29 April 2021

The Monster and the Christians

A meditation on reading monster stories during the Easter Season, and why it's a good idea. 

From The Imaginative Conservative

By David Deavel

The Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullman famously compared the death and resurrection of Christ to D-Day. After the events of Omaha Beach, the Axis powers were effectively defeated, yet they could still do a lot of damage. Christ has defeated sin, death, and the devil! Yet we see the spiritual and physical carnage around us and even, as Jesus said of the Kingdom of God, within us. There is a good reason the New Testament writers speak of salvation in past, present, and future tenses. We have been saved by Christ, we are being saved, and we hope for salvation.

That being so, I have some advice for Orthodox Christians who are about to celebrate Easter/Pascha (nearly a month later than did other Christians this year). Remember that Christ is risen but that there are battles to be fought. After recovering from the Easter liturgy and the feast afterward, go read a good monster story.

That’s what I did. After getting up late and finding our Easter baskets, seven-year-old Tommy and I curled up in the comfy chair and read a volume my wife had placed in his Easter basket, Beowulf: A Tale of Blood, Heat, and Ashes (2007), written by Nicky Raven and illustrated by John Howe. The Canadian Howe will be well known to many Tolkien fans as one of the key design contributors to Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings, the artist for the board game made by Reiner Knizia, and also the cartographer for editions of the books in the late-nineties. Alas, I cannot recommend Nicky Raven’s work in general, for the Englishman seems to be a writer of “erotica” (a confusingly-named genre usually appealing to libido) as well as a re-teller of classic children’s tales. This edition of Beowulf’s tale has nothing of naughtiness in it and a great deal of goodness.

The book itself tells the full tale, not only of Beowulf’s battle with Grendel and his mother but also of his late-life encounter with a dragon, in prose, not poetry—a perfectly fine way to introduce the story to younger readers. In fact, when Tommy handed me the book, he was a bit confused, for he knew that Grendel and his mother were not dragons. In fact, I had forgotten about the dragon, too. The blessing of a short memory is that one can not only hide one’s own Easter eggs—and I did—but also enjoy the shock of surprise at great stories after a brief period away. I was as eager as Tommy to find out about the third battle as well as the first two.

The story begins with a brown left-hand page with the original Anglo-Saxon text in gold and the description of Grendel on the right-hand page with white runic-looking letters on a black background: “It had lived in this stinking place for generations of men.” The creature, “defeated and driven into hiding by heroes of other days… had sought out this damp, dark, miserable place in which to fester and dream of revenge.” Now the “urges” to eat something besides “fish, frogs, and unsuspecting birds” were “more powerful… and the beast moaned in its sleep as its need for meat fought the fear in its cowardly heart.”

They had Tommy and me at “heroes” and “dream of revenge.”

This version dispenses with the genealogy of Hrothgar, and the story is told from the vantage point of Wiglaf, who is depicted here as a young but tactful and courteous member of King Hrothgar’s court, a Dane rather than, as in the original, a Swede and relative of Beowulf who only enters the poem at the final battle with the dragon. This decision is a smart one in a children’s retelling, for we see the story through the eyes of somebody who is not too high or too low to sympathize with.

Wiglaf has come to Heorot with his brother Preben after their family had been slaughtered. He has been enjoying normalcy until the monster’s attacks begin. He watches over a month as Grendel kills the best of Hrothgar’s warriors. Wiglaf is not a great warrior, but he is brave enough to take on Hrothgar’s charge and sail to the Geats to procure the great hero Beowulf. He recognizes the greatness in this warrior, whose father had been sheltered by Hrothgar and thus had been in Hrothgar’s hall as a young boy. Beowulf is motivated to fight the creature not only out of a desire for glory but also to fulfill his father’s promise to return to the Danes if there were ever a need. Most of Beowulf’s backstory is omitted, but this detail gives a personal dimension to the coming battle.

The night fight with Grendel is well told, and John Howe depicts it in vivid strokes. This was Tommy’s favorite picture. Mr. Howe’s Beowulf, holding onto the skeletal-looking monster’s arm with his own teeth gritted and blood running from his mouth, is a picture of determination, backlit (presumably) by the fire in the hall. Mr. Howe says in an afterword that what is moving about the tale he has rendered with “pencils and brushes” (would that he could use “forge or chisels”) is Beowulf’s “refusal to surrender, first to the rending darkness that reaches into Heorot, and then to creaking old age.” We see that rending darkness in his drawing.

Grendel’s mother is similarly depicted as a horror, yet there is something almost sympathetic in Beowulf’s declaration: “However inhuman and vile a monster, it must have had a mother. And however inhuman and vile the mother, a dam will always feel love for that which she nursed.” Beowulf knows, however, that the mother must be killed. He takes along his own men, along with a group of Danes including Wiglaf and the Danish warrior Unferth, who had insulted Beowulf in the hall at Heorot. Unferth is depicted here as a warrior on the brink of “creaking old age,” a man whose earlier bravery has been left behind by drink. In this telling as in the original, Unferth gives his great sword to Beowulf. It is not named in this version, which gives it more mystery for the modern listener than what its original name “Hrunting” might conjure.

While Beowulf is fighting Grendel’s mother, Wiglaf and Unferth alone among the Danes stay at the cliff-top off of which the hero has dived to access the monster’s cave. We hear of the action from the viewpoint of the mother-monster and then later at Heorot from the mouth of the hero. But before Beowulf returned from the cave, the pain of the Danes was expressed from Wiglaf’s perspective of expectation turning to hope and then to fear.

If Tommy’s favorite picture was that of Beowulf seizing Grendel’s arm, his favorite scene was the fight with the dragon many years later. At age seven, one has the healthy understanding that the battle’s the thing. And Wiglaf’s role in that battle is sweet since his role has been expanded in this telling. We felt almost as if we had conquered the dragon ourselves.

Indeed, that’s what is so great about a post-paschal monster tale. Without getting into the scholarly debates about how Christian this poem of sixth-century pagans is, we know what the spiritual value of the story is since it is a kind of fairy tale. “Fairy tales,” Chesterton tells us, “do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” We too can fight the dragons in our lives with joy and hope, for the Great Dragon had his death blow on the original D-Day when a man walked out of a tomb two thousand years ago.

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