Yesterday I reported on how Marilynne Robinson, following Walt Whitman, looks to America’s core democratic values to carry its citizens through our turbulent political times. I make a similar argument in my book How Beowulf Can Save America, which should be out any day now.
It was by looking at American anger through the lens of Grendel’s Mother that I became aware of the depth of American distress over the perceived death of the American dream. This distress is experienced by Americans from all points of the political spectrum, right, left, and center.
Many of us are grieving in destructive ways, and the poem shows us that destructive grieving has both a hot and a cold form. Hot grievers lash out like Grendel’s Mother, determined to make someone else pay for the pain they are feeling. The troll mother gets others to feel just as bad as she does when she kills Aeschere, King Hrothgar’s best friend. Luckily most Americans don’t respond quite this badly, but our politics are becoming dysfunctional as a result of our distress.
Cold grievers, by contrast, sink into deep depression and paralysis, which is Hrothgar’s response to the death of Aeschere. “Rest, what is rest,” he moans, “sorrow has returned.” There are plenty of depressed Hrothgars in America today.
We may be grieving without fully acknowledging it, having become hardened and cynical in the face of disappointment. If we got our hopes up by the election of the candidate of “hope and change,” then we may feign indifference when we have our hearts broken. We may pretend that we don’t care, even as we withdraw from communal engagement. This is socially destructive in the way that Hrothgar’s self pity is destructive—democracy relies on an active and engaged citizenry.
In my book I advocate responding proactively, as Beowulf does. Here are the steps he takes to defeat Grendel’s Mother—which is to say, to move beyond destructive rage and rediscover hope:
–first he notes that King Hrothgar’s grief plunges him into deep despair. The country is in a depressed state, and Beowulf must model an alternative way of dealing with grief if it is to be preserved;
–he therefore journeys to the lake where she dwells and jumps in. The lake, a metaphor for the grieving mind, is a fearsome place. We have to face up to feelings of loss, both those of angry grievers and our own, if we want to save America;
–descending to the bottom of the lake (i.e., the depths of despair), Beowulf is captured by Grendel’s Mother. The fear here is that, if we acknowledge our disappointment and grief, we will be swallowed up by these emotions and will never emerge;
–at first he attempts to use the sword that a fellow warrior has given him to fight Grendel’s Mother. As is also the case with Grendel, an angry sword response doesn’t work against angry grievers;
–then he attempts to use his extended hand and firm grip, which worked against Grendel. Grief goes deeper than Grendel’s resentment, however, and proves resistant to determined resolve;
–Grendel’s Mother gets astride Beowulf and stabs at his chest with a knife. His heart is close to breaking and angry grieving threatens to take over;
–at this point he finds a gigantic sword that he didn’t know was there. This he uses to slay Grendel’s Mother and then, afterwards, to behead the corpse of Grendel, who is lying near by. America’s founding principles ultimately prove more powerful than grief and resentment;
–a great light appears and the lake is cleansed of its monsters. This is what it feels like for a nation to rediscover hope.
I would say that the giant sword, using Robinson’s framework, is an American Democracy that, at its core, “honors and liberates the sacred human person.” It therefore has the power to bring us back to political sanity, even at a time when our politics seem “beyond redemption.”
Or as I say in my book, our sword is the truths held to be self-evident by our founding fathers, the promise inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, and the declaration of “liberty and justice for all” that is affirmed daily by American school children. In other words, we, like Beowulf, have access to tools forged by giants who came before us. In the book I write,
Our higher ideal, expressed in The Declaration of Independence, is bigger than our individual grievances and will fortify us, just as, in his darkest moment, Beowulf’s great sword fortifies him. Those who came before, like the warrior giants who forged that weapon, can infuse us with their spirit and inspire us to push through our pain. Wielding the sword means acknowledging and claiming that we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. We are fighting the good fight, one that the founding fathers began and that Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, and a host of others continued, each working to insure that America honor its promise.
When we face disappointment and disillusion, we are called upon to be warriors. Those who thought hope and change would be easy, that reinvigorating America wouldn’t generate an extreme reaction among entrenched interests, need to wake up. It’s hard work being a hero. Warrior fortitude is called for.
Luckily, a giant sword is available to us.