Right now the United States is wrestling with whether schools, businesses, sporting organizations, and other public entities should require its workers to be vaccinated and for people using their services to show proof of vaccination. Certain Republican governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’s Greg Abbott, putting Trumpian politics over health, are trying to make it illegal to do so. In a particularly crazy move, DeSantis is forbidding those petri dishes known as cruise ships to require vaccination.
So what would Beowulf do?
I found myself asking that question after reading an illuminating column by political journalist John Stoehr of the Editorial Board on mandates and the authoritarian personality. Those liberals who fear rightwing blowback against vaccine mandates, Stoehr says, don’t understand authoritarians. While uninterested in reasoned dialogue, they do respect forceful action:
Some among us, liberals mostly, appear to believe that a federally enforced vaccine mandate would backfire. This is not unreasonable. After all, the authoritarian holdouts who are prolonging the covid pandemic in this country tell us time and again they will resist getting vaccinated because their individual rights and freedom demand it.
But a national mandate, or a patchwork of state and local mandates, as is usually the case in the United States, will have the opposite effect. I have no doubt about it. The authoritarians among us certainly seem exceptionally strong. After all, they are willing to die before “giving in.” In fact, they are exceptionally frail and weak. They will cave almost instantly under the weight of the authority of government and civil society.
In other words, if you believe that vaccine mandates and vaccine passports will stop the spread of Covid, forcefully call for them. Otherwise, you’re fighting a losing battle.
Beowulf’s victory over Grendel appears to bear Stoehr out. I’ve written many times (for instance, here) how Grendel is the archetype of resentment or grievance, a malcontent who feels he is not being given his due. Many of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 were Grendels whose rage, from the outside, appeared impressive. Here’s Grendel storming the Danes’ major government building and seeking out his own Mike Pences and Nancy Pelosis:
Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open
the mouth of the building, maddening for blood,
pacing the length of the patterned floor
with his loathsome tread, while a baleful light,
flame more than light, flared from his eyes.
He saw many men in the mansion, sleeping,
a ranked company of kinsmen and warriors
quartered together. And his glee was demonic,
picture the mayhem: before morning
he would rip life from limb and devour them,
feed on their flesh.
As the Danish and Geat warriors discover, when you flail away against Grendel with passionate swords, he just appears stronger. After all, you are admitting to him that you find him powerful:
Time and again,
Beowulf’s wariors worked to defend
their lord’s life, laying about them
as best they could with their ancestral blades.
Stalwart in action, they kept striking out
on every side, seeking to cut
straight to the soul. When they joined the struggle
there was something they could not have known at the tie,
that no blade on earth, no blacksmith’s art
could ever damage their demon opponent.
He had conjured the harm from the cutting edge
of every weapon.
What does work, however, is a cool head, firm resolve, and a strong grip. Beowulf defeats Grendel by reaching out and grabbing the monster by the hand. Recognizing steely determination, Grendel transforms from bully into coward. Panicking, he ultimately tears himself free of his own arm, thereby sustaining a mortal wound, and runs home to his mother. He literally falls apart.
I think of Grendel’s defeat as I watch a number of the January 6 insurrectionists in court. Their once defiant words have yielded to whining about jail and the harshness of American justice. Many are now blaming Donald Trump for having misled them.
In the poem we see a similar response from the Danish warrior Unferth, a human Grendel, who confronts Beowulf when he first strides into the Danish hall. Like an Obama birther, Unferth is furious at the attention this upstart is receiving:
his sea-braving, made him sick with envy:
he could not brook or abide the fact
that anyone else alive under heaven
might enjoy greater regard than he did…
Unferth, however, folds like a cheap suit when Beowulf, confident in himself and his mission, points out his failures:
The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly
as keen and courageous as you claim to be
Grendel would never have got away with
such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,
havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere.
But he knows he need never be in dread
Of your blade making mizzle of his blood
Or of vengeance arriving ever from this quarter—
From the Victory-Shieldings, the shoulderers of the spear.
He knows he can trample down you Danes
to his heart’s content, humiliate and murder
without fear of reprisal.
We might note that these Republican governors are also allowing Covid to trample us down to its heart’s content, without fear of reprisal. Beowulf then makes a promise that he goes on to keep:
But he will find me different.
I will show him how Geats shape to kill
in the heat of battle. Then whoever wants to
may go bravely to mead, when morning light,
scarfed in sun-dazzle, shines forth from the south
and bring another daybreak to the world.
If Stoehr is right and we were to bring Beowulf fortitude to Covid, everyone with any kind of authority would be mandating vaccinations where they can and requiring vaccination passports for schools, work places, and anywhere else where people congregate. The Unferths will complain but, if Stoehr and the Beowulf poet are correct, they will capitulate. And they’ll have the added bonus of not contracting a deadly disease.
And all of American society will go bravely to mead—which is to say, to bars—and enjoy the sun-dazzle after a long night of Covid darkness. Are we ready for this?