This past year I was surprised to suddenly find myself a fan of the 1997-2003 television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It would be hard to find a television show with a wackier premise, but it somehow works. In this entry I want to draw some parallels between the show and Beowulf and, especially, between the character Willow Rosenberg and Grendel’s mother. Spoiler alert: I will be revealing what happens at the end of season 6, the next-to-the-last season.
But first, some psychology and some literary theory. If you want, you can skip the next three paragraphs. But if you’re willing to bear with me, I think you will find it illuminating. Buffy does explicitly what most monster stories do implicitly. That is, it finds characters, plots and settings that play out or reenact society’s deep anxieties. To be sure, anxiety by itself doesn’t provide fodder for monster stories. For an anxiety to become toxic, we must repress or deny it. We don’t have monster stories about our anxiety of dying in a natural cataclysm. That’s the realm of disaster movies. But the idea that we possess a dark side that could rise up and take us over—that we are capable of doing awful things—well, that’s something we don’t like to admit about ourselves and so it provides fuel for some of our great monsters stories. Examples that come immediately to my mind are Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Wolfman, Psycho and The Shining.
Grendel too fits this category. The Anglo-Saxons wouldn’t have wanted to admit that the warrior ethos that they glorified also could turn any one of them into a fratricidal killer. In other words, everyone was a potential Grendel. Throw a victory party, watch the men start drinking and boasting, remember that some are probably afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, and then don’t be surprised when a small argument suddenly turns into a general bloodletting. The warriors may have claimed that Grendel was a disaffected troll living on the margins of society. But he probably scared the living daylights out of them because they recognized within themselves the possibility of suddenly being possessed and taken over by a blinding Grendel rage.
By the same token, they fantasized a hero who could rise above the rage and stay centered within himself. Such self-control would have seemed superhuman. It is the quality that most characterizes Beowulf. It is a quality that we prize in Barack Obama.
So, back to Buffy. In the early seasons, creator Josh Wheedon sometimes seems to be operating out of a list of teenage anxieties, devoting an episode to each one. Of course, the teenage years are especially rich in repressed anxieties. Then, when Buffy and her friends enter college and adulthood, the series shifts over to a set of anxieties that beset late teens and early twenties.
Then there are the anxieties that hit all ages, and I want to talk about one of those now. Deep into season six, perhaps the darkest of the seasons, Willow experiences the loss of her lesbian lover Tara, who is killed by a vicious, woman-hating nerd. Willow has been fighting a magic addiction and now she falls off the wagon. The power of her fury is so great that it threatens to end the world. No one can stand up to her anger, not even Buffy, her best friend.
Can our anger over loss bring about the apocalypse? Well, that’s what it may feel like. The Willow episode may be fantastical but it is expressing an actual feeling. In her fury, the normally congenial Willow enacts horrific revenge fantasies, like flaying the perpetrator alive. Reason can’t reach her, nor can Buffy’s strength. She’s going to take everyone down with her. Finally she is saved only when Zander, her best friend from childhood, walks into her fury and reminds her how they used to play together as kids. This touches her as nothing else can, and she is able to move out of her destructive grieving and confront her pain in a healthier way.
But before this healing moment, she is a Grendel’s mother, who is the archetypal form of rage over loss. Distraught over the death of Grendel, his mother lashes out. And with the instinctive genius of those who have been hurt, she knows just how to inflict maximum emotional hurt on others: she kills Aeschere, King Hrothgar’s closest friend. Grendel’s mother is far more dangerous than Grendel, who can be killed by a firm handgrip. Beowulf almost dies when he comes up against someone gripped by the paroxysms of grief. Only when he stumbles upon a giant sword in her lair is he able to slay her.
And this is where I find a fascinating contrast between Beowulf and Zander. Beowulf uses force, Zander uses gentleness. It is as though Beowulf, dealing with a warrior who feels out-of-control over grief (or feeling out-of-control over his own loss), invokes an image of power to restore order. This sword, forged by giants before the great flood, is a reminder that we must be strong, that there is more at stake than our individual grieving. “Snap out of it,” I imagine Beowulf saying, and saying it with such authority that the grieving warrior gets it. This is what we might expect of a poem written for warriors. In a way, it is the approach used by Buffy to try to stop Willow.
Zander, by contrast, is willing to step courageously into his friend’s rage, as frightening as it is, and draw her back to her humanity. In that conversation, he mentions a yellow crayon they colored with as children, and one could say that this yellow crayon is the episode’s version of the giant sword.
In coming to Willow’s aid, Zander actually shares some qualities with Wiglaf, Beowulf’s nephew at the end of the poem who comes to his aid during the dragon fight. Beowulf says that he can fight the dragon alone, but Wiglaf skirts the dragon fire and helps him anyway. In a sense Wiglaf, like Zander, helps someone who insists that he doesn’t need any help. I find Zander’s response to grief more inspiring than Beowulf’s and, for that matter, more effective. The crayon trumps the sword in the same way that kindness and love prove more effective than forcefulness.
I hasten to add that I don’t think these episodes in Beowulf influenced Buffy. John Wheedon may or may not know the poem. Rather, I see both works using the vehicle of the monster story to explore the same powerful and potentially destructive human emotion.