, Volume 97, Issue 3, pp 541-553
Date: 30 Sep 2012

Beowulf and the Old Norse Two-Troll Analogues

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Ever since the first Old Norse analogue to the description of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and his mother was proposed in 1878, Beowulf scholars have looked for more, but seldom been able to agree as to which one was the closest. Now, however, two of the latest Beowulf handbooks (Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles: A Beowulf Handbook and Andy Orchard: A Critical Companion to Beowulf) are in a rare agreement when they suggest that so-called two-troll stories should be regarded as the closest Old Norse analogues to the monster fights in the poem. This is a dubious suggestion. The relationship of these analogues to the poem is established by using questionable methodology, the proposed two-troll analogues have conflicting definitions, and Grendel and his mother do not have a great deal in common with Norse trolls. A more promising option than looking for analogous narrative episodes is to search for individual parallel features in the Old Norse texts. If that is done, Grendel and his mother and Beowulf’s fights with them turn out to have more in common with Old Norse stories about animated corpses (draugar and haugbúar) than they ever do with trolls. The evidence suggests that the author of Beowulf was more eclectic in his creation of Grendel and his mother and Beowulf’s fights with them than these two latest handbooks are prepared to recognize. Synopses of the ten two-troll episodes that have been proposed as analogues are given in an “Appendix” to the article.