Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.
Slaying dragons is costly. In much of the western hemisphere the ultimate metaphor for the perils that await humanity in a world imperfectly understood, dragons were the bane of the medieval imagination. And earlier. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible and were stock creatures in the bestiaries of the Mesopotamian imagination. And, of course, it is a dragon that causes Beowulf’s fall. Almost a type of a latter-day Gilgamesh, Beowulf likewise holds an early, if non-negotiable place in the western canon. In this month’s Atlantic, James Parker discusses the dynamic of this pre-Christian poem in our post-Christian context. Specifically he addresses how modern renditions, perhaps inadvertently, Christianize the story. A popular subject for movies and graphic novels, Beowulf is a monster-hunting story that begs for baptism.
The story itself is familiar to most alumni of American high schools. Perhaps before we’re ready to be exposed to Old English, we find ourselves assigned a story of drinking, rage, and violence. Make no mistake—Beowulf is a hero. A deliverer like the judges of old. Grendel, after all, is the spawn of Cain, the evil seed that continues into a moody world of stygian nights and dismal swamps. Parker’s brief article demonstrates the reception history of the poem nicely. It also raises the question of what’s going on when heroes fight monsters. When the Christian imagery that’s deeply embedded in our culture comes to play Beowulf can’t help but become a Christian monster slayer just as Grendel becomes the enemy of God. All of this may be quite unintentional. What we see, however, isn’t imaginary. That’s the way reception history works.
Parker suggests that, although Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem, the cosmic order laid out in the tale is a Christian one. Even today in a post-Christian America it’s vital to understand how important religion remains. It’s not so much that churches are overflowing (unless they’re mega-churches stating that you can get rich by attending) as it is a recognition that centuries of Christian identity can’t help but leave their mark on culture. We see crosses in the handles of swords. Or even in the grid patterns laid out in city streets. Telephone poles. What’s so remarkable is that we see such things naturally and think nothing of it as we go on our secular way. There may be monsters out there. What may not be so obvious is that in slaying them we’re engaging in a religious activity as old as Gilgamesh, if not as obvious as a crucifix held up to a vampire in the present day.
Posted in Bible, Books, Britannia, Classical Mythology, Literature, Monsters, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Atlantic magazine, Beowulf, Christianity, Dragon, Gilgamesh, Grendel, James Parker, Monsters, reception history
While reading about Cyrus Scofield recently—and that book has stayed on and played with my mind for some reason—I ran across the conferences that he held in preparing his famous reference Bible. Although he claimed the sobriquet “Doctor,” placing D.D. after his name, like many a self-puffer Scofield has no university that will support the claim. (It’s amazing how many high-level CEOs and “important” businessmen pad their résumés with false degrees. Even some government wannabes do it, and then they want to defund education after they get into office.) Perhaps because he had no seminary training, and likely didn’t even graduate from college, Scofield might’ve felt a sense of insecurity when it came to a very large book originally written in languages he couldn’t read. There’s a reason “King James Only” Christians exist. In any case, he set up meetings in a couple of conspicuous places to go over his work. One of those places was Grove City College.
Now, like many small, Christian colleges, Grove City isn’t widely known. Most of the student population—at least when I was there—was fairly local. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, for the most part. Still on the (admittedly rare) occasion when someone asks me where I went for my undergraduate work, they generally haven’t heard of Grove City at all. Even though I spent four years of my life there, I had no idea about the Scofield connection until I read Joseph Canfield’s book. That’s because not all Fundamentalists grow up with Scofield. I’m sure I heard about the Scofield Reference Bible but I didn’t own one and I wondered what the big fuss was all about. After all, the annotations were the work of a man, and I was interested in the words of God. Far more popular was the revision of Scofield known as the Ryrie Study Bible, but I never read that either.
The end result is that many people think that Scofield’s words are “the Bible.” As I used to tell my students, binding pages together within a book makes a statement. If you’re saying “this is the word of God” and part of “this” is Scofield’s annotations, most people can’t distinguish between text and commentary. I eventually acquired a Scofield Bible, not for valid information, but simply for information. I was amazed at how poorly executed it was. Nevertheless, a true believer reading through the first chapters of 1 Chronicles is ready to accept even minimal narrative as divine. So it is that many Americans have come to believe in a Bible that’s not biblical. Religion is full of paradoxes and in this case I’d shared sleeping quarters with one in my more formative years although the connection was unknown at the time.
Posted in Bible, Bibliolatry, Higher Education, Memoirs, Posts, Sects
Tagged Cyrus Scofield, Fundamentalism, Grove City College, King James Version, Pennsylvania, Ryrie Study Bible, Scofield Reference Bible
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the ancient documents still widely recognized, at least by name. Many introductions to literature, or the western canon, refer to it. It is, in some senses of the phrase, the world’s first classic. I’ve read Gilgamesh enough times not to know how many times it’s been. During my doctoral days I was focusing on the literature of neighboring Syria (long before it was called “Syria”). As an aside, Syria seems to have gotten its name from the fact that non-semitic visitors had trouble saying “Assyria” (which was the empire that ruled Syria at the time). Leaving off the initial vowel (which was actually a consonant in Semitic languages) they gave us the name of a country that never existed. In as far as Syria was a “country” it was known as “Aram” by the locals. Back to the topic at hand:
Although the story of Gilgamesh may be timeless, translations continue to appear. It won’t surprise my regular readers that I’m a few behind. I finally got around to Maureen Gallery Kovacs’ translation, titled simply The Epic of Gilgamesh. Updating myself where matters stood in the late 1980s, it was nevertheless good to come back to the tale. For those of you whose Lit 101 could use a little refreshing, Gilgamesh was a Mesopotamian king who oppressed his people. (And this was well before 2017.) The gods sent a wild man named Enkidu as a kind of distraction from his naughty behaviors. In an early example of a bromance, the two go off to kill monsters together, bonding as only heroes can. They do, however, offend the gods since hubris seems to be the lot of human rulers, and Enkidu must die. Forlorn about seeing a maggot fall out of his dead friend’s nose, Gilgamesh goes to find the survivor of the flood, Utnapishtim, to find out how to live forever. He learns he can’t and the epic concludes with a sadder but wiser king.
The fear of death is ancient and is perhaps the greatest curse of consciousness. When people sat down to start writing, one of the first topics they addressed was precisely this. Gilgamesh is still missing some bits (that may have improved since the last millennium, of course) but enough remains to see that it was and is a story that means something to mere mortals. Ancient stories, as we discovered beginning the century before mine, had long been addressing the existential crises of being human. Thus it was, and so it remains. No wonder Gilgamesh is called the first classic. If only all rulers would seek the truth so ardently.
One of the hidden benefits of the coming societal collapse is the chance for the resurgence of print books. Since I’ve spent most of my life surrounding myself with volumes thick and thin, dense and light, I’ll have plenty to read between bouts of skulking out for food like a feral cat and clawing off those who follow me home, thinking that it’s edible stuff I’m stockpiling. Won’t they be surprised to learn it’s only books! My wife sent me an Atlas Obscura story the other day about book curses. The description of the life of a medieval scribe sounded oddly compelling to me—hunched all day over a writing desk, copying books by hand. Not having to worry about catching the bus before sunrise or being too tired to answer your personal email in the evening. The point of the piece, however, was the book curses.
I’ve been an avid reader since moving to a small town where the main occupation of kids my age was recreational drug use. I was one of the very few who didn’t inhale. Reading became my escape from the loneliness I felt. And I used to lend books to people who’d ask me. I quickly learned that others didn’t share the same care for books that I had. Lent books seldom made their way back to me. We were poor and there were no bookstores nearby and Amazon wasn’t even a meme in Jeff Bezos’ eye yet. Replacing books wasn’t easy. Once I lent out a book I’d already read (but you couldn’t tell it, I’d been so careful). The borrower actually did return it, but the spine was all creased and cracked so that you couldn’t even read the title anymore. I soon began to regard books like those medieval monks who put curses on them so nobody would steal them. I stopped lending them out.
The thing I’m banking on is that books will retain their barter value when society implodes. Of all possible universes only in that one will I be considered wealthy. Those who visit our little apartment inevitably comment on the number of books. What they don’t realize is that there’s a strategy involved here. Like those medieval monks, I have a suspicion that knowledge—including facts that don’t have alternatives—will one day in our dystopian future be valued above all the tweets and lies Washington seems to suggest we follow blindly. And blindness will make a great curse, now that I think about it, to protect these books from being stolen. Or “anathema-maranatha,” as my medieval mentors used to say. Or as Sarah Laskow ends her piece, “May whoever steals or alienates this book, or mutilates it, be cut off from the body of the church and held as a thing accursed.” Maybe this isn’t so strange for a guy whose first academic appointment was at a school that reminds many of The Name of the Rose. (Which was the last book I lent out, for the record.)
Posted in Books, Current Events, Just for Fun, Posts, Sects
Tagged Amazon, Atlas Obscura, Books, libraries, monks, Sarah Laskow, The Name of the Rose