Beowulf and Grendel

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jul 21, 2006 | Categories: Lesbian in a Catholic Sort of Way

This week I had the joy, the privilege, really, to hear Benjamin Bagby perform the epic poem, Beowulf, at the Lincoln Center Festival. It is the way I most enjoy hearing a good story told–improvised by the teller so that it is created, not recited. The subtle nuances of voice and gesture are as much a part of the story as the outline of the tale. Priests that are good homilists do much the same thing–they entertain as well as enlighten. They invite us to partake in a shared heritage in which we already know the story, but in revealing a new detail or subtle twist, the story becomes new in each retelling.

I also enjoyed the fusion of Christian and heathen in this thousand year old Anglo-Saxon poem. I enjoyed it, because it speaks to me of what I am–heathen and Christian in blood and bone, memory and archetype. Christianity rooted well in Europe because it co-opted the legends, the sacred places, seasonal celebrations, folk beliefs and the values and ideals of the heathen populace. Wisely, Christianity adapted to people it wished to win over.

The story of Beowulf and Grendel can be heard on many levels: the battle between descendents of Cain and Abel; terror and courage, good and evil, and finally, the complex interplay of all these things and more. The dark shadows, the demons that glide along the wall can be felt and feared as much now as in the early 11th century when the poem was first set down. We fear and despise the monster, Grendel, but also feel an unwilling compassion as well. He attacks the Heorot, the royal hall, because in his loneliness he cannot bear the sound of human gaiety.

Like Beowulf, each listener needs to decide how to met Grendel. Abandon the hall? Plot to kill with our bare hands? Let others act for us? How do we handle our impulses to hurt what we resent? And how can we avoid killing something we fear?

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