of Beowulf, and other heroes

I read a boastful warrior’s speech aloud to a class full of drowsy-after-lunch college students on Monday, students whose eyes drifted shut during the lecture on Old English poetic forms. Most people like it when you read them stories. Today we engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the drowse, acting out scenes from a story replete with monsters, dragons, and big, strong men.

Beowulf is unabashedly the big man on the block, and it seems this poem’s original audience must have gloried in his gloating: “You’ve got a big monster no one can kill? Let me at him! Nobody is as strong as I am!”

I’ve enjoyed delving into this story, trying to wrap this boastful voice in the bones and sinews of a hero, trying to see the mead-hall Heorot in all its festal splendor. I read passages aloud, to myself and my students, because I want them to feel the roll and the rhythm of it, to hear the alliteration–beautifully rendered in Seamus Heaney’s translation.  I want my students to see the things so vividly described here, get a glimpse into a world in which it was not silly or affected to call the sun “heaven’s gem.”

One of things I love about the world which Beowulf opens to me is the culture in which people whole-heartedly adore their heroes. The twentieth century saw some people still looking for the super-man, but we seem to have given up on that idea in the technological [in]efficiency of our twenty-first century. Sure, we enjoy our super-hero stories, which continue to proliferate on the big screen, but we don’t look for real heroes. We don’t expect any. If anyone looks like being a hero, we are hard at work searching for the cracks in his pedestal, the chips in his paint, the thing that proves that no one is really that good.

Beowulf, however, and the people who surround him, see nothing impossible in the idea that one man could secure safety for all. Beowulf declares that, after his battle with wild “sea-brutes,” sailors would be safe from then on, because “the deep-sea raids / were over for good.”

You roll your eyes, so full of seeing: “No one can do that!” But Beowulf, according to this story, did it. This is the man “with the strength of thirty / in the grip of each hand;” he is the fighter of foul things, mutilator of monsters, destroyer of those that destroy, and he lives up to all his claims.

The Beowulf poet, a Christian telling a tale from a pre-Christian age, understands about heroes. We say, “It’s not possible,” but he ascribes credit where credit belongs:
“The Lord was weaving
a victory on His war-loom for the Weather-Geats.
Through the strength of one they all prevailed;
they would crush their enemy and come through
in triumph and gladness. The truth is clear:
Almighty God rules over mankind
and always has.”

We seem to have grown too sophisticated for heroes. We act blasé, emphasize irony, assert again and again that no one person can wipe out all enemies and make us entirely secure from death. But nonetheless, we also know that no banding together of well-intentioned ones, no resolutions to peace, to the cure for cancer, to meals for all hungry ones, will ever do the trick.

If we are to be delivered, it must be a mighty deliverance, wrought by a mighty deliverer.

The problem with Beowulf, for the people who followed him, is his mortality. For all of his mighty deeds, in the end, he dies. And our poet intimates that when tidings of his death reach his enemies, they will attack and overcome his now-defenseless followers. The only way to be secure is to have a deliverer mightier than death itself.

Fact: We have such a Deliverer.

Death reigns now, but “those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ,” for, “through [His] one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Romans 5:17-18).

No one can measure the strength of His arms, and at His grip “the captain of evil” is made “desperate to flee to his den and hide.”

Search as you will, there are no cracks in Christ’s pedestal — He Himself is the foundation upon which all else rests. He is no painted image, but the real thing: real God, real man, and He accomplished a victory not on the silver screen but upon the earth we walk, in this air that we breath, without aid of special effects and stunt doubles.

Victory is woven on God’s war-loom for us. We have a Hero, and His words are true. Take a page from Beowulf’s people: whole-heartedly adore this Warrior-King of ours.

©2013 by Stacy Nott
Italicized quotations come from Seamus Heaney’s New Verse Translation of Beowulf, ©2000

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