Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Beowulf Revisited.

Grendel`s mum casts a long shadow in the mead hall.

This story of a brave man fighting evil beings is one of the oldest pieces of literature that led eventually to the English Language we speak, read and write today. Full of alliteration and forceful imagery, it is also a story with an interesting cultural sub-text.

Beowulf is the hero of the story: a group of warriors are wassailing the night away in the mead hall. Grendel, a nasty monster from the local mere, breaks in, kills many. Beowulf arrives and lies in wait for a return visit and then grips Grendel so strongly that he is wounded and creeps back home. The monster`s mother who them attacks them in revenge is killed too along with her son by Beowulf at the bottom of the murky lake. Good old Beowulf! That`s the short version. There are hair raising stories like this from all over the world. A new dominant group arrives, kills the locals and then sits down to celebrate. Time passes. The stories about the previous peoples of the land cast them as foul monsters ( it was right to slay them) or they are downgraded in size to be remembered as tricky little people (Fairies, Gnomes etc.) who dwell in more and more remote places ( meres, dark enchanted forests, underground.)and can still bother us at times.

The question is, in the story, whose side are we on? The big warriors or the slimy old people who do not fight fair? It would seem pretty obvious if your culture evolved from a victorious warrior culture. To read stories like this if you did not however, is to be reminded regularly of your inferior status. Maybe you secretly give these stories a different ending. There is Grendel`s mum avenging her son. Go for it mum! Get `im!

One of the interesting elements in Beowulf is the feeling that Grendel is just too nasty and Beowulf too heroic. As it is the victors who tell the story, it looks just a little too obvious that a lot of nastiness is being transferred from Saxon to that sly sneaky fellow and his family. If one reads a little modern history, it sounds like a well worn theme picked up again in Nazi Germany and used against the Jews. "We are the heroic master race. They belong underground."

As it would be an unusual group of humans that had not waged genocidal war against others some time in their past, there is a problem here. Can we feel proud of our ancestors accomplishments and thereby feel good about our way of life that is built on that foundation if we suspect that it is founded on shaky ground? We all live within our cultural traditions because humans think and exist as group animals. Our culture is our group. Without language and a million unquestioned learned attitudes we do not develop properly individually and cannot form a group. So stories like Beowulf have always served to unite the tribe, to give an example of praiseworthy conduct: they have survival built right into them. Like any useful tradition however it can be so easily abused.

Recently on the radio it has been announced that the re-enactment of the French/English battle for Quebec and what would eventually became Canada was cancelled. Too many on the losing side would be upset. And so the adjustments go on as peoples slowly adapt to thinking in more inclusive ways. After all, from the aboriginal point of view, the French and English were both so similar in culture and how they settled native land.

Everyday we hear about the ‘War on Terror’ and it is difficult to sort out what is economics and world trade, what is religion and what is nationalism. It`s a heady brew to which I do not believe there are obvious answers. Oh, it would not be hard to circle the wagons and find clear-cut answers: for leaders to scream ‘our country’ or ‘our religion’ and accuse ‘traitor’ and have us jump automatically into line against the foe, but would this not be stepping back a couple of thousand years or so to the attitudes of those familiar stories like Beowulf?

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