Manning as Beowulf, No Joy in Mudville

Jets Rex Calling Football

Jets coach Rex Ryan

A quick update for today’s post: some football fans are elated this morning, some are dejected.  “There is no joy in Mudville,” the immortal line from “Casey at the Bat,” may come naturally to citizens of New York and Minnesota – an instance of poetry providing solace by naming our pain.  Here’s the passage:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

Whether one’s sports team is an epic hero or a mythic monster may come down to some fluke that has one rooting for one team rather than another.  Whether one’s quarterback proves to be Beowulf or Mudville’s Casey is sometimes determined by cruel twists of fate.  Sport, like life, takes unpredictable paths and sometimes things happen that seem terribly unfair.  But hope springs eternal in the human breast and we can assuage ourselves with that ever available consolation, just wait til next year.

Posted Saturday:

I was teaching Beowulf yesterday and started thinking about it in terms of the upcoming American Football Conference championship game between the Indianapolis Colts (the team I’m rooting for) and the New York Jets. Hang in there as I explain.

At first, my interpretation didn’t give me the result I wanted. Rex Ryan, the brash young rookie coach of the Jet, seems too much like Beowulf. Filled with confidence even though he is a young warrior that people have barely heard of, Beowulf strides into the court of the reigning regional power and claims he can do what no Danish warrior is capable of.

The Danes, like the Colts, have been thriving for a long time: the Danes have had a long succession of successful kings, the Colt this year set records for the most wins in a decade and most consecutive season wins. But the Danes like the Colts are in some disarray, the Danes because of the attacks of Grendel, the Colts because of fan anger over their decision to sit their starters and not go for a perfect season. (Okay, I’m overstating the Colts’ disarray—but the main Colts fan website Stampede Blue is still steamed about it.)

The Danes can’t believe Beowulf’s confidence, and the grizzled warrior Unferth all but asks, “Who the hell do you think you are?” Beowulf, however, doesn’t back off in the slightest and gives back as good as he gets. Think of it as medieval trash talk (but without the 15-yard penalty for taunting):

The fact is, Unferth if you were truly
as keen or courageous as you claim to be
Grendel would never have got away with
such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king,
havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere.
But he knows he need never be in dread
of your blade making a mizzle of his blood
or of vengeance arriving ever from this quarter–
from the Victory-Shieldings, the shoulderers of the spear.
He knows he can trample down you Danes
to his heart’s content, humiliate and murder
without fear of reprisal. But he will find me different.
I will show him how Geats shape to kill
in the heat of battle.

Beowulf’s confident talk silences Unferth and buoys up his men. Coach Ryan’s talk, similarly, has inspired his team, and defensive back Kerry Rhodes talks openly about rattling legendary quarterback Peyton Manning. Ryan also has made believers of many experts and fans.

So it could be that Rex Ryan strides into the stronghold of the mighty Colts and emerges victorious.

But because I want a different result, I choose to draw different parallels. First of all, putting football aisde, New York City functions better as a superpower (which Denmark was in the 8th century) and Indianapolis as a tiny nation (Geatland had already been overrun by Sweeden by the time Beowulf was composed).

Furthermore, a number of things point to Ryan as Unferth and the monster Grendel rather than as Beowulf. Both Unferth and Grendel operate out of bluster and, as a result, using intimidation tactics. Grendel comes storming into the hall, clawing and biting, and seems ten feet tall. Warrior swords cannot stop him. Ryan, who has his own epic size, may be striving to come across just as ferociously.

But Beowulf, played by Peyton Manning, is up to the challenge. Beowulf’s strength is that he can remain cool in the face of dark energy and carve it up. When Unferth challenges him, he coolly looks him over and then delivers an effective putdown that silences him. When Grendel storms into the hall, Beowulf assesses the attack and then grabs him with a mighty grip.

Upon encountering this supreme confidence, the seemingly indomitable Grendel panics and tries to escape, finally wrenching himself free by leaving his arm in Beowulf’s grasp.

I’m hoping for a version of this in tomorrow’s game.  Manning, famous for his coolness under fire (he set a record for fourth-quarter comebacks this year), seems able to handle even the most furious of assaults. He not only escapes the blitzes that teams send against him but thrives on them. Sometimes he’ll take a series or two to size up a defense and then starts shredding it. As a result, his opponents start fall aparting, often making uncharacteristic mistakes.

I would say that rookie head coach Jim Caldwell has shown Beowulf qualities as well. A firestorm broke out when he decided to pull his starters from a meaningless game in which the Colts had a small lead. The Colts went on to lose, thereby losing out on their chance to have a perfect season.  People are still accusing themof spitting in the face of fans and football. The decision may have cost Caldwell Coach of the Year honors as well. But the former English major from Iowa kept his focus on what was important—getting to the Super Bowl—and his quiet sense of purpose has communicated itself to his players.

We will see who gets cast in which roles tomorrow. May the best epic hero win.

Previous posts about the Colts:

Romanticism, Classicism, and Football

Schadenfreude and the NFL

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One Comment

  1. Barbara
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    I have to admit that Beowulf was NOT what I was thinking of as I watched Peyton Manning yesterday but I agree with the comparison. Peyton exemplifies the cerebral side of a game that can descend into reflexive, instinctual violence (e.g. the late hit) and, usually, conquers via judgement and intense preparation. One of my favorite players to watch.

4 Trackbacks

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  2. By 2010 Sports, Seen through Literature on January 1, 2011 at 11:22 am

    [...] I compared Peyton Manning to Beowulf,  and I wrote an extended comic poem celebrating the Colts’ Super Bowl team. I looked at how their coach, a former English major, uses language to inspire the players.  When Manning went through a rough stretch this year, I compared him to Robert Frost’s ovenbird. [...]

  3. By Peyton Manning as Moby Dick?! on January 7, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    [...] started defeating some very good Ryan-coached defenses when Ryan was with the Baltimore Ravens, and he defeated him again last year when the two met in the conference championship [...]

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    [...] or Lose, Turn to Beowulf Quarterback Poems for Inspiration Football Doggerel in Praise of the Colts Manning as Beowulf, No Joy in Mudville Schadenfreude and the NFL Romanticism, Classicism and [...]


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