Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Nameless Woman Silences Heroes: The Surprising Thoughtfulness of "Beowulf"

When I was a little boy, my friends and I would play “Star Wars.”  We would take turns being either Luke Skywalker and Han Solo or the villains Darth Vader and the Storm Troopers.  Even though we were five, we innately understood the rules of the game.  Good guys were noble, loved flying in land-speeders and space ships and enjoyed employing their favorite catchphrases at critical moments (“May the force be with you!”).  Darth Vader breathed heavily and had magical powers while the faceless Storm Troopers killed anything that moved (and, fortunately, had atrocious aim!).  But we understood the rules of the game and there was no ambiguity.

One of the reading challenges of the epic Beowulf is that the rules of the poem are always shifting.  The most important “rule” is the clear expectations of the good king.  A “good king” in the beginning of the epic is a man who rules by intimidation (not fighting AS king) and who gives generously to the heroes closest to him.  The good king manages a community and gives away gold. 

Near the end of the poem, Beowulf the king battles a dragon that has terrorized his people.  The poet next moves the conversation to the emotional level and imagines not only the details of the dragon’s hoard but also the dragon’s feelings towards his riches.  Like all dragons, the dragon of this epic obsessively values his immense hoard of treasure.  The poet calls this feeling in the dragon hord-wynne (hoard-joy) – the perverse affection for gold.  Tolkien, in The Hobbit, calls this “dragon sickness.”  This is the root of the dragon’s evil.  “Good” behavior in this poem is signaled by generosity, not hoarding. 

Beowulf manages to kill the dragon and acquire the dragon’s extensive wealth but dies after the fight.  Beowulf utters his final words and his speech is not a prayer, not an expression of gratitude to his people, but rather a desire to see that “ancient gold” for which he has died.  We are left to wonder if the rules for a “good king” still apply, whether Beowulf has redefined the notion of “good king,” or whether he will use these new riches to reward his men.  The poet does not make us wait long for an answer.  Near the end of the poem we are told that the newfound material wealth is buried under ground, “as useless to man as it ever was.”  The rules are changing.

He behaves as a warrior when he should be behaving like a king, and the smoke of his heroic funeral pyre is still rising when a nameless woman of his tribe yells out a truth never heard in epic poetry.  The poet tells us that she:

         . . . sang out in grief;
         with hair unbound, she unburdened herself
         of her worst fears, a wild litany
         of nightmare and lament, her nation invaded,
         enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,,
         slavery and abasement.  Heaven swallowed the smoke.

This is the price of kings who forget themselves: nameless people suffer.  This woman reminds us of the cost of reckless leadership and a martial ethic that is less a solution and more a never-ending circle of blood.  The progression of her nightmare is chronological and telling, from invasion to rampage to body-count to slavery to the seeming indifference of heaven. How many women in Syria could utter these exact words today? 

I often wish that this woman were given a name and, equally importantly, her own words (rather than a paraphrase).  But she might be the most important nameless character in medieval literature for her voice uniquely exposes a heroic code that is clearly losing ground.  The rules of the poem and the world it represents are changing. Gold is an ultimately empty rationale for risking one’s life.  Perhaps this nameless woman, lost in the shadow of myth, reminds us that such “hoard-joy,” such a blatant embrace of materialism, does not lead to immortality or even short-term safety but rather the cycle of violence that provides the only stable rule in the poem.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Beowulf is min nama: Some Thoughts on Beowulf, l. 1-835,fl_progressive,q_80,w_636/gy6kymhdohgmewn5cgle.jpg
To read deeply and dynamically means, among other things, to embrace the exciting fact that each new book defines its own terms and offers its own rules for reading itself.  A good man in Hamlet is different than a good man in The Importance of Being Ernest, for example.  Heroism in The Iliad is dynamically different that heroism in The Things They Carried.  And so is the case with this complex, mysterious poem.  Our first job is that we need to learn each book's own rules.  What are the rules, the 'operating manual,' for Beowulf?

On the first page of Beowulf, we know quite a bit.  We know, for example, the poem’s definition of a good king (god cyning), one who has gifts in his hand for his kin and a bloody sword in his hand for his enemy.  We know that a person’s identity is inextricably bound to the behavior of his lineage before him.  No one is “his own man;” his identity, as a result, is largely out of his control.  We know the leader of the Danes - Hrothgar -  embodies the kingly traits of warrior par excellence and generous gift-giver as defined in the poem.

As the pages continue and we learn of Hrothgar’s many successes, we learn about the poem’s definition of a villain.  We meet Grendel and we are given a dynamic portrait of evil, the “good king” flipped on its head. 

Literally speaking, Grendel is the monster that has decimated the Danes’ mead-hall and gruesomely killed many of their best men.  Grendel only lives for about 20 pages (yet ravages the mead hall for over a decade) but he is as interesting as any villain created in the last 100 years.  He is not merely a “monster” as he is often called in translation.  He is in Caines cynne (“in the line of Cain” - l. 107) and is thereby genetically connected to the father of weapons, murder, and fratricide.  The Cain connection is essential here, making Grendel the worst nightmare this poem can conjure because kin-killing is in his DNA.  In this poem, warriors needed to utterly trust in the loyalty of their fellow warriors and their kin.  Breakdowns in this system did not lead to a psychological insecurity but, rather, death itself.  Grendel is also an Ellen-gaest (86) or a “powerful demon” or “powerful stranger.”  He moves like a villain and is called Earfothlice (86) – a prowler.  He is Feonde on helle (100)–a fiend/enemy out of hell (a place as real to this poem's audience as Boston or New York is to us!).  Grendel is Eotonas (112) – an Ogre, the Old Norse creature who was the giant, monstrous undead, human but larger and cannibalistic.  He was preternaturally huge (gigantas – l. 113) and, perhaps most disturbing of all was that he was an Orcneas (112), an evil phantom (from Old Norse “ne” – corpse, eotenas “to eat” – hence “corpse eater” – later reformed into Tolkien’s “orc”).  And the true sign of Grendel’s evil (as if corpse-eating wasn’t enough!) is that Grendel lives out the most horrifying of Anglo-Saxon fates.  He is alone, an An-gengea (165) – literally “one who goes alone” or “solitary one.”  All of this information lives on a couple pages in the poem and describes just one of the poem’s three key villains.  We know his spiritual lineage and his solitude, his size, his diet, and even how he moves, each of these details adding another layer of evil to an already self-evident villain.

In just a handful of manuscript pages, lines are being drawn.  We know the poem’s standard for a good king and also for the objective villain.  At this point, any rational reader would occasionally glance at the cover of the book and wonder, where is the title character?

When we finally meet Beowulf, we are not given the depth of information that we get with the good king or the murderous monster.  In the first quarter of the poem, we meet Beowulf, hear him speak persuasively and see him fight and behave like a hero.

But unlike most narratives in which the hero has the deepest backstory, Beowulf, who has the strength of 30 men in each arm, remains a mystery.  He tells heroic tales of his youth that are uncorroborated.  We know his father’s name but he has no wife, no children, and his king has mysteriously let him go on this strange search-and-destroy mission on behalf of another people.  Beowulf has no authority and deep lineage (like King Hrothgar) and no nuanced personality and set of traits (like Grendel). 

Beowulf finally identifies himself to the Danish coast guard when he bluntly states, “Beowulf is min nama” (“Beowulf is my name”).  I can’t help but to wonder that the poet had a clear understanding of what made a good king and a convincing villain but perhaps didn't exactly know what to make of this Beowulf.  Or maybe this is an early example of the poet wanting the auidence to create its own definitions along the way, to help shape the poem in the listening.  The poet of the mead-hall was called the ‘shaper’ (scop) after all.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Passing By: A 100 Word Story


Malboro Lights.

$10 a pack.

My one pleasure.

Looks like rain.

Should put away the porch chair.

Dark sky for miles.

Fall in the air.

All those cold Saturdays at the football field.


Yelling, dancing and twirling.

No one heard us.

Team went 1 and 14.

Should have stayed home, mom said.

Mom’s cough, the phlegmy chorus of my 30s.

Now her bedroom stores my photo albums, my winter clothes, 
         and the baby carriage.


16th floor.

So close I could spit on that train.

Instead, I flick my cigarette, hoping it jolts someone who’s on their way somewhere.