Being Beowulf

words wind their way into the blood and change attitudes, syllable by syllable, drip by drip. And it’s been this way since once upon the very first time.

The first page of ‘Beowulf’ in Cotton Vitellius (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The first page of ‘Beowulf’ in Cotton Vitellius
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1994, US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the Kremlin Accords, promising to pull preprogrammed nuclear missiles from aiming at each other’s countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina sizzled as ceasefires were made and smashed. “Schindler’s List” won seven Oscars. In Africa there was good news and bad: The Rwandan genocide began just before Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first democratic president. And in 1994 Brad Fraser’s “Poor Super Man – A Play with Captions” opened at the Hampstead Theatre in London.
The captions in question were beamed onto a strip of ticker tape, stuck to the back of the stage, where the tortured thoughts of the characters were tapped out in letterset. A young wife asks her husband if he loves her still; “Yes! Yes!! YES,” he earnestly replies. All the while white letters are forming on the wall spelling out what he cannot yet articulate: “No! No!! NO.” It was a totally new concept, and utterly compelling; nearly 25 years later I remember every scene.
I’d been married then about 10 years and our three daughters were still very small; my husband and I dashed to the theater one night on a whim, without doing any homework. The premise of the play is simple: artist Ian, whose muse has withdrawn, decides to moonlight incognito as a waiter in a restaurant run by newlywed Matt and Violet (whose earnest endeavors in bed are terrible to watch). The groundbreaking explicit stage sex of any conceivable type was unforgettably edgy – a description would get me fired from this magazine on the spot. But it was all too sad, and too ironic to be sexy; most of the horizontal action was simply hard work.
Ian the artist is gay, in an age where gay men were dying by the day from AIDS. Manager Matt is fiercely homophobic, until he inevitably falls hard for his new worker. With a black, deathly ill HIV-positive transsexual desperate to raise funds for an operation to transition, and a bitchy woman columnist writing reviews that aren’t 100% accurate, the play packs an inordinate amount into two hours (including a dizzying amount of stripping and redressing and stripping again with someone else). It was the most incredible show I’ve ever seen, and the message was inescapable and utterly persuasive: inside every straight man is a gay one just longing to get out.
This was 1994; AIDS was raging and Gay Pride hadn’t really hit the West End or Broadway yet. It was the first time I’d ever really considered the merits of same-sex cuddling; we hadn’t discussed it much at home. At the intermission, over the ubiquitous vanilla ice cream served in little carton cups, I turned to my very handsome husband. “Darling,” I said, in all seriousness. “If you had the guts, would you prefer to be gay?”
Martin raised a pitying eyebrow. “And you call yourself a literature teacher?” he asked. “Can’t you see you’re being manipulated? Don’t you recognize that this is propaganda?”
In the rush of relief I realized that my husband was right (again). No, I hadn’t realized that I was being manipulated, or that I was watching propaganda. That is the power of plays: they take your brains and shape them, wrapping them round new ideas and making them your own. That’s literature’s literal purpose: to inculcate novel ideas.
That’s why words are what the Miri Regevs and the Netanyahus of the world fear so dreadfully: words wind their way into the blood and change attitudes, syllable by syllable, drip by drip. And it’s been this way since once upon the very first time.
Take “Beowulf.”
The first piece of literature that we have in (Old) English is a long, loooong poem first composed somewhere around the eighth century, transcribed into a manuscript some 200 years later, and only entitled “Beowulf” in 1805, around 1,000 years after it was first composed. For two centuries the 3,182 lines, all 43 fits (sections) of them, were memorized by a singer of tales; this scop chanted his lays and lullabies in noble households on his beat, accompanied by the pings and plunks of his lyre.
“Lo! We have heard many a lay / Of the Spear-Danes fame, their splendor of old / Their mighty princes, and martial deeds!” the singer would begin, as the mesmerized family gathered around a massive log fire. Out poured the molten poetry in all its alliterative glory; the noun-phrases striking deep into Old English hearts.
“Spear-Danes” – a two-word noun phrase known as a kenning – is a metaphor for mighty fighters; Danes, the pairing implies, knew well how to wield a weapon. The poem is packed with these lovely images: a “whale-road” is the sea.
“Beowulf” extols heroism and fighting the good fight. In an age where Christianity was just beginning to take hold in Britain, the poem moves the audience to feel both the power and glory of God, as well as the transience of life itself. Beowulf, the Geat hero-warrior-king who, by himself, delivers his neighbors from Grendel the Dragon and then from Grendel’s vengeful mom, knows that in the end fate will grab him from behind. Yet while he is still young and virile he easily dispenses with the demon grim, the wretched wight who “bore the curse of Cain / Whereby God punished the grievous guilt of Abel’s murder.”
Good men, the message goes, need not fear marauding monsters and menacing trolls and goblins and giants who battled with God; in the end grimly He will show them who’s boss. Beowulf does great God’s bidding, crossing the whale road to come to the aid of Hrothgar, the Danish King, whose castle was nightly the scene of terrible slaughter as Grendel chomped on warriors galore. When the fiend comes stealing through the shades of enshrouding night for the last time hero B is waiting, and Grendel is not fated to glut his greed. Although he does manage to tear a sleeping thane in pieces, bite through his bones and gulp his blood before gobbling the flesh and greedily gorging on the lifeless corpse, Beowulf springs up to stop the carnage singlehandedly. After an epic struggle, sinews snap and bone joints break, and Baruch Hashem, Beowulf gains the glory of battle.
Fifty years on, after a glorious reign, B is older and weaker, but as wise as ever. But despite his stalwart leadership, demons just don’t all die; in his old-age, Beowulf tackles the mother of all Dragons and is finally slain, although he takes the dreadful dragon with him to the couch of death. Beowulf dies proclaiming that it is only right that he follow his kinsmen to their final doom; he is gratified that he has gone down fighting. “No one can stay his soul upon earth, / Nor one whit alter the will of God. / The Lord ruled over the lives of men / As He rules them still.”
The epic, early Christian poem stirs young men to action; fight for what is right, right until the final doom. Believe in the glory of God. Human heroism and human life are always transitory; the menacing dark creeps ever nearer. But monsters catapult straight into hell, without passing Go and without collecting 200 dollars. Heroes and good guys swing up to God.
This is the very beginning of British literature and it’s lucky we have it; the only extant copy, now in the British Museum, was seriously scorched in a library fire in 1731. The poem was only finally transcribed in 1787.
From when Beowulf first topped the chanting charts, it was clear: he who holds the pen has the power. Today breaking news suggests that Sara Netanyahu may have dictated Walla News content; centuries ago it was the same. Medieval drama was devised by the Church, and the message was uniformly predictable: spinning the facts in a favorable manner. The plays embodied stories from the Bible, clarifying the mysteries of faith. The earliest plays were even called Mystery Plays and they reinforced the message of the Clergy: first came Creation and then the Fall, followed by Redemption and Judgement.
The plays were performed on roofed platforms on wheels; there was a certain amount of playfulness. Adam and Eve cavorted behind a waist-high wall to hide their nakedness from early modern eyes and the snake was sewn into the kind of covering that Marilyn Monroe wore to sing “Happy Birthday Mr. President.” But while Mystery Plays simply dramatized Bible stories, a new kind of drama that was much more didactic soon became wildly popular.
Morality Plays showcased the conflict between good and evil. They addressed each individual Christian in the audience. “Listen up!” an actor commands. Take care before you die. Hell is murky, and it’s waiting for you.
“Everyman,” written in about 1485, is one very scary play. Out of a clear blue sky on a fine English country morning, Death comes to Everyman and summons him to an eternal journey – an offer he is unable to refuse. Everyman is shattered; he is not ready to die. He is terrified of going alone, and beyond terrified that his spiritual WAZE is not directing him heavenwards.
It’s not that Everyman is wholly bad; he’s certainly rich, but there is no evidence that he has stolen, or cheated on his taxes, or taken bribes. It’s just that he really, really, really loves his gold, and he’d like to take it with him. Sadly, and unlike the Egyptians who buried their treasures with their bones to use in the next world, Christianity is not so kind. The gold refuses to go along for the ride; even if it did, God would never accept a bribe. Everyman’s kinsmen are reluctant refuseniks, his friends run a mile, and even his five wits desert him. Beauty fades “as a flower in May,” eyes film over, the brain switches off.
All that remains, the play insists, are good deeds. Good deeds count on the Heavenly scales, and pave your way to salvation; especially if they involve paying money to the Church. But Everyman’s pitiful acts of piety are “cold in the ground”; his sins hath them “sore bound.”
What to do?
The answer is beautifully simple. Penance is first; repent for ever wanting that penthouse by a lake. Get rid of your Cartier rings, hand over your portfolio of Teva shares (if they’re still worth anything). Scourge yourself with a whip (or get a helpful Priest to beat you up), and then quick-sticks get rid of your goods, preferably by handing them over to the charity of the Church.
Everyman happily smashes himself on the back, donates his cash as fast as he can, and in return receives Communion and Extreme Unction. Whew! When he finally enters the grave (together with his saintly, revived Good Deeds) an Angel meets and greets him and zips him off to Jesus.
It’s easy to imagine the response to a clerical whip-around after the performance. Wouldn’t anyone be fervently relieved to drop golden goods into a priestly cap if that would stop God’s stern Ite, maledicti, in ignem aeternum. (“Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.”)
It’s powerful stuff.
What we read, and what we see, shapes our views. Of course it does. We glimpse unflattering angles of celebrity necklines online, we start to snigger. We read about corruption, and too much champagne, and our synapses snap. So it’s so much safer for the powerful to control the media. Literature disturbs the general equilibrium; words wake us up.
Modern man has to be vigilant about what he reads, and the plays he sees. Many years after the “Super Man” spectacular, I went to another West End play. In “Pride,” the husband of an illustrator for a gay author’s books falls for his wife’s boss, again charting a man’s tortured separation from a spouse to find sexual and spiritual liberation with another man. By now that story line was hackneyed, but something else popped into the play. There’s a scene, right in the middle of an intensely emotional outpouring, when one of the lovers tells another he has just come home from Israel.
Yes, that’s right – in the middle of discussing how to leave his wife, the hero, who has not been seen to pack a passport, or take a holiday at any point, says in passing that he’s been to the Holy Land. “And I met a Gazan woman there,” he continues, “with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen.”
“You would have sad eyes too, if you were a Gazan,” says his companion, “… and what should we do now about telling your wife?”
The hot topic in British theater has changed. Hearts and minds are swaying again. Many of us, of course, hate this message, and want it stopped. So is censorship the answer – ban that with which we disagree? Who should wield the snipping scissors? Should that which offends sensibilities be wiped off the public stage?
Isn’t that what Literature lives for? Chaucer, and Shakespeare too, were well aware of watching eyes. Watch this space to see how they disseminated their dissent.
And aren’t we glad they did?
Dr. Pamela Peled lectures at the IDC and Beit