Listening to Barack Obama’s teary farewell speech last night, I heard him calling upon us to become Wiglafs. I write about Beowulf’s nephew–how he steps up when his king is reaching his end–in my book How Beowulf Can Save America, and I quote some of the appropriate passages below.
In the book I talk about the danger of leaders who, because they claim to have all the answers, fail to empower their followers. Beowulf is one such leader, which is why he finds himself wrestling with a dragon at the end of his life. He disempowers his men by hoarding glory, just as the dragon hoards gold. His society falls apart after he dies.
We the people also bear some responsibility in this. We turn leaders, or the memory of leaders, into glory-hoarding dragons when we fetishize them, as people have done with Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan and may be tempted to with Obama. To his credit, the president was warning us against this when he said that we, not he, were most responsible for the achievements that occurred during his presidency.
Just as it is a leader’s responsibility to empower his or her successors, so it is ours to step up to the challenge. This is what Obama was calling upon us to do near the end of his speech:
But remember, none of this happens [rebuilding our democratic institutions] on its own. All of this depends on our participation, on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging. Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power.
We, the people, give it meaning. With our participation and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms, whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. That’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. To embrace the joyous task we’ve been given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy — citizen.
So you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.
Show up. Dive in. Stay at it. Sometimes, you’ll win. Sometimes you lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that could be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been part of this work and to see up close, let me tell you — it can energize and inspire.
And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed.
In the poem, Beowulf initially wants to fight the dragon all by himself, which is itself a dragon trait. “The fight is not yours,” he tells his men, and, “I shall win the gold/ by my courage, or else mortal combat,
doom of battle,/ will bear your lord away.” Disobeying orders, Wiglaf goes to his aid and together they defeat the monster.
Wiglaf is the poem’s version of the “young people”–America’s future–that Obama mentioned time and again in his speech. At one point, he called them “unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic” and said, “You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward.” Because, like Obama, I fear that many of them may lose faith in America with the election of Donald Trump, here’s an excerpt from my book:
It seems appropriate to end this chapter with Wiglaf, who represents the next generation. Looking around him, he sees disheartened followers who relied on Beowulf to provide them with comfortable lives and who then, at the first hint of trouble, fled the scene. While there’s a hint of criticism for Beowulf in Wiglaf’s words, the emphasis falls on his gratitude for what the king and the nation have done for him. He therefore resolves to risk everything in their service. As he says to his fellow warriors:
And now, although
He [Beowulf] wanted this challenge to be one he’d face
by himself alone—the shepherd of our land,
a man unequaled in the quest for glory
and a name for daring—now the day has come
when this lord we serve needs sound men
to give him their support. Let us go to him,
help our leader through the hot flame
and dread of the fire. As God is my witness,
I would rather my body were robed in the same
burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body
than go back home bearing arms.
Dragon cynicism saps our fortitude, challenges our ideals, and sends us running for cover. In our fear and anger, we put our own selfish needs over everything else. Wiglaf reminds us how heroes respond and what they can accomplish. Working together, we can free up “a treasure-trove of astonishing richness.”
Looking ahead to a Trump presidency without once mentioning it, Obama warned us that democracies cannot be taken for granted. During the Obama years, many liberals and many young people came to believe that America had evolved to a tolerant, pluralistic society. They experienced a rude awakening on election night. Like Beowulf’s men, we became complacent and now may find ourselves panicking in his final days.
Democracy demands that we be warriors. Time to step up and wade into the flames.