggle with Beowulf (496), in the post-battle celebration to entertain with the story of Finn (1066), and in the journey back from the mere (868). It might further be argued that the scop has a hand in unleashing the fury of Grendel on Heorot, since it seems to be the noise of the harps and songs that drive him to attack the place of men: “þæt hé dógora gehwám dréam gehýrde/hlúdne in healle” (88-89). Grendel’s connection with the scop’s voice and with human sounds is perhaps worth examining in connection with his cannibalistic rampage.

In Seminar XI, Lacan refers to the objet petit a, the “thing” that stands in for the unattainable object of desire, “as the bone that got stuck in the subject’s throat” (Zizek “Grimaces of the Real” 49), thus rendering him incapable of speech, ensuring that “the voice…cannot burst out, unchain itself and thus enter the dimension of subjectivity” (Zizek, “Grimaces” 49). If we imagine the voices and sounds of the hall of the comitatus at Heorot the objects of Grendel’s inarticulate desire, and his lack of human shape and speech as rendering him impotent to participate in the human culture of the poem, then his desire to feast on the bodies and bones of men does result in the “bones” of his desire “getting stuck” in his throat. Zizek writes,

…the opposition between the silent and the vocalized scream coincides with that of enjoyment and Other: the silent scream attests to the subject’s clinging to enjoyment, to his or her unwillingness to exchange enjoyment (that is, the object that gives body to it) for the Other, for the Law, for the paternal metaphor, whereas the vocalization as such corroborates the choice that is already made and the subject’s place within the community. (Zizek “Grimaces” 50)

For Grendel, then, his consumption is a communion with mankind on his own terms, a communion which preserves his autonomy and rejects at least partially his sentence to remain “far from mankind” as a descendant of Cain (110). Grendel, thwarting the orders of the Father, gets as close to humans as he possibly can – he ingests them. And he feasts in apparent silence – the sounds that are relayed are the laments of the Danes upon waking to the remnants of his feast. Heorot is intact still, but as a feast-hall for monsters rather than men. It is not until Beowulf comes to challenge Grendel’s reign that Heorot suffers structural damage.

Beowulf and Grendel together participate in the damage done to Heorot during their wrestling-match, but it is Grendel’s scream that marks the real moment of his defeat and simultaneously strikes fear into the hearts of the Danes: Grendel sings “sigeléasne sang, sár wánigean” (787), and his “gryreléoð galan” marks the end of his engagement on his own terms with the halls of Heorot (786). Beowulf’s removal of his arm is only a formality, a seal on Grendel’s doom and a token of the imposition of the Law on Grendel’s body.


Zizek, Slavoj. “Grimaces of the Real, or When the Phallus Appears.” October 58 (1991): 44-68.


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