I am losing count of all the blog posts I have written about mass shootings since starting this blog six years ago. (Some of them are listed at the end of today’s post.) Today I write about the nine parishioners gunned down in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a gunman shouting racist speech,
I feel like the grandmother at the end of Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony following another eruption of violence on the reservation. “I guess I must be getting old,” she says,
“because these goings-on around Laguna don’t get me excited any more.” She sighed, and laid her head back on the chair. “It seems like I already heard these stories before…only thing is, the names sound different.”
I too go back to a familiar story. Few works of literature capture the social violence that strikes from within as powerfully as Beowulf, especially in its depiction of the resentment-crazed Grendel. Our latest Grendel, the alleged killer 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, sounds very much like a white supremacist: apparently he “talked about black people taking over the country, and raping women, and how they had to ‘go.’” and in the Facebook picture above he is wearing insignia from apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. Like Grendel, it appears he nursed “a hard grievance” and saw others partying in the Great Hall while he felt left out.
Meanwhile, we are like King Hrothgar, helplessly surveying the devastation and feeling incapable of doing anything about it. It doesn’t matter that we are the most powerful country on earth, just as Denmark was the reigning power in medieval Scandinavia. One hears President Obama’s despair when he says, “at some point, it’s going to be important for the American people to get a grip on [gun violence].” He has been saying this after each mass killing for the past six years.
In Beowulf, the spirit of resentful violence has been operating for twelve years. Here’s how the poet describes Grendel’s reign and the king’s sorrow.
So Grendel ruled in defiance of right,
one against all, until the greatest house
in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead.
For twelve winters, seasons of woe,
the lord of the Shieldings suffered under
his load of sorrow; and so, before long,
the news was known over the whole world.
Sad lays were sung about the beset king,
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war…
All were endangered, young and old
were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
who lurked and swooped in the long nights
on the misty moors; nobody knows
where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.
In his remarks, Obama spoke of his “deep sorrow,” and of “the heartbreak, and the sadness, and the anger.” The poet says that “these were hard times, heartbreaking for the prince of the Shieldings.”
None of us knows when and where the next reaver of hell will strike. We only know that he will.
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