Warriors and monsters
I wrote last night that I had learned things that might interest you when I reread Beowulf, and one of the things I realized was that people face monsters every bit as horrible as Grendel every day. Take my friend Judy, whom I saw yesterday. Eighteen months ago she was diagnosed with tongue cancer, and part of her tongue and jaw were removed. New teeth were fitted on posts and she began to learn how to speak again and how to keep what remained of her tongue out of the way so she could eat. She was brave, and she got through it, and when she was done, doctors told her that another, unrelated cancer had appeared in her lung, though she had never smoked. She had an operation to remove the cancer. The pain was terrific, but she bravely got through it. However, she was gasping for air, and had to work to breathe. She got through that and then they told her they had found cancer in one of her ribs and adrenal gland.
The shoulder companion
Beowulf fights Grendel and Grendel's mother alone, but when he fights the dragon, he has 'a shoulder companion'. Judy's shoulder companion has been her husband Lewis. We all need one. We couldn't survive without a shoulder companion. As another dear friend, Anne Johnson, said about her husband, 'I can snuggle right into his shoulder and be safe'. This morning I've been thinking about my shoulder companions, and wanting to thank them.
Most of Beowulf's shoulder companions fled when he faced the dragon, but one stood with him. Sometimes that is all we need, just one.
The old man and the dragon
Beowulf fought the dragon when he was old, despite the fact he was old and his strength had faded. He fought the dragon because the dragon had devastated his people - 'he flew in a ball of flame, burning for vengeance. . .girdled the Geats with fire, with ravening flames'. It didn't matter how young or old Beowulf was, just as it doesn't matter to older men and women today. They are out on the streets and roads of America and gathering in new party conventions in Britain because they are concerned about their governments' devastating actions and their baleful impact on their grandchildren.
Beowulf does not face the dragon because he wants its glittering treasure, though he is happy enough to look at the 'age-old store of gold. . .the priceless, shimmering stones'. Beowulf fought the dragon to defend his people. He was willing to die for them.
The real leader
That is an ancient British theme, that goes back to King Alfred, who lived in the 9th century, and to St Dunstan, who lived in the 10th century. Beowulf was probably written around that time. Whether it was based on an earlier oral tradition is unknown, but it seems to capture the Anglo-Saxon notion of the king as warrior and Christ's idea of the servant-leader. There are other ideas streaming through Beowulf and through British history.
There are four reasons that Beowulf sails across the sea to the land of the Danes, and all four have played a role in British history. 'Foaming at the prow and most like a sea-bird, the boat sped over the waves, urged on by the wind' and by Beowulf's determination and desire.
Beowulf was determined to sail to Denmark because he believed that a man who learns another man is being injured should go to his aid. The Danes were facing violent visitations by the monster Grendel, so Beowulf, knowing he was the strongest man in the world, went to help them. Winston Churchill was one proponent of the idea that we should defend the vulnerable abroad. We also think of Admiral Edward Codrington, who led the Royal Navy against the Ottoman Navy, to help free Greece, and all those who went to help Haitians after the recent earthquake.
Three other things motivate Beowulf - desire for fame, 'the spirit of adventure' and the gifts he will receive if he succeeds. You can see the role those motivations play in British history and perhaps in your life.
Another idea rooted in Beowulf is the notion that criminals will face a hero who will bring them to justice and a just God after they die. Many people today dismiss the involvement of God, but one of the curious things about history is that we only see what happened - and that through a dark glass. We don't see what did not happen, even through a glass darkly. We can see evil that was done, sometimes because of a warped belief in God. We cannot see the evil that was not done because a proper respect for the judgment of God stayed the hand. There have been many societies whose people believed in unjust gods and they were terrible places to live.
Hope and experience
Another idea suggested but almost immediately undercut in Beowulf is that his act of friendship will reconcile the Geats and the Danes and end their old enmity. That is the old Danish king's desire, but the more realistic chronicler of Beowulf is quite certain that 'acid words' will rake up the past, and painful memories will provoke future bloodshed. And that seems to be the case all over the world today. The bitter, ancient experiences are not being forgotten or forgiven.
Beowulf reminds warriors that 'The discriminating warrior - one whose mind is keen - must perceive the difference between words and deeds'. That is wisdom needed today.
Beowulf ends darkly, with a prophecy that with the death of the 'guardian of his people' and the burning and burial of the dragon's treasure, men and women will 'tread the paths of exile, now that their lord has laid aside laughter'. That will not be true if we ourselves become the leaders we need.
Beowulf captures the horror of monsters that some of us face every day and the heroism, strength, hope and wisdom necessary to defeat them.
My friend Val Ivey, another shoulder companion, reminded me of Beowulf. She has been reading and listening to Seamus Heaney's translation. The quotes in this post were taken from British Myths and Legends, The Folio Society (London: 1998).