My 8th graders started Beowulf on Tuesday and I’ve gotten a range of responses. I heard from students who express the usual “it’s so confusing and weird” all the way to “if Beowulf is a Christian, how come he gets so excited about killing?”
Something that a number of my students are concerned with is why the villains don’t have any redeeming charactersistics. They are a little bored (and some are troubled) that Grendel is pictured as pure evil without the possibility of redemption. One student pointed out that the text asserts that it was impossible for Grendel to know God’s love. This bothered her because one of her foundational ideas is that the love of God–the universality of grace–that is, redemption, is open to all.
So we talked about how we want our villains to be sympathetic. Even if Gollum and Voldemort aren’t ultimately redeemed like Darth Vader, at least we understand how they came to be villains and we are able to resist demonizing them. That, I think, is maybe what bothers modern readers about Grendel: he isn’t a character at all; he’s just the embodiment of evil, pure demon.
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When I studied Beowulf in college, my professor asked us to think about why Grendel and his mother and the dragon were the monsters that the Anglo-Saxons came up with. If the monsters in Beowulf are the externalization of evil for Anglo-Saxon culture, what does that say about the culture? The answer, of course, lies in the Anglo-Saxon commitment to tribe and clan, in loyalty to king and fellow warrior. Wealth is not to be hoarded (like the dragon); rather, wealth is to be shared among the thanes as a way to help create comitatus.
Where Grendel and his mother and the dragon all operate alone, and where Grendel and his mother go to their grisly feast in isolation, the Anglo-Saxons found identity in us in we. Feasts are family affairs; battles are clan affairs. Even Beowulf, who has to defeat each monster alone (and is abandoned by all but one retainer in his battle with the dragon), goes about flanked by his most loyal thanes.
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This same professor asked us to think about what our culture demonizes and, as a matter of negation, assert what our culture finds valuable. I remember arguing that American monsters were terrorists and child molesters and foreign dictators, all people who prey on the weak and vulnerable. And while I’m sure those people are our monsters (look at the language used to describe each group, espescially Bush II’s language after 9-11), I think an even deeper fear is our fear of death. We demonize getting old. We lock the old up in homes, remove them from TV shows and movies, make sure they aren’t in our advertisements, and present youthful vigor as the ideal.
Just the other day I was in the grocery store and I came across the Halloween aisle (yes, Halloween is already a thing). At the front of the aisle was a witch decoration and what can only be described as a scary looking old man. The witch was old, of course, but at least witches are established stock characters at Halloween. Other than being old, I’m not sure why the man was scary (he wasn’t a zombie or a vampire or anything like that).
We hide and toss out the old because they are physical signs of death. As their bodies and minds fail, we are reminded of our own mortality. One reason we are hypersensitive about cleaning our bodies is because bodily functions, and the smells and fluids associated with such, remind us of our materiality. But broken and old bodies in hospitals and nursing homes can no longer be disguised; Death is at the door.
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And while Death, to be sure, is a great enemy that will one day be destroyed, Christ, for Christians, has taken the sting out of it. Death, the decomposition of our material bodies, has lost the power to terrify. We are a ressurrection people.
It is this fear of death, though, that prompts us to commit all kinds of sins. We chase pleasure and longeivity through medicine and technology. The Anglo-Saxons pursued fame and wealth, the underlying sin being pride. I will conclude with this speech of Hrothgar’s, King of the Danes. Let it be a warning to us all:
—he know’s life’s best
Until overweening pride enters him,
Waxes and swells, and the warden sleeps,
The soul’s guardian, the soundest slumber;
Bound in distraction: the slayer is near,
Loosing a deadly shaft from the bow.
Then under the helm, into the heart,
It strikes – he lacks all defence –from those
Strange, perverse, demands of the evil one.
What he has long ruled seems too little;
Cruelly he covets, ceases ring-giving,
Forgets the future, forgoes the past,
When God, the Ruler of Glory, gave
A portion of honour into his hands.
In the end it must come to pass
That the body, flesh lent to him, fails,
Fated it falls. Another heir shares
The treasure, without fear or regret,
All of the earl’s wealth he hoarded.
Dear Beowulf, finest of warriors,
Guard yourself against such error,
Choose the better path for yourself,
Eternal worth. Great champion, give
No heed to pride. You’ll glory in strength,
For a while; soon sickness or sword
Will weaken your powers, a flare
From the fire, or the flood’s surge,
Or blade’s leap, or spear’s flight,
Or foul old age. The brightest eye
Darkens and dims. Warrior, soon
Comes Death over-sweeping you. (found here)