Sunday I sent the manuscript for my book to my publisher (which is to say, to my son Darien). Writing How Beowulf Can Save America: An Epic Hero’s Guide to Defeating the Politics of Rage has been an eye-opening experience for me. As I let the poem guide me to an understanding of contemporary America, I realized as never before the depth of our “greedy king” problem—which is to say, how damaging it is for a society to have a growing income gap between the very rich and everyone else.
The statistics are startling. To cite just a couple, America’s 450 wealthiest citizens now have as much money as the bottom 150 million, and as we were climbing out of a major recession in 2010 (according to Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez), the top one percent captured 93 percent of income gains. In other words, even as most of us saw the value of our homes and retirement plans drop, those at the top were claiming an even greater share of the country’s wealth.
This is not healthy for anyone—not for the wealthy, who increasingly feel cut off from the rest of us, and not for America as a whole. Beowulf shows us how countries that are victimized by hoarding kings fall into dragon gloom.
The following excerpt is from my book. In it I quote a lengthy speech by Danish King Hrothgar on how a creeping sense of entitlement takes over those who have wealth and power. They may start out as good kings but it is as though they are stalked by “an archer who draws a deadly bow,” who shoots them in the heart. Their old possessions appear to them “paltry” and they covet and resent. The end result is paranoia and separation from their fellows.
Here’s the excerpt:
It all begins with a sense of entitlement, with the moneyed interests feeling they deserve an ever bigger slice of the American pie. Their belief that they are entitled far surpasses that of the poor, accused by Mitt Romney of expecting handouts. Ironically, anxiety rather than contentment arises from the conservative elite’s growing prosperity. The more they get, the more worried they are that (in the words of New York Magazine blogger Jonathan Chait) the “masses” will use their political power “to gang up on us and seize our wealth.”
Chait arrived at his understanding while trying to figure out why Supreme Court rulings are increasingly favoring the wealthy. The Obama era, he says, appears to have “unleashed deep-rooted conservative fears of economic democracy”:
Conservatives have come to see the majority’s threatening ability to shape economic policy not merely as an impediment but as a dire existential threat.
A similar sense of paranoia is captured in Beowulf when King Hrothgar describes the evolution of a greedy king. I quote the extended description in full because it brilliantly charts the psychological progression.Hrothgar begins by noting how the wealthy and the powerful have been blessed with “fulfillment and felicity on earth,” and I have noted how, in recent American history, the upward movement of the country’s wealth began in the 1980’s. That’s when tax rates began to go down and financial speculation increased. Treasures were heaped upon our men and women “of distinguished birth”—if not by God, then by a globalized economy and favorable legislation:
It is a great wonder
how Almighty God in His magnificence
favors our race with rank and scope
and the gift of wisdom; His sway is wide.
Sometimes He allows the mind of a man
of distinguished birth to follow its bent,
grants him fulfillment and felicity on earth
and forts to command in his own country.
He permits him to lord it in many lands . . .
The first sign of trouble is when the king starts to take all these gifts as his due. He thinks he is rich because “the whole world conforms to his will,” not because he is fortunate to have been born into a race (in our case, the United States) that has been graced “with rank and scope and the gift of wisdom”:
. . . until the man in his unthinkingness
forgets that it will ever end for him.
He indulges his desires; illness and old age
mean nothing to him; his mind is untroubled
by envy or malice or the thought of enemies
with their hate-honed swords. The whole world
conforms to his will, he is kept from the worst . . .
Arrogance, and with it discontent, continues to grow. The passage notes the imperceptible gradualness of the change. Instead of seeing himself joined with the country in a common enterprise, the king gradually finds himself resenting others. The “devious promptings of the demon start” as he imagines them eyeing “his” possessions:
. . . until an element of overweening
enters him and takes hold
while the soul’s guard, its sentry, drowses,
grown too distracted. A killer stalks him,
an archer who draws a deadly bow.
And then the man is hit in the heart,
the arrow flies beneath his defenses,
the devious promptings of the demon start.
His old possessions seem paltry to him now.
He covets and resents; dishonors custom
and bestows no gold; and because of good things
he ignores the shape of things to come.
In the end, the poem predicts, the king will reap what he has sown:
Then finally the end arrives
when the body he was lent collapses and falls
prey to its death; ancestral possessions
and the goods he hoarded are inherited by another
who lets them go with a liberal hand. . . .
With our own wealthy citizens and their political and media allies, what once would have been seen as munificent is now regarded as “paltry.” It is now assumed, for instance, that CEOs should be paid hundreds of times what their employees make, that golden parachutes should be the norm, and that any attempts to redistribute the wealth—say, through increasing income tax rates—are an egregious infringement. They even seek to forestall, through their angry opposition to the estate tax, the poem’s fantasy of their money being liberally redistributed when they die.
The poem doesn’t tell us exactly what it means to covet, resent, dishonor and bestow no gold, but we can come up with our own contemporary examples. For instance, if we believe that basic fairness should prevail in America and that everyone should have equal opportunity to succeed, then legislators dishonor that spirit when, seduced by lobbying dollars, they write favorable legislation for big corporations and steer large contracts and generous subsidies their way. If Americans on both the Left and the Right were furious over the TARP bank bailout, necessary though it may have been, it was because they feared that once again they were being scammed.
My book goes on to show how Beowulf, himself in danger of falling into dragon gloom, shakes himself free and liberates the dragon’s treasure so that it can circulate freely and reinvigorate society. I describe how he can’t do it alone but must work in concert with the next generation. I’ll have details soon on how to get a copy of the book.