Like most of us, I remember exactly where I was and I what I was doing on this day seventeen years ago. I was lecturing on Beowulf. Whether I was just introducing the poem or whether we had actually begun Grendel’s attack upon Heorot, I do not remember. What I do remember (to my shame) is giving the unknown student who interrupted my class a you’re-a-very-daring-person look before he informed me the university was closing because of attacks on New York City and that, as our building was located right behind the Massachusetts State House, we were to evacuate immediately.
Beyond a rather stunned injunction for everyone to be safe and leave campus immediately as directed, I do not remember a word I said to the class. The silence with which they vanished in a matter of seconds was memorable even if my words were not. Rather than fight the crowds on the abysmal Green Line, I wound my way down the oddly empty side streets of Beacon Hill to the Church of the Advent to give the madness of the subways an hour or two before going home. Where other people may have a memory of crowds and chaos, I have a memory of being alone and feeling oddly solitary on the city streets. There may have been people. There must have been people, but I remember feeling as if the city had been deserted.
For the next hour or so, I sat quietly mulling in the quiet of Church of the Advent. After asking the heavens what the world was coming to (and receiving no definitive answer), I alternated between reading Psalms from the bible in the pew in front of me and Beowulf I had with me in my satchel. Aside from the fact that there’s nothing like translation for clearing one’s head, life seemed a strange echo of art at that moment.
Item 1: A hall ruled by Hrothgar, king of the Danes; a hall in which the great men of their world boast and make plans; a hall in which these great men decide amongst themselves how their world shall go because they have the power to bend it to their wills and make it so.
Þa wæs Hroðgare heresped gyfen,
wiges weorðmynd, þæt him his winemagas
georne hyrdon, oðð þæt seo geogoð geweox,
magodriht micel. Him on mod bearn
þæt healreced hatan wolde,
medoærn micel, men gewyrcean
þonne yldo bearn æfre gefrunon,
ond þær on innan eall gedælan
geongum ond ealdum, swylc him god sealde,
buton folcscare ond feorum gumena.
Ða ic wide gefrægn weorc gebannan
manigre mægþe geond þisne middangeard,
healærna mæst; scop him Heort naman
se þe his wordes geweald wide hæfde.
He beot ne aleh, beagas dælde,
sinc æt symle. Sele hlifade,
heah ond horngeap. (ll. 64-82a)
Thereafter was fortune in war vouchsafed to Hrothgar, and glory in battle, that the vassals of his kindred hearkened willingly unto him and the numbers of his young warriors grew to a mighty company of men. Then it came into his heart that he would command men to fashion a hall and a mansion, a mightier house for their mead-drinking than the children of men had ever known, and there-within would he apportion all things to young and old such as God had granted him, save the people’s land and the lives of men.
Then have I heard that far and wide to many a kindred on this middle-earth was that work proclaimed, the adorning of that dwelling of men… the greatest of houses and halls. For it he devised the name Heorot, even he whose word far and wide was law. His vow he belied not, the rings he dealt and treasure at the feast. The hall towered high with horned gables wide…. (from J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. Mariner Books; Reprint edition. 2015, p. 14)
Item 2: An outsider, a monster, uncivilized by the standards of these men, a son of Cain and thus cursed with all his kin; a creature to whom the sounds of rejoicing in the hall were torment.
Ða se ellengæst earfoðlice
þrage geþolode, se þe in þystrum bad,
þæt he dogora gehwam dream gehyrde
hludne in healle; þær wæs hearpan sweg,
swutol sang scopes. Sægde se þe cuþe
frumsceaft fira feorran reccan,
cwæð þæt se ælmihtiga eorðan worhte,
wlitebeorhtne wang, swa wæter bebugeð,
gesette sigehreþig sunnan ond monan
leoman to leohte landbuendum
ond gefrætwade foldan sceatas
leomum ond leafum, lif eac gesceop
cynna gehwylcum þara ðe cwice hwyrfaþ. (ll. 86-98)
Then the fierce spirit that abode in darkness grievously endured a time of torment, in that day after day he heard the din of revelry echoing in the hall. There was the sound of harp and clear singing of the minstrel; there spake he that had knowledge to unfold from far-off days the beginning of men, telling how the Almighty wrought the earth, a vale of bright loveliness that the waters encircle; how triumphant He set the radiance of the sun and moon as light for the dwellers in the lands, and adorned the regions of the world with boughs and with leaves, life too he devised for every kind that moves and lives. (ibid, pp 15-16.)
There is, of course, much debate over Grendel’s malice and motivations. Any number of readings turn the poem inside and out and on its head, and yet, while I resist as anachronistic and inauthentic readings that romanticize or excuse Grendel, the poem’s representation of the attack on Heorot requires that the dynamics of power and “civilization” be included in the analysis of this deep enmity. Did Grendel chose the path of mearcstapa (l. 103. haunter of the marches/waste borderlands), or did rejection by men condemn him to occupy this precarious edge along society’s boundaries? How much (if any) responsibility do the men of Heorot bear for the ire of the creature that comes against them with a malice so determined that it seems to have been refined in fire?
I will not belabor the analogies, such as they are, to the modern context of the U.S. as a superpower. I will add only the confession that when we returned to class the next week, these were connections that I did not, for better or for worse, have the stomach or courage to make directly. The immediate aftermath of such a tragedy did not seem the place to do so. Now, the remembrance of those next classes is for me filled with a lingering sense of my own moral cowardice, as if I failed both the poem and my class.