Epics of Humanity

The Epic of Gilgamesh survived only by being buried. Its survival is perhaps less surprising than its discovery after having been lost for many centuries. Reading Andrew George’s translation of the tale reminded me of reading Beowulf. Not only are the two of them hero tales, they are both “sole survivors” in the sense that they define the literature of their respective eras in a way no other text does. Yes, there are other Mesopotamian epics, but Gilgamesh, it was immediately recognized, deals with existential issues in a way that’s thoroughly modern. It is set apart from other ancient literature for that singular achievement. Fear of death leads Gilgamesh to amazing feats even if it only ends in a yad wa-shem. We can feel for Gilgamesh. Although he’s a king, he has to face the demise common to all people, and the language used to express his emotions is touching even today.

Beowulf, while singular in a way Gilgamesh isn’t, also leaves the reader wondering what is left of life if not some kind of fame. Beowulf may defeat Grendel, but the dragon mortally wounds him. If his tale had not survived in the back of an old book we wouldn’t be discussing him still today. How narrow that gap between fame and obscurity turns out to be. For the vast majority of us obscurity awaits since few can be recognized by the many. Like Gilgamesh or Beowulf, we know the consciousness inside this head and we feel that somehow we have a purpose. It takes daily life to drive that out of a normal person. The hero, however, refuses to let the odds win. There’s a profound hope here, in these narratives of denying the final fear the final say. In George’s edition the inclusion of other Gilgamesh tales outside the epic texts reinforces that point repeatedly.

Humans are meaning seekers by nature. Some simply accept the illusion of apparent reality and ask for little besides. Others cannot rest knowing that there is more to be understood, or, in the parlance of outmoded means of expression, to be conquered. When life says “Enough,” Gilgamesh refuses to acquiesce until his options run out. For many centuries his story was set to be lost forever. Latter-day restless minds, however, dug in the dirt until something truly extraordinary was discovered there, free for the interpreting. So it is that heroes come from nothingness. Many return to obscurity. Those that are found and venerated experience a resurrection the envy of many a god. Speaking to strangers across millennia is indeed immortality, even for those whose lives must end like all others.

Crossing Beowulf

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.

For Love of English

One of my most frequent imaginary dalliances is wondering what I would have done with my life if I hadn’t been raised religious. Like many young boys I found “exciting” jobs enticing—soldier, firefighter, explorer—but scientist also loomed large in my imaginary horizon. By the time I was a teen I was firmly ensconced in books. My upbringing meant that many of these books were religious in nature, and my concern with ultimate consequences meant religion was the only possible career track to make any sense. It certainly never made dollars. As someone who professionally looks backwards, I’ve found myself wondering if I shouldn’t have focused on English rather than Hebrew and Ugaritic as a career. After all, the Bible has been available in English for centuries now. Besides that, the canon is larger—from Beowulf to Bible and beyond. Reading is, after all, fundamental.

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

I only discovered BookRiot recently, and that through the mediation of my wife. For the writer of a blog I really don’t spend that much time online outside of work. I like real books, and being outdoors. Too much time staring at a screen brings me down. Nevertheless, BookRiot has stories that cause me to question my career choices from time to time. For instance, I have never knowingly heard of The Exeter Book. Dating to the tenth century, this medieval manuscript is among the earliest of English writings. Showing the interests of the monk who likely inscribed it, it has religiously themed material and riddles. As E. H. Kern’s post on BookRiot points out, The Exeter Book has inspired many later writers and has, through them, made its way into mainstream popular culture. Not bad for a book that I suspect many, like myself, have never heard of.

Old English has the same kind of draw as other ancient languages. Not nearly as dusty as ancient Semitic tongues, it contains the roots to the form of expression I find most familiar. I love looking back at the Old English of Beowulf and spotting the points where my native language has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries. Modern English even begrudgingly owes a considerable debt to the Bible of King James. Our language is our spiritual heritage. We have trouble expressing our deepest thoughts without it. Perhaps had BookRiot existed when I was young, I might have made a rather more informed decision about the direction of my career. Or, then again, religion might have found me nevertheless. From some things there is just no hiding.

Creating English

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

The seventeenth century was a portentous time for the English language. Well, I suppose every day is portentous in some way, but in the year 1611 the King James translation of the Bible was published, and it still has considerable staying power in the English-speaking world. Quotes from it show up regularly among the modern media with many readers (and likely a few writers) having no idea of the origins of the phrases they use. Just five years after the King James Version made its debut, William Shakespeare died. Many languages can point to formative individuals or literatures that codified their forms of expression. In English the honor is shared by the forty-seven translators of the KJV and William Shakespeare. This four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is set to be a year of celebration among Anglophiles worldwide. We will gladly acknowledge that the words we write and speak owe much to the Bard and his lasting influence that still has high school students griping all the way through English class their senior year. I have read a Shakespeare play or two that I was never assigned in school, as many come to do. This year, among my reading goals, is at least one more of the works I’ve never read.

As with the text of the Bible, there is doubt about some of Shakespeare’s plays. Scholars scrutinize. (That’s what we’re supposed to do.) And scrutiny raises doubts. The seventeenth century was a time of generally acknowledged authorship. Some great English epics, such as Beowulf, have no author we can cite by name. Over time, however, quality came to be associated with the person who produced the literature. Even today a name often sells a book far more readily than the contents do. Some of Shakespeare’s plays may not go back to William himself, but the English language wouldn’t be the same without them, in any case. We are heirs to this legacy. Spelling began to be standardized. Grammatical expressions were codified. Classic stories predating Shakespeare became endlessly replicated and copied by those who know there’s no replacing an original.

A story on NPR notes that the First Folio—the first bound copy of all of Shakespeare’s plays—is being sent around the country this year by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Each state will host the first edition during the course of the year. The article by Susan Stamberg notes that this folio is the literary equivalent of the Holy Grail. Shakespeare is nearly as canonical as the biblical canon itself. Even if the Bard’s authorship is in doubt, it is still holy writ. Those of us who’ve spent considerable time with religious texts recognize the hagiography readily. No, these aren’t signed editions. Some of the work may have been done by someone else. Nevertheless, four centuries ago, through a combination of Bible and what we would today call “fiction,” the English language as we know it, was itself becoming canonical.

Grendel’s Gods

GrendelGardnerSometimes I think that if I had to do it all over again, I might’ve chosen Beowulf instead of the Bible. Let me define “it” here: if I had to pick a vocation that would lead to personal fulfillment and personal penury, that is. Beowulf is the earliest written story in English and, it’s a monster story. What’s not to like? In honor of Banned Book Week, I decided retroactively to read a banned title, John Gardner’s Grendel. An early parallel novel narrated from Grendel’s point of view, we are introduced to the introspective, existentialist monster who is really just wondering, like the rest of us, what the point of it all is. Not surprisingly, the protagonist often addresses the question of religion—indeed, it might even be at the heart of the story.

In chapter nine, Grendel sits in the darkness in the ring of wooden gods of the Danes when Ork, the great, blind priest stumbles in and believes the monster is the Destroyer god. As Grendel toys with his theology, the old priest understands this all as a revelation, and although Grendel gives him no answers, the words are taken as divine utterances. The other priests, finding their leader out on a winter’s night, insist that he has gone senile, that gods do not reveal themselves like that. The old man, however, is unshakeable in his faith. As in much of the novel, there is more going on here than meets the eye. The deluded priest believes a monster is his god.

The question of theodicy (literally, the judging, or justification of God) is never-ending for theists. The world is a problematic place (made so, I must note, by human consciousness) for the creation of an omnipotent deity who is good. Too much suffering, Grendel, too many failed expectations. Clergy and theologians have, for centuries, tried to frame a convincing answer to the dilemma. The tack they all studiously avoid is that God is a monster, although some posit that as a straw hypothesis quickly to be knocked down. Gardner, although not a theologian, was the son of a lay preacher and farmer. One suspects that elements of that childhood crawled out through the pond with Grendel. One of the truly tragic characters, a “son of Cain,” Grendel still has an immense power on the imagination. And that power, at times, might even appear godlike.

Friday the Sixth

I tend to run behind on the movie front.  In some cases, decades behind.  I have never been a fan of slashers, although I did take a date to A Nightmare on Elm Street in the staid, dry town of Grove City while in college.  We broke up shortly after.  Still, I have a soft spot for “the classics,” and Friday the 13th has spun enough sequels to qualify.  “Jason” is a household name for the heartless serial killer, and the movie is set in New Jersey.  And it was hot outside and lazing on the couch trying not to stick to myself seemed about as much of a challenge as I could handle. Besides, a week from today is Friday the thirteenth. Now that I’ve finished with the excuses, here is a declarative sentence: I finally got around to watching Friday the 13th.  After many other films I’ve seen, I have to say that it didn’t really qualify as scary.  You know in advance that the counselors, by rote, must by killed in what are supposed to be shocking ways.  Shadowy corners and rainy woods and aluminum canoes are to be avoided, if the movie and its successors have taught us anything.  Nevertheless, the religion and scary film equation still applies.  And a strange kind of throwback to an unexpected classic (the literal kind).

The religious element comes in the form of the stock crazy local named Ralph.  Ralph warns the kids that they will die and says he’s been sent by God to warn them.  Of course they don’t listen.  If they had, there would have been no movie. As a child I was always offended by the caricature of the religious crazy, but I have come to see that this stock character is itself a symbol of fear.  Although ubiquitously laughed off, the person passionately driven by religion is indeed a potential danger to society.  In the days of my innocence we had little hard data upon which to hang such fears.  In the post-9/11 world it seems there are far too many sky-hooks for that purpose. Some of those sky-hooks are a little closer to the ground, but they inspire fear nonetheless. I’ve known all along that one of the reasons I watch scary movies is to give myself some advance warning of what might go wrong.  Not that it would help in any real way, but sometimes avoiding the shock by anticipating the worst seems like the only human thing to do.

What about the literal classic that I mentioned? Beowulf falls outside the Greco-Roman period, but is clearly a classic of English literature.  (Spoiler alert for anyone even more behind the times than me—) The only thing scarier than Grendel was, of course, Grendel’s mom.  So in Friday the 13th, the killing is done by Jason’s mom.  Like Grendel, Jason dwells underwater and surfaces to pull down his victim(s).  Like Grendel’s mother, Jason’s mother is decapitated by a sword (actually, a machete in the modern version), on the shore of the Crystal Lake.  After the mother’s death the child (Jason/Grendel) is resurrected.  Whether it was intentional or not, there is a lot going on here. The sacrificial mother is an inherently religious theme although many formal religions make it a male prerogative. The death of the mother brings the son back to life.  I wonder how Christianity might have differed if instead of three male deities, there had been a divine mother.  In such cases resurrection of the son comes only at a very steep price. Just like watching Friday the 13th on a hot summer night.

Cain’s Dilemma

As I tweet the Bible into cyberspace, Cain strikes me as a most misunderstood character. Mercilessly portrayed as an ungrateful boor, the first vegetable farmer in folklore is demonized as the father of all sinners. Genesis, however, is impossibly vague on Cain’s crime. A close reading of Genesis 4 indicates that Cain was the first human being to offer a sacrifice to a higher power. Being a tiller of the soil, that sacrifice was of the fibrous kind, bereft of any fat or blood. The divine nose (metaphorically) is turned up at this attempt at pacification. In steps Abel with his bloody slaughter of animals and God is well pleased. Traditionally, Christian readers have attributed Cain’s evil intent toward Abel as jealousy. Genesis doesn’t seem to bear this out. “But unto Cain and to his offering he [the Lord] had not respect.” Cain was not jealous, but “wroth.”

Much later in time Paul of Tarsus will tell fledgling Christians that God is “no respecter of persons.” Still, in that first moment of divine favoritism, prior to any explicit instruction being given, we catch a glimpse of the future of this nascent religious movement. Even today, the literalists tell us, God expects something from us. What, exactly, differs from interpreter to interpreter. Cain’s crime was simply being human. Even more poignant in this case is the fact that the divine allowance for consuming meat has not yet been made. Abel raises animals for God’s appetite while Cain raises vegetables for human consumption. No sentient being is harmed in Cain’s offering. Abel, one might say, is the first killer in human history.

We all know the story. Cain will rise up against his brother and slay him. He will then receive a prototype of the mark of the beast and scamper off to rustle up a wife somehow. All this before the third natural born human being, Seth, is even conceived. Beowulf will reflect Cain’s dilemma centuries later, as Grendel is the spawn of the first murderer. The descendents of Cain are routinely demonized while the children of Seth repeat the cycle of divine favoritism over again. Here is Cain’s problem: God will like whom God will like. The rest cannot earn divine favor. The bloody consequences of this reading of history continue to play themselves out even today. Those who need divine approbation will go to any lengths to feel special, while all of us, the true heirs of Cain, have to work it out as best we can under silent skies.