Teach Beowulf to Combat Violence

Friday

I share today the talk I am giving at 12:30 at the National Council of Teachers of English conference, held in Baltimore. The session is titled “Becoming Readers: Reading to Renew, Repurpose, and Resist” and is described as follows:

Presenters will explore ways students can unleash the radical energies of both older and newer texts and put them to work in their lives. Presenters will offer ways to spark student interest in literary texts through a rhetorical approach that examines the complex social worlds and identities that shape acts of communication, including students’ own experiences, interests, and purposes. Attendees will return to their classrooms ready to engage students in literature as a framework for responding to the world in which they live.

Delivered at NCTE, Nov. 22, 2019, Baltimore

For the past ten years, I have authored a blog, Better Living through Beowulf, in an attempt to address a theoretical problem that those who study literary impact know well: readers respond to works so idiosyncratically and unpredictably that generalizations prove difficult.

Not that theorists have refrained from generalizing. Plato, to cite a famous example, thought he knew how the Odyssey would impact young Athenian men: the sumptuous eating scenes would render them dissolute and Achilles’s lament about dying young would render them cowardly. Therefore, he banished Homer from his ideal republic.

Perhaps there were some young men who responded this way but there were undoubtedly others who did not. Today we would demand empirical evidence.

Faced with problems of determining literary impact, I set up my blog project to track how works were impacting my own life. If I didn’t feel confident generalizing about audiences as a whole, I could at least record my own idiosyncratic and unpredictable responses, providing a steady stream of anecdotes about literature’s multiple effects. Perhaps an aggregate of responses would provide insights as no single overarching theory could.

Therefore, in a Montaigne-type exercise, I have been charting on a daily basis how I use literature to negotiate whatever issues I find to be pressing at the moment. The “Beowulf” in my blog’s title, incidentally, functions as a synecdoche or stand-in for literature. The blog could just as accurately be titled “Better Living through Literature.”

That being said, Beowulf makes frequent appearances on my blog, surpassed only by Paradise Lost, a few Shakespeare plays and Austen novels, Gulliver’s Travels, and the Alice books. That’s because, when violence has erupted in our midst, the 8th century epic understands what we are experiencing. When mass shootings dominate the headlines, Beowulf conveys to students literature’s urgency.

I tell my classes that literature provides them with an essential toolkit for articulating and handling our most pressing problems, including violence and the threat of violence. The greatest literature provides us with the deepest understanding and points the way to the most effective road forward.

Regarding Beowulf, I tell them that its greatness lies in its profound grasp of violence, both the forms violence takes and how we can fight back.

Then I follow up with a Neil Gaiman variation of a G.K. Chesterton quote:

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

When we discuss Beowulf, therefore, we look closely at both the epic’s insights into monstrous violence and the steps Beowulf takes to counter that violence. More on that in a moment.

I take a quick detour, however, into another work that first alerted me to literature’s ability to address the issue of endemic violence. I was teaching Paradise Lost the day after the Virginia Tech shooting, which impacted my Maryland students profoundly. We were struck by Satan’s explanation for why he destroys:

Nor hope to be myself less miserable
By what I seek, but others to make such
As I, though thereby worse to me redound:
For only in destroying I find ease
To my relentless thoughts…
--Satan in Paradise Lost, Book IX, ll. 126-30

Other works over the past ten years that have helped me understand terrorist outrages have been Conrad’s Lord Jim and Secret Agent, Macbeth, Crime and Punishment, Catch-22, Stephen King’s IT, Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood, and Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” Beowulf, however, shows up more than any other work.

In Beowulf, I argue, the monsters represents three different kinds of anger, with each manifesting itself in a different kind of violence:

Grendel – Resentful Rage
Grendel’s Mother – Murderous Grieving (hot rage)
The Dragon – Depression (cold rage)

In class discussions, we use these categories to classify the various instances of violence we read about in the news or encounter in our lives.

The monsters being archetypes, they show up in the poem’s human characters. Most of the warriors are associated with one of the three angers. Here are the principle ones:

Grendel’s Resentful Rage:
Unferth
Hrothulf (who kills Hrothgar’s son after the king’s death)

Example of such rage:

                              Beowulf’s coming,
his sea-braving, made him [Unferth] sick with envy:
he could not brook or abide the fact
that anyone else alive under heaven
might enjoy greater regard than he did…
--Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney, ll. 501-05

GM’s Murderous Grieving:
Hengest (who kills Finn)

Example of such rage:

       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…           
. . .
               The wildness in them
had to brim over.
               The hall ran red
with blood of enemies.
--Beowulf (trans. Heaney), ll. 1128-34, 1150-52

Dragon Depression:
Heremod (“pariah king,” contrasted with Sigemund)
Hrothgar (when grieving for Aeschere)
The Last Veteran (the Dragon occupies his barrow)
Hrethel (dies of grief for his son)
The aging Beowulf

Example of such rage:

[The last veteran] mourned as he moved about the world,
deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness
day and night, until death’s flood
brimmed up in his heart.
--Beowulf (trans. Heaney), ll. 2267-70

Since, per Gaiman, learning that dragons can be killed is the most important lesson, my students and I look at what it takes for Beowulf to defeat each of the monsters. Then we apply the lessons to our own lives. Here they are boiled down to their essence:

To Defeat Grendel’s Resentful Rage:
Stand firm with a forceful presence

To Defeat the Murderous Grief of Grendel’s Mother:
Invoke deeply held values

To Defeat Debilitating Dragon Depression:
Support each other in a communal effort

To be sure, standing strong will not stop a resentment-crazed killer with an AK-47, but one will find many recordings on twitter of people standing up to racist bullies. While the angry energy of others can seem overwhelming, Beowulf shows us we have weapons to resist.

In conclusion, studying the nature of each of Beowulf’s monsters and what it takes to defeat them provides insights that students can apply to their own lives. Literature classes become a training ground for life.

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