Beowulf, Boxing, and Shame Culture

The past few days have been good for people who like literature: A translation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s "Beowulf" is about to be published.

Here is the link to the New Yorker article, one among many now out there:

Now, I’m not a fan of Tolkien, generally speaking. I read The Lord Of The Rings as a teenager, and then promptly forgot it. I was, make no mistake, an avid fan of the genre, then loosely referred to a "fantasy" or "sword and sorcery," but I found the Lord Of The Rings a bit adolescent. I preferred Fritz Lieber, or Lord Dunsany.

No matter; I discovered in time that Tolkien was a significant scholar. And,independently, I discovered Beowulf. And Tolkien’s translation was apparently not intended by him to be published, but one of his descendents has decided to do that anyway.

Now, Beowulf is a spectacular piece of work. For one thing, it’s mysterious. Written in the perhaps the 8th century A.D., and damaged by at some point in its history and miraculously surviving, it’s a tale, written in that strange language of Old English, of a Scandinavian hero, Beowulf of Geatland (now part of southern Sweden; being Swedish myself, that certainly enhanced the attraction), who defeats a horrible monster for Hrothgar, the king of Denmark. This monster is Grendel. Actually, he then defeats another horrible monster, namely Grendel’s mother, who apparently loved her son even though he was tearing people into pieces and swallowing those "gobbets" of flesh and bone. And then 50 years later, when he’s 80 years old, he defeats another horrible monster. This one was a dragon. He defeats it, but is mortally wounded, and dies.

The work is strange, in several ways. First, it’s written in a style that reminds me vaguely of Icelandic sagas like Njal’s Saga, in the sense that it seems so impersonal. But Njal’s Saga is a multigenerational story where you follow various stories of individual people and then everybody dies at the end. But in Beowulf, the hero shows up at Heorot, the Danish king’s wooden hall, defeats the monster, sails off with what’s left of his men; and then, 50 years later, fights another monster. Beowulf seems weirdly disjointed, to me.

Second, the work seems to teeter on the doorway between paganism and Christianity, as if the author or authors were trying to make that same decision for themselves. For instance, the monster, Grendel, is described and explained as being a descendent of Cain. This is something for another discussion, but it argues in favor of the poem being set down in the early years of the Christianisation of Scandinavia.

Third, there are scholars who believe that the wildly and fantastic events in Beowulf were probably based on some kind of actual event; not the monsters, of course. But something happened back then, which became a tale, probably told orally for many generations, and then finally was written down. And archaeological discoveries have shown that, like some of the details of Homer’s Iliad, at least some of Beowulf was grounded in reality. Something happened that inspired the work. What, I don’t know.

So, who cares? Well, besides me, and others who are enamored of literature (I have a piece on Stoicism and boxing in the works), I was thinking of all those people who follow, are members of, or who otherwise believe in "shame" culture as opposed to "guilt" culture. This is a distinction in traditional anthropology, and even if it’s outdated, I think it’s illuminating.

Let’s take the second one first. "Guilt" culture is a frame of mind in which, at bottom. you are wrong. You’ve offended your friends, your parents, God, whatever, and it’s your own damned fault. No Passing the buck. Judeo-Christian tradition is exactly this. Whenever something horrible happens, or something goes wrong, the first question is "What did I do to deserve this?"

A "shame" culture is very different; that’s when you say "you did X to me, motherf*cker, and now I’m going to make you pay." You could, I think, call it "honor" culture, or "revenge" culture. This is the world that Beowulf lived in, and Homer, and Hector, and Achilles lived in. Maybe it’s a warrior culture; I don’t know.

But who among us has never felt the need of revenge, and a redress?

I think that this is what boxing feeds on.

I think boxers live in that shame culture. In fact, as I write this, maybe both cultures exist in us, side-by-side, each exerting its influence as our impulses demand, because there are no "cultures" in this delineated sense, but only human nature.

Sometimes we feel guilty; sometimes we want to avenge our honor.

Anyway, if you are interested in Beowulf, you can try the Heaney edition mentioned in the link I posted, although I don’t particularly care for it myself. I prefer the very handy Penguin Classics prose translation by David Wright, or the Chickering translation.

But here’s a great two-evening of reading project: First, read Beowulf. Then read Crichton’s The Eaters of the Dead (this book has a fairly interesting historic background; the inspiration, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, actually existed, and wrote a partial account of his travels with Vikings).. Then, read John Gardner’s Grendel. Three different perspectives on the same story. There’s also John Grigsby’s very scholarly analysis The Truth Behind England’s Oldest Legend: Beowulf & Grendel.

And then, if you’re a glutton for punishment, watch the Antonio Bananas movie "The Thirteenth Warrior," based on the Crichton book. The "Beowulf" character is pretty convincing. The rest of the movie is fun, but, honestly, is pretty crappy.

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