Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


But Beowulf fought on
July 26, 2011 6:17 AM   Subscribe

Each of us must face the monster down: Children's author Michael Morpurgo reads his essay for the Norwegian people.
posted by Mooseli (25 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Like the Irish and the Canadians, and others, they have carved out a place for themselves as the great peace-makers.



Very good article, but my sweater caught the corner of the coffee table on this sentence.

Not so sure about the former... could someone explain it to me?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 6:27 AM on July 26, 2011


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Army#Peacekeeping_Missions
posted by mdonley at 6:28 AM on July 26, 2011


This was good. But I think it's just as important to recognize the face of the monster in the mirror.
posted by likeso at 6:31 AM on July 26, 2011


I think that may be part of the point, actually - that even the best of societies cannot claim to be perfect, and that, instead of despairing, we should kind of band together and recognize what is good in our human connections. I thought Beowulf was a beautiful allegory, because he does spend his entire life fighting monsters and in the end is killed by one, but has remained the quintessential hero in Western literature for making things that much better in his semi-fictional world.
posted by Mooseli at 7:07 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yes; many have argued that, when read closely, Beowulf suggests that its hero is not far from being a monster himself, in many ways.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 7:17 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


The people of Norway must take strength from their mythology, says childrens' author Michael Morpurgo, in an essay written for the Today program me.

It would seem to me that the problem is that some people in Norway are taking too much strength from Norse mythology. The shooter may well have fancied himself a modern day Beowulf "fighting monsters" and saving his country as he murdered those people one by one.

The real question is how many people will see him as a quintessential hero?
posted by three blind mice at 7:18 AM on July 26, 2011


These are all very nice, but I'm sure we can handle our grief without escaping to romanticism, white-washing our current war politics and returning to nationalism.

Claiming that Norway has 'carved out a place for themselves as a great peace-maker' is downright offensive. It's offensive to the victims of the 500 bombs dropped by Norwegian hands onto Libya in the past months. As my friend is in the hospital struggling for survival after the bomb attack, I'm trying to imagine having this happening 500 times. In months. It's offensive to relatives of Afghanis killed by Norwegian triggers, all the while Norwegian soldiers are sticking their guns in the air, screaming as their officers inform them that they are the 'predators', and the Taliban the 'prey'. 'To Valhalla!'. It's offensive to the Pakistani drone attack victims, who have had their loved ones taken away by hellfire rockets propelled by Norwegian technology. The list goes on.

Our professional army is heavily into Norse mythology. So is Anders Behring Breivik. So was Vidkun Quisling. I'm not sure that's source from where we need to draw our inspiration after this tragedy.
posted by klue at 7:41 AM on July 26, 2011 [10 favorites]


Like the Irish and the Canadians, and others, they have carved out a place for themselves as the great peace-makers.

The above statement is a great example of modern mythology. Norway is currently a nation at war. It has been a very ambitious player in Libya. And Wikileaks provided some insight into their role in Afghanistan.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 7:43 AM on July 26, 2011


I wrote a paper once about how Beowulf was the ego and Grendel was the id. The reader was a superego, bringing his demands to the text. I'm not sure how good the paper was. That was a long time ago.

But yeah, this piece reminded me of all that. I think our hate--whether its object is the Tea Party, Washington, Muslims, anti-Muslims, hipsters, jocks, assholes, or whatever and whoever--could turn all of us into a Breivik if we don't keep it in check. Germany was the height of culture and intelligence in the 20s and 30s, and overnight it became a factory of hatred.
posted by jwhite1979 at 7:50 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm uneasy with falling back so readily on old worn tales of good versus evil. It's that kind of black and white thinking which enables both radical Islam and Islamophobia.

Brevik's actions make me tempted to believe in evil, too. But that's the easy way out. It's what he wants: another holy war between Christians and Muslims. I think extremists from both "sides" have more in common with each other than they realise.

I'm confident that Norway will respond with humanity and restraint. That means staying true to your values, even when the temptation is to abandon them and seek revenge.

To quote donnagirl from the other thread:
Norwegian cartoonist Øystein Runde:
"My bodily reaction was a sudden wish to have him torn apart by horses. But that is my feelings. Fear. Rage. Disgust. This rage for vengeance is not what makes us human. It is the victory of abstract thought, of faith, that makes us human. The faith that any human can be something different tomorrow than they are today..."
posted by Acey at 8:06 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Brevik's actions make me tempted to believe in evil, too. But that's the easy way out.

I get what you mean, but isn't evil a matter of definition? I think it's helpful to have words that describe the impulse to hurt and destroy things. I think it's wrong to personify evil as we tend to do with Hitler, McVeigh, and this Breivik guy, but that's not really the same as identifying the evil impulses within them.
posted by jwhite1979 at 8:13 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


These ancient folk tales have great wisdom for us today. They can remind us that even the most prosperous and openhearted people, living in a country where respect for human rights is a given, where all seems so well, are vulnerable to evil.

We cannot protect ourselves entirely. But we can be vigilant, particularly on behalf of our children. We can better prepare them. Let us not kid them. The monsters are out there, and they are not like Shrek, they are like Grendel. Each of us must face the monster down.

posted by infini at 8:17 AM on July 26, 2011


It would seem to me that the problem is that some people in Norway are taking too much strength from Norse mythology.

Beowulf was written by a Christian monk in England. Beowulf may have been historical, although we're probably better off assuming the story is, well, a story. It does have a lot of rousing good vs. evil stuff.

Mythology involves gods and such. Norse mythology has nothing to do with good and evil. I'd argue that dividing the world in to good and evil is really far more Christian than Germanic.

It is tempting to simply classify events and people as "good" or as "evil" and then move on, but that kind of black and white thinking is what led Breivik, a Christian, to decide all Muslims and all Norwegians who were not racist were evil and deserving of death.

To call Breivik evil is to buy in to his world view.

One way to read Beowulf (which is not a Norwegian story) is to admire how Beowulf does his duty, even when it results in his death. He uses his strength to kill a monster, takes a reasonable reward, ends up as a king then dies killing a dragon. He isn't perfect. He isn't evil. He's a flawed man who none the less lives his wyrd without complaint.

I don't think that is what Morpurgo meant, but it still isn't a bad way to pull strength from old stories.
posted by QIbHom at 8:30 AM on July 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


Reading through, it struck me that if we let these old sources of strength and courage and good examples go, what then is there to inspire man?
posted by infini at 8:35 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


jwhite1979: I just think that, as a word, evil is almost useless. It doesn't explain anything. It's a get-out. It shuts down the difficult examination that follows events like these and does little to help prevent them occuring again. I might even go so far as to say that labelling any person or group as evil actually makes it more likely to happen again, being as it fosters feelings of persecution amongst those labelled evil, and does not afford them an opportunity to change.

On preview, I agree with what you said, that a person can think evil thoughts and behave in evil ways. I just don't think it's useful to call a person or group of people evil. Kind of like the "what you said was racist" thing.
posted by Acey at 8:39 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I never cared much for Harry Potter but usually children's authors are given a pass on this stuff, well unless they're pushing the whole Christian soldier thing like C. S. Lewis. Doesn't "the monster" here refer to violent extremists? Isn't "face .. down" better than America's insane "War on .." terminology?

We need mythology whether we're protesting privatization, writing literature, breaking up monopolies, doing mathematics, or whatever, klue. You might be better off reclaiming yours instead of abandoning whatever your military touches. Isn't it true for example that the viking period brought Norway an enormous ethnic diversity relative to say Sweeden?

You know, mythology that's accepted as simply mythology, like the Norse gods & Beowult, has nowhere near the potential for inspiring real world evil isn as mythology that people still actively practice, like Christianity. Brevik was a Christian, not a Norse reconstructionist.

Isn't Michael Morpurgo British not Norwegian anyways?
posted by jeffburdges at 8:45 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


infini: Reading through, it struck me that if we let these old sources of strength and courage and good examples go, what then is there to inspire man?

How about the actions of real life heroes?
posted by Acey at 8:47 AM on July 26, 2011


One way to read Beowulf (which is not a Norwegian story) is to admire how Beowulf does his duty, even when it results in his death. He uses his strength to kill a monster, takes a reasonable reward, ends up as a king then dies killing a dragon. He isn't perfect. He isn't evil. He's a flawed man who none the less lives his wyrd without complaint.

But another way to read it is that Beowulf was so hungry for glory in battle that he insisted on going out to fight the dragon who defeated him even though he was really old. His men were all saying "no, we got this," but he insisted on suiting up. And it killed him. And without his leadership -- and without an heir, because he also was too busy fighting to spend time taking care of that -- his people were pretty much screwed.

So it strikes me that another way to read Beowulf is to say that "okay, yeah, fight the monsters when you have to - but also know when to stop fighting and take care of the rest of your life because too much warmongering could make things even worse."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:24 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I read this as "each of us must face the monster clown" which... is also true.
posted by eugenen at 11:01 AM on July 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


Our high school senior English teacher gave us a letter at the end of the year, right before graduation, entitled "All of the answers" -- full of the lessons and meanings he had wanted us to get out of the literature we'd read. The first bullet point was "Remember the courage of Beowulf when you are facing down your dragons." It still, still brings tears to my eyes to think of it. I've always imagined that dragon being all my fears, but I think that Morpurgo does well to say that there are real monsters, real scary things to face in the world.

EmpressCallipygos, I'd never thought about that reading before and I think it's a really good one. I seriously doubt it's the way the original storyteller or author intended it, since Beowulf to begin with is compared favorably with a good king; it seems like the authorial intent would be that Beowulf's death is a good death. However, I think your reading is pretty shrewd, and I'd be interested in reading a longer piece with that interpretation.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 12:56 PM on July 26, 2011


Each of us must face the monster down.

I prefer the Johnny Cash solution: "don't mention his name and his name will pass on."

A murderer acting under the influence of Pamela Geller and Dan Brown (a wannabe Knight Templar? Really?) does not merit our attention. Comfort the families of the victims and monitor the hate groups lurking in the shadows, but otherwise forget.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:14 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


QIbHom: Beowulf was written by a Christian monk in England. Beowulf may have been historical, although we're probably better off assuming the story is, well, a story. It does have a lot of rousing good vs. evil stuff.

Mythology involves gods and such. Norse mythology has nothing to do with good and evil. I'd argue that dividing the world in to good and evil is really far more Christian than Germanic.


Norse mythology was recorded and written down by Christians too. The Prose Edda, the oldest written source for myths,* was (almost certainly) composed by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet and politician of the 13th Century, who also wrote various other works of great power (it is known with certainty that he wrote the historical work Heimskringla and widely assumed that he wrote Egil's saga). It is difficult to assume that he didn't retell the myths using all his immense authorial skill to appeal to his Christian audience, consciously or unconsciously. The same goes for the unknown writer of the Poetic Edda, which is the other chief source for Norse myths.

Norse mythology as we know it is full of good vs. evil. The Æsir aren't perfect, but they're clearly the good guys. Loki is very Luciferian, and the Jötnar are very much demons, that the Æsir protect humanity from. Whether this was the case among the pre-Christian Norse themselves is very much up for debate, and people have tried to reconstruct what they think the original mythology would've been like, but the fact is that the myths we have are filtered through a medieval Christian viewpoint. This is not to downplay Norse myth. In fact, one of the reasons I find them interesting is that they're so strangely coherent, since such a large chunk of them came from just one author.

Sorry, I'll stop norsenerding here and get back on topic.

Nordic nationalists have used the popular image of Vikings and Norse myth to cast themselves as "true Nordics." I find it distasteful. Those nationalists either have a poor understanding of history and myth or they twist it consciously for their own racist uses. Thus appealing to medieval heroic texts has a bit of an iffy reputation in Nordic society. I'm sure that Michael Morpurgo had absolutely no knowledge of this aspect of Norwegian society and I understand and appreciate his impulse but he ventured into tricky semantic territory there.


* Confusingly, the Prose Edda is sometimes referred to as the Younger Edda and the Poetic Edda is sometimes referred to as the Elder Edda, despite having been written half a century or se after the Prose Edda. For this, like so much else that is wrong in this world, you can blame on poor philology.
posted by Kattullus at 1:20 PM on July 26, 2011


Thanks, star stuff -- but it's not my own interpretation, it's a friend's. He's been trying to adapt Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf for the stage for some years now, and while most of his adaptation also retains the He Was A Brave Hero message, it also has an element of "but he did have this one fatal flaw...."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:23 PM on July 26, 2011


Claiming that Norway has 'carved out a place for themselves as a great peace-maker' is downright offensive. It's offensive to the victims of the 500 bombs dropped by Norwegian hands onto Libya in the past months. As my friend is in the hospital struggling for survival after the bomb attack, I'm trying to imagine having this happening 500 times. In months. It's offensive to relatives of Afghanis killed by Norwegian triggers, all the while Norwegian soldiers are sticking their guns in the air, screaming as their officers inform them that they are the 'predators', and the Taliban the 'prey'.

After NATO increased restraint in Afghanistan in order to avoid civilian deaths in its own attacks, the total number of civilians killed went up dramatically.
posted by Anything at 4:42 PM on July 26, 2011


Katullus, I don't disagree about Snorri. I've been known to call him a "primary and a half" source, since I don't think he really counts as primary. We do have stuff written down much closer to heathen times, although one certainly has to be quite careful reading those sources, too.

I strongly disagree about your characterization of the Aesir as obvious good guys and of Loki as Luciferian. Odhin lies. A lot. He also cheats and steals. Loki never does either, although he's also pretty careful how he words things. I'd argue there is a lot more grey area around the Aesir and the Vanir than in nearly any other pantheon.

I very much agree with you about the inherent nastiness of Nordic nationalists using Norse myth and fantasy-novel quality visions of the Vikings to support their racism. When I first heard of the bombing and shootings, I muttered, "Hope this wasn't Asatruar."

I doubt Christians had that reaction.
posted by QIbHom at 10:59 AM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older These days, the term Movable Type is more likely t...  |  Stitches From the Soul: Elizab... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments