Taking on Grendel Rage


If Grendel rage is on the rampage in America, do we have a Beowulf who can defeat it?  And what would defeating it look like?

In a recent New York Times piece, liberal columnist Frank Rich talks about how irresponsible talk from political commentators and politicians essentially enable those committing hate crimes, even though these public figures don’t actually advocate violence. But Rich also talks about an instance in last year’s campaign when John McCain exercised leadership and “defended his opponent’s honor to a town-hall participant who vented her fears of the Democrats’ ‘Arab’ candidate.” After that defense, Rich says, the fever broke.

To be politically even-handed about this, in the 1970’s such enablers seemed more likely to be on the left. There were those who, because of their anger at racism and the Vietnam War, did not call out militants and other irresponsible advocates for “revolution.”

One who did, incidentally, was Martin Luther King. I was lucky enough to hear a speech he gave in Charleston, South Carolina on July 30, 1967. The moment I remember best is when he responded to the black militancy movement (which was chanting such slogans as “kill whitey” and “burn, baby, burn”) with something like, “Therefore I say, not burn, baby, burn, but build, baby, build!”

So can principled people step up and make a difference? It works in Beowulf. We first see the hero in operation upon his entering the Danish court. He is challenged there by Unferth, one of the king’s henchmen who resents the praises heaped upon the young warrior. Unferth proceeds to insult him.

Here’s a useful insight for reading Beowulf: you will encounter human versions of each of the monsters, a sign that the monsters are archetypes of human emotions and problems. Unferth is the human face of Grendel, resentful jealousy that often led to murderous disputes and blood feuds in Anglo-Saxon society. As Beowulf points out, Unferth has himself been guilty of killing a relative.

In responding to Unferth’s challenge, Beowulf stays within himself and doesn’t fly off the handle. Instead, he assesses Unferth, realizes that he has been drinking, and decides that a forceful declaration will defuse the situation. His strong show of authority silences his challenger.

He uses a version of this approach on Grendel as well. When Grendel bursts into the hall, Beowulf lets the monster come to him rather than go after the monster. Putting the battle in terms of akido, he remains centered. His stance is symbolized by his strong arm grip, and when Grendel feels it, he panics. Unable to break free, he tears himself free of his arm, sustaining a mortal wound as he flees.

Seen in terms of our battle against a simmering rage within society, Beowulf (please excuse the pun) disarms Grendel. In the face of real leadership, monstrous rage disintegrates.

Is this just a fantasy resolution for a seemingly intractable problem or can principled leaders, through forceful condemnation, in fact put a damper on crazy talk? And if so, who are today’s Beowulfs? Can President Obama be one? Is there a principled Republican who can play that role? Do we have spiritual leaders who can make themselves heard? I’ll trace more parallels between our present times and the poem in tomorrow’s post.

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  1. Julia Bates
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    More than leaders, we need to take this quality of truth telling into ourselves. I’m in a small Midwestern town for two weeks. Last Sunday during an adult Bible study an older woman, call her Doris, described watching a couple have a violently angry argument outside a convenience store while their three year old watched. Doris got out of her car and went up to the couple. “Excuse me” she said. She said it again. When the couple finally stopped their verbal abuse of each other, Doris said to them, “No child should have to watch its parents fight like this. This is a form of abuse.” The man strode off. The woman whined about how it was all his fault. The child watched wide eyed.
    Doris walked back toward her car. The man turned and came up to her. Doris was afraid of what he might do. The man simply said “Thank you.” and left. Do we have the courage to act daily to lower the level of anger that we see enacted around us?

  2. Barbara
    Posted June 17, 2009 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    Confronting rage is dangerous. One of the security guards at the Holocaust Museum was killed. Whereas Beowulf was prepared for a monster, in real life they can arise unexpectedly, even amongst friends and family. It’s being prepared to take a stand “on the fly” that’s crucial because it can cut off the rage before it escalates to uncontrollable levels. Beowulf is a reminder that even monstrous rage can be confronted and conquered which is something we need to hear.

  3. Posted June 17, 2009 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Brave woman to confront that couple. The instinct to look away, walk away, and not get involved is strong. But the man and woman were fighting with each other. Would the same logic apply if it had been a parent and a child fighting? I cringe when I see my neighbors making choices that I don’t agree with, but I think there is still strong support for corporal punishment. Judgment about parenting by someone who is not one is often seen as mighty self-righteous. I have a vivid memory of my mother explaining why we were not raised with spanking as a punishment. She believes that spanking doesn’t teach, it merely highlights the parent’s loss of control. The obviously violent outbursts are easy to identify, and possibly even to confront. Is it ever OK to walk away from those tense, but not extreme, moments of conflict, or is that where the real violence is born?

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Is Obama an Allworthy or a Beowulf? on August 10, 2009 at 1:11 am

    […] the Holocaust museum shooting, I wrote that we need leaders to stand up to hysteria the way Beowulf stands up to Grendel, whom I was […]

  2. By Better Living through Beowulf on August 10, 2009 at 2:59 am

    […] the Holocaust museum shooting, I wrote that we need leaders to stand up to hysteria the way Beowulf stands up to Grendel, whom I was […]

  3. By Beowulf (the film): Fathering Monsters on September 3, 2010 at 6:52 am

    […] fratricidal rage that can break out between fellow warriors.  (I have written here, here, and here about America’s own Grendel problem, embodied in the mass killers who periodically erupt in […]


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