Politics and Beowulf Wish Fulfillment


It’s been a while since I’ve talked about Beowulf and Obama so let’s visit some of the leadership issues that have come up recently. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, who has been pounding Obama on his leadership for years, has been complaining that he is no Andrew Shepherd, the character played by Michael Douglas in The American President.

Defenders of Obama say that such critics are guilty of “Green Lantern wish fulfillment,” which I would amend to “Beowulf wish fulfillment.” After all, Beowulf enters an impossibly fractious community and imposes order by means of his firm grip. You can read all about it in my book How Beowulf Can Save America.

Then again, Beowulf is only a temporary solution. No sooner does he depart than fighting breaks out again. Beowulf returns a second time (his second term?) to defeat Grendel’s mother but then he leaves for good. Not long after, Hengest, who becomes Prince Regent after King Hrothgar’s death, usurps the throne from Hrothgar’s young sons and civil war breaks out. Heorot Hall burns to the ground.

In other words, the Beowulf poet believes that a single man can’t solve all our problems. Dowd disagrees:

 Actually, it is his job to get them to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.

Dowd, as critics have pointed out, never elaborates on that “somehow.” To bring reality into the situation, here’s another episode from Beowulf, the plight of King Finn. He has been fighting with the Danes but they all try to patch up their quarrel with a diplomatic marriage between him and the Danish king’s daugher Hideburh. As I say in my book, the marriage is no more effective than a handshake between President Obama and the Republican Speaker of the House, and fighting breaks out again. In the battle, Queen Hildeburh loses both her Danish brother and her Frisian son. Only her younger brother Hengest survives.

Here’s an excerpt from my book, which unfortunately is as relevant now as it was a year ago when I wrote it:

As neither the Danes nor the Frisians triumph, the two sides must live together in Finn’s household in an uneasy truce. Think of them as Democrats and Republicans trying to make nice while President Finn works on maintaining the peace. Finn does everything in his power to prevent more fighting, including allocating separate quarters for the Danes and doling out gifts equally to both sides.

So what happens? Well, there is an uneasy peace for a few months, but as you can tell by the poem’s description, it’s temporary. Imagine it as the temporary truce that the Democrats and Republicans agreed to over the debt ceiling back in January:

                                    Hengest stayed,
lived out that whole
                                    resentful, blood-sullen
winter with Finn,
                                    homesick and helpless.
No ring-whorled prow
                                    could up then
and away on the sea.
                                    Wind and water
raged with storms,
                                    wave and shingle
were shackled in ice . . . 

When the season changes, however, the frozen anger transforms into hot rage, and King Finn’s bloody death seems inevitable:

The wildness in them
had to brim over.

            The hall ran red
with blood of enemies.

So we’re back in hall-running-with-blood season. And the president, unlike King Finn, has the added challenge of sharing power with two other branches of government.

In my book, when I apply Beowulf to our situation I am ultimately hopeful, but that’s not because I see a President Beowulf extricating us from our morass. Instead, exerting power must be a collective effort. Citizens must pressure politicians, as many did over the gun control push (the fight is not yet over), and journalists must get real.

Beowulf wish fulfillment is simply irresponsible.


Added note: Jon Chait of New York Magazine has an excellent post today on just this issue. Dowd and others, he says, are guilty of magical thinking, more interested in leadership narratives than in the facts on the ground.

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