This is an essay by Amarie Fox.
‘How can you read all of those boring books?’
When I decide to forego lying and actually admit to people that I study literature – and not medicine, like my entire family would prefer – I am often met with various looks of utter bewilderment or even the ever famous eye roll. Both are overtly condescending, but even more than that they reek of pity and disgust. How will you find a career? Why don’t you just throw money away? Not wanting to enter into a maze of questions, I answer that I don’t really know and leave it at that.
Sadly, modern society does not treasure the cultivated mind. Somehow we have forgotten that the canon is not just a massive collection of “good” or entertaining literature, but also a valuable tool that has the ability to change how we think, even about our own society. Maybe it comes across as a threatening prospect to have a nation or world full of conscious, critical people. I don’t know and I won’t claim to. All I do know for certain is that the cliché ‘a good book can change your life,’ is true. It sounds drastic, sure, but when you change the way you think you are actively changing your life at the same time. The two are synonymous.
Through the years, the one piece of literature that I return to, time and time again, and am happy to admit changed my life is Beowulf. I will preface this with the disclaimer that I understand the unwillingness to bother with older and more ‘ancient’ texts. When I was originally forced to read the epic in high school, I absolutely despised it. At the time, I did not feel that anything written so long ago could possibly have anything to do my melodramatic teenage experience. I may have even blurted out, “I hate this poem!” in front of my English teacher. However, I will neither confirm nor deny that. I’ll just say that when we finished discussing it I let out the biggest and loudest sigh of relief anyone has ever heard. (Even now, putting that down in words, I find myself blushing in embarrassment. Oh, the youthful disregard for anything considered good or essential literature!) At fifteen, though, I do not think I was prepared to be a dedicated reader. Being a dedicated reader is something one grows, ever so slowly, into.
It was only when I enrolled in a Medieval Literature class at my university that I was willing to give Beowulf another shot. With some helpful background information, which I had previously missed out on, I was able to better grasp the message. As much as I would love to deny that one does not need any knowledge of history when it comes to reading, I can’t honestly do that. A little historical perspective goes a long way, especially when it comes to enriching the overall experience. Modern literature usually does not present this problem, but if one is an open reader, willing to devour anything, the problem is bound to crop up.
The Beowulf manuscript is dated around 1000 AD, but goes back at least five hundred or so years in the oral tradition. Around this time, the Germanic tribes were conquering Celtic Britain. These familial tribes had a few very important values, which they structured their lives around. Loyalty to blood kin was first and foremost, followed by loyalty to the cyning (the king), martial valor or courage in battle, and generosity (of the spoils of war). Omitting this information, especially when teaching or discussing the text seriously, I feel, is only doing a great disservice to the reader. After all, to understand the motivations of a particular character one must be able to identify their principles and what they stand for.
Descendants of Cain?
In my college level class, the professor began the lecture by asking what we imagined Grendel looked like. Someone instantly blurted out, as if the answer should have been obvious, “Well, it is a monster isn’t it?”
To be fair, Grendel and his mother are both described as monstrous beings. However, on two separate occasions they are also identified as descendants of Cain. With this in mind, they absolutely have to be understood as humans, though grotesquely deformed, because otherwise the underlying thematic concern does not fit or make sense. What would their punishment of alienation matter if they were monsters? Monsters do not abide by our rules; they are not a part of human society.
What is usually downplayed is that Grendel and his mother are devourers of their own kind, humankind, who share the same set of cannibalistic and self-destructive set of values of their enemies and hunters. Just as the Danes wish to get revenge for the deaths at Herot, so too does Grendel’s mother for her son. Both are equally justified and right, according to their rules. The image then becomes clear: aren’t those who share the same exact set of standards and still attack one another displaying some form of cannibalistic tendency? The narrator implements each of these episodes toward this larger purpose, namely to critique his own community’s system of values from the inside.
By the end of the poem, the narrator brings up the main concern of the difficulty of ending inter-tribal warfare, when he references the Swedes and the Frisians. They reinforce the somber mood that the cyclical nature of blood revenge is bound to bring about. There is no escaping the ‘eye for an eye’ mentality, for it is not exactly easy to stomp out the endless chain of killing. Beowulf, as he dies, knows this and so do the Geatish people. Once their protector is dead and gone all of their old enemies are bound to come seeking vengeance for old, but not forgotten, feuds. I’d also like to think the narrator knew what was to come – that the Vikings, long-lost cousins to the early Germanics, would arrive a couple hundred years later, with the very same values, to repeat history.
What frustrates me the most, I suppose, is that I feel we are being cheated in some way. Not necessarily by our early educational systems, but by mainstream culture, as well. We live in a time when many come into contact with books through Hollywood adaptations. However, an adaptation is just that: an immensely edited down version.
Upon leaving the Beowulf lecture, I overhead some students discussing the film that had been released a while ago. Many had no clue that the poem was much more than a handsome hero hunting down two evil reptilian creatures. Having never seen the movie, I cannot comment on the content. Still, ‘reptilian’ was all I needed to hear to know that Hollywood missed the point entirely.
It saddens me to think that there is a “dumbing” or watering down of culture. Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, writes about how it should be altruistic, meant for everyone. For him, it never teaches ‘down’ to anyone. In fact, the imagined goal is for humankind to carry from one end of society to the other “the best that has ever been thought and known in the world.” This is a theory I have always stood behind, because without it the true importance of all literature is ultimately in danger of being lost.
Beowulf did change my life, if only because it changed the way I began to think about writing in relation to the world. Is modern society drastically different? Have we all really progressed past the blood kin killings? Isn’t the modern man with his violence and hatred doing just the same in the city street? I suppose we do keep on repeating history and so the message is still as pertinent and applicable. The fifteen year old version of me may have been self-absorbed and unseeing, but now that I am older, I see that the experience voiced in the poem is a very human one. It encompasses every single person, not just a select sect or group. It just takes a little bit of work to see.
These days, whenever I sit down to begin a writing project, I always recall the truly heroic man who stood up and questioned the world around him. People might not ever approve of my choices and that might weigh heavily on my spirit sometimes, but one cannot expect to always be understood. All one can do is take what inspires them and keep working, keep commenting on the world, and keep moving down the road.
Amarie Fox is a writer (and sometimes mediocre artist) who is infatuated with a Mr. John Milton. She dreams of time travel back to seventeenth century England quite often, but in the meantime is content with her small bedroom, garden, and many animals (five dogs and four cats, in all). She created a writing blog called Sorrow & Lust and receives digital mail at email@example.com.
Photo: Some rights reserved by Allan Brisbane.