Beowulf – “Heroes Under Heaven”

Garrett muses on the Christian elements of ‘Beowulf’ a poem both striking and simple.

“Alone in the history of the “epic,” Beowulf takes place in the “real,” tangible, recognizable world. Not in Heaven, Albion, or Middle Earth. That, in fact, is part of the point of Beowulf. Its author(s) want us to see its setting and characters and situations as real, as actually happening. And yet the magic is there – in Grendel, in Beowulf himself – in the capacity to find a redeeming reply to a superhuman evil, a transcendent answer to the void.” – Stephen R. Donaldsen, Epic Fantasy and the Modern World.

What does a 9th-century English poem have to tell us about the Faith?

A while back I wrote two articles musing on two terms used in fiction – ‘epic’ and ‘fantasy’, and how we may be able to use these concepts to understand and articulate our own spiritual journeys and struggles. In his essay quoted above, Donaldsen also outlines the history and development of the English epic. As all the examples he gives – the anonymously written Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and lastly, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings – are born of the Western Christian tradition, I think it will be fruitful to go through these epics individually and see what lessons we can draw from them.

I do recommend reading my two earlier articles first, but if you’d prefer to go ahead and read this article first, here’s a summary of the two concepts I’m basing this article on: fantasy refers to a form of fiction where the characters inner struggles (anger, desire for power, etc.) are presented as externalised evils to be overcome (e.g. The Dark Lord, The Evil Organization, etc.). By overcoming (or failing to overcome) the external evil, the protagonist is truly attempting to overcome their own failings and weaknesses. Epic writing, on the other hand, is concerned with the big questions of life: What are we put on this world for? How should we live our lives? These two concepts do overlap somewhat and are often tackled together.

So armed with that bit of info, let’s take a look at the first of the epics – The Beowulf.

Summary

Strip the Beowulf poem of its references to other historical events and side details, and it is a refreshingly simple tale of good versus evil, with very clear-cut good guys and bad guys. The plot goes as follows:

A terrible creature named Grendel, a descendant of Cain (yes, that Cain) terrorizes the mead-hall of the King of Denmark. Hearing of this, the warrior Beowulf of Geatland (modern-day Sweden) sets off with his companions in order to save the Danes from this threat. On the night of his arrival, Beowulf boasts that he will not use weapons or armor in his battle with Grendel, trusting in both his strength and in God’s providence to carry him to victory.

That night, Beowulf lies in wait for Grendel when the beast enters the mead-hall. With his superior strength, he overpowers the monster and tears off its arm, leaving Grendel to run away and die. Though he is celebrated as a hero, that very night the mead-hall comes under attack again, and the Danes realize that they have drawn the wrath of a more terrible creature: Grendel’s Mother.

Beowulf again volunteers to slay the creature. This time he must enter the creature’s underwater lair in order to slay it, and when he engages Grendel’s Mother in combat, the magic sword that he brought with him, Hrunting, proves ineffective. When all seems lost, Beowulf spies another magic sword lying in the lair and uses it to slay Grendel’s Mother.

Having saved Denmark from these threats, Beowulf returns home to Geatland, and in time he becomes a great and mighty king in his own right. One day, a dragon awakens and terrorizes his people. Beowulf goes to face the dragon, but all his men save one are too scared to follow him. He slays the dragon, but dies in the process. The narrative thus ends with Beowulf’s funeral and a call for other heroes to rise up and take his place.

Spiritual Awareness

“Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,

Nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him

To hear the din of the loud banquet

Every day in the hall, the harp being struck

And the clear song of a skilled poet

Telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,

How the Almighty had made the earth”

– Beowulf, lines 86-92

While the Beowulf poem tells of wild and fantastical things such as monster-slaying, the story uses actual historical figures and settings as a backdrop for its events. This actually caused a lot of head-scratching among critics, who didn’t know what to make of this pseudo-historical element of the text. Critics would continue to be confused until an Oxford don, one Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, provided a satisfying explanation:

“The monsters had been the foes of the gods, the captains of men, and within Time the monsters would win. […] Now the heroic figures, the men of old, [heroes under heaven], remained and still fought on until defeat. For the monsters do not depart, whether the gods go or come. A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics

Tolkien argued that the inclusion of this fantastic tale in a historical setting made it very clear that there is a supernatural element to real life that is in many ways more important than dead historical kings. The poet who wrote Beowulf was trying to negotiate an understanding between the old pagan ways of thinking and the new Christian Faith they had received. In the old Nordic beliefs, the gods eventually would lose and be slain by their enemies, leading to the end of the world. The poet thus saw a connection between this and the ability of evil in the Christian worldview to triumph at least temporarily – perhaps he called to mind the suffering of Christ on the Cross. This can be seen in the poems description of some of the Danes who relapse into their old pagan practices:

“Oh, cursed is he

Who in time of trouble had to thrust his soul

In the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help;

He has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he

Who after death can approach the Lord

And find friendship in the Father’s embrace.”

– Beowulf

We can see that the poet builds on the old belief of Ragnarok – though defeat might happen now, there is hope of a final victory. This would in turn inform Tolkien’s own rather grim yet hopeful worldview, but we’ll get to that when we cover The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien also noted that in the Beowulf poem, the word that we translate as ‘Lord’, as in referring to God, is more accurately rendered ‘Captain’ or ‘Chieftain’. The author of Beowulf thus paints a picture of spiritual warfare, where men and women must choose to side with their Captain in facing evil as represented by the monsters, whether that evil lurks out in the physical world or in the hearts of men.

Reliance on God’s Grace

“And the Geat placed complete trust

In his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor.

He began to remove his iron breast-mail,

took off the helmet and handed his attendant

The patterned sword, a smith’s masterpiece” – Beowulf

With an awareness of spiritual warfare must also come a trust in God’s grace. Beowulf’s decision to face Grendel bare-handed may come across to some like the boasting of an arrogant braggart, but it also shows his trust that God will help him overcome his trials, and that God’s help is better than any of the formidable weapons and armor he has brought with him. Rather than trust in these arms, Beowulf seems to be obeying the words of Saint Paul:

“That is why you must rely on God’s armour, or you will not be able to put up any resistance when the worst happens, or have enough resources to hold your ground.” – Ephesians 6:13

Beowulf shows that to fight and win in spiritual battles, one must rely on and cooperate with God. He moves with the Holy Spirit, which is, as we shall see when we look at Paradise Lost, an element sorely missing from Milton’s opus and which renders his human characters rather one-dimensional and lacking in agency.

When we move with God, we find ourselves more empowered to deal with life’s struggles. It is not through our own strengths or possessions that we overcome our inner demons, but only by God’s grace do we receive healing.

Conclusion

At the time of this writing, I find myself with a lot of things to ponder and contemplate about. Having made more friends from different walks of life, I find myself a little overwhelmed at just how much moral relativism has seeped into the life of the average person, and how I may be speaking a completely different moral language than another person. And just as Grendel was maddened by the sound of harps, my new friends sometimes shake their heads at my ‘quaint Catholic beliefs’ on matters like chastity and other moral issues.

That is why I feel that the Beowulf story speaks to me. The narrative trusts in God’s greater plan, and moves from that trust to make a call for a life of heroic virtue here on Earth, in order to build God’s kingdom where we are. Whenever I feel lost or confused, I like to think back to this poem, and it’s call for me to be, as Tolkien put it, also a ‘Hero under Heaven’.

A Letter to Saint Francis of Assisi

Garrett writes a letter to Francis of Assisi, his patron saint.

Dear Francis of Assisi,

Greetings, my patron saint! I believe this letter is long overdue. We’ve already had a long and interesting correspondence across the span of 800 years (and my comparatively shorter 25 years). You’ve definitely had a very strong influence in shaping my faith when I was younger, and your example continues to inspire me in various ways.

I think my first encounter with you was as a teenager reading Carlo Carretto’s fantastic book I, Francis. In this book, Carretto addressed the reader with your voice, giving an introduction to your life and thought. What I really took away from reading that book was your joy and appreciation for God’s other creations. At the time, I was struggling a lot with the question of how to make people see the beauty of the faith when it seemed as if no one was interested or had other things preoccupying their time. Thus, when I read your story, and learned about how you were so willing to be a fool for Christ in order to get people to pay attention and hopefully open their eyes to consider higher things. So when it was time to pick a confirmation name, for me the obvious choice was, of course, Francis.

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将临故事中的客栈店主

可彬于此文章,分享将临故事中客栈店主的角色,试问我们是否有时也以客栈店主的身份对待圣家三口。

“他们在那里的时候,她分娩的日期满了,便生了她的头胎男儿,用襁褓裹起,放在马槽里,因为在客栈中为他们没有地方。”(路2:6-7)

我常想,当若瑟从客栈店主口中得知那里“没有地方”容纳他与身怀六甲的聘妻时,究竟有何感受?行路数日、历经坎坷的若瑟,必然气愤心烦,无比失望。我猜想,他甚至慌张失措。他有后备计划吗?夫妻俩总不能露宿街头吧?那怀有身孕的玛利亚呢?这样的生理状态下,仍要长途跋涉,肯定使她疲惫不堪,痛苦不已。听到一句“没有地方”,她是否也一时不能自己,无助痛哭?不知若瑟与玛利亚可曾感到消极、绝望?有时想想,也不禁感慨:我们熟悉的将临故事——那充满欢腾、盛满喜乐、灌满消费主义的故事——竟源于一次冷漠的拒绝。回首望之,倘若客栈掌柜知道自己拒绝的是圣家三口,他是否会腾出空间,让耶稣、玛利亚和若瑟三人入住?

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修直道路

Greg反思圣若翰洗者呼吁我们“修直道路”之意,从而发现自己有时误将“道路”视为“终点”。

有一个呼声喊说:
“你们要在旷野中预备上主的道路,
在荒原中为我们的天主修平一条大路!”(依40:3)

将临期的福音中,我们常听见圣若翰洗者准备迎接耶稣的使命。这个使命即是依撒意亚先知所预言,且圣若翰洗者所重申的这一点:

“我是在旷野里呼喊者的声音:修直上主的道路罢!”
(若1:23)

将临期提醒我们要在心灵之中为上主修直道路,好为祂的圣诞做准备。教会教导我们,修直道路的方法有好多:阅读圣经,尤其反思将临期的读经;检讨良心,在心中为耶稣腾出空间;深入祈祷,加深与天主的感情,等等。我想,这些都是准备迎来将临期的好方法。对我而言,此文章实属自我告诫:重要的不是道路,而是耶稣。

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Thanksgiving

Before coming to the United States of America (USA), Thanksgiving didn’t mean much to me. While I caught glimpses of this holiday in American sitcoms, my understanding of it remained at that: distant and apathetic. My impression of Thanksgiving was limited to stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, mash potatoes and sweet corn – delicious yet highly superficial. Similar to some of the holidays in Singapore, Thanksgiving was an occasion synonymous with good food and merry-making. Yet, akin to an increasingly commercialized Christmas, there has got to be something deeper and more meaningful to Thanksgiving right?

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Ministry and Theory of Mind

Garrett talks about the Theory of Mind and how it can help us understand the spiritual journeys of ourselves and others.

One piece of advice I will never forget receiving from my Spiritual Director is this: in ministry, you must learn to speak the language of the heart. This means learning to empathize with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and identifying with their struggles and hopes. Being a more bookish and studious sort of guy, I must admit this changed the way that I approached my ministry. When before I looked to form ideas from high concepts to improve the institution or society as a whole, I started again from the ground up, having casual conversations that eventually led to a deeper sharing of lives, which in turn helped me gain a deeper understanding of the universal struggles of the human condition. I realized how crucial it was to understand the hearts of my fellow members of community, and how easy it was, as a leader, to become out of touch with the average member’s spiritual needs.

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Poem: Dining in the Desert

In this special post, the three of us come together in a collaborative effort to weave our individual searches for Jesus together into a poem.

A/N: Blessed Wednesday everyone! To round off Odes to October month, Chris, Greg and I thought we would try writing a poem together. After giving it some thought, I struck upon the idea of modeling the poem after a Japanese collaborative style of poetry called “renga”. 

You may notice that Greg’s first three lines take the form of the famous “haiku” – the three line, 17-syllable Japanese poem. A renga consists of a series of haikus linked together by a couplet – two lines of 7 syllables each. I thought the structured form of this poem would both impose healthy creative limitations (the challenge was to sum up the state of our current spiritual lives in a haiku), and aid some of us who had grave (and unfounded) doubts about our poetic abilities (*cough*Greg*cough*).

So over a long video call across various time zones, the three of us spent a light-hearted three hours listening to each others journeys and trying to fit our spiritual lives into 17 syllables, as well as finding ways to express where our spiritual lives overlapped, mainly in our combined desire to search for Jesus. Do let us know your thoughts on social media or if you ever wish to try a similar exercise with your community or loved ones. We hope you enjoy the read!

– Garrett

Greg:

I walk the desert 

Relishing in a mirage 

More real than the rain 

Garrett:

Truth reveals reality 

Turning desert to summer; 

Lazy summer’s day 

Seeker puts his satchel down 

To hear the Lord’s words: 

Chris:

“Why search for answers outside? 

Can you find rest in me, child?” 

New yet familiar 

I cook a meal for Jesus 

I am loved; He smiles. 

Greg:

My meal and His Eucharist 

We dine together and live 

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Gregory Adrian Gunawan
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Christopher Chok