Living with Doom and Foreboding

Why Me, Beowulf?

At a time when I was feeling morose for a variety of nameless reasons buried deep within me, I took to reading Beowulf, not just once, but dozens of times, clear through. I bought an early translation by Chittering and a later one by Heaney. I studied relevant archeology books and even gave a lecture on the poem to a group of retirees at Oregon State University. 

People wondered why. A man in the audience asked, “Why are people still translating and reading this poem?”  My literary friend Anne asked, “Peter, are you still reading Beowulf?”  Here was my answer to both. 

“I feel comforted and calmed and reassured by the worldview presented in the poem, namely, doom and foreboding.”

Where did those gloomy feelings come from? I grew up with them. 

My father was seriously ill from the time I was seven, but when asked by his old friends how he was, he was always cheerful.  “Oh, hell, I should have died long ago.”  

My sister, who turned thirteen at the start of World War II, listened to war news every day at school and was prescient about impending disaster. She would hunch her shoulders, screw up her face, and say, “Pete, I just hate it when I feel this way.” When an unexpected death or plane crash or some other satisfying disaster occurred, she would feel relieved.

My mother did her best to concentrate on the cheerful and beautiful moments of daily life. It must have been hard for her.

Now, when I read lines of doom and foreboding in Beowulf, I know that all is right with the world, and  IT, whatever IT is, will happen!

A page from the Beowulf manuscript.

(The Beowulf manuscript translation by Seamus Heany.) 

The hall towered,   

Its gables wide and high and awaiting

A barbarous burning. That doom abided,

But in time it would come.

now he felt secure   

In the vaults of his barrow; but his trust was unavailing.

His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain;   

Furthermore, I enjoy relating Beowulf to religion. Are we today Heathens or Christians? Beowulf suggests that we are both. Originally a spoken poem around 600 AD, Beowulf was probably written down by a Christian monk around 800 AD.  The poem intermixes the Anglo-Saxon concept of WYRD or FATE with the Christian concept of GOD. Either way, IT is out of our hands.

We are in GOD’s hands,

Whichever one death fells   

Must deem it a just judgment by God

or those of FATE,

Fate goes ever as fate must.   

or both.

So may a man not marked by fate   

Easily escape exile and woe

By the grace of God.

I can also relate Beowulf to today’s politics. 

Political leaders have their flaws. 

the forthright Unferth,   

admired by all for his mind and courage

although under a cloud for killing his brothers,

We are called to duty. 

So every man should act,   

Be at hand when needed

We are justified in attacking our enemies, 

I have suffered extremes   

And avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it

Upon themselves, I devastated them).

and that is a good thing to do.

Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better   

To avenge dear ones than to indulge in morning.

Finally, it is a damn fine story with many exciting passages.  A HERO (think of the Lone Ranger and John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger rolled into one) battles a MONSTER (think of Sasquatch looming through the dark rainy forest of the northwest coast range,) the MONSTER’S MOTHER (think of a giant squid, leagues under the sea,) and finally a DRAGON (think of Smaug guarding his gold in the caverns of the dwarves.)

Lines from the final battle –

Then he gave a shout. The lord of the Geats    

Unburdened his breast and broke out

In a storm of anger. Under grey stone

His voice challenged and resounded clearly.

Hate was ignited. The hoard-guard recognized

A human voice, the time was over

For peace and parleying. There was a rumble under ground.

Down there in the barrow, Beowulf the warrior

Lifted his shield: the outlandish thing

Writhed and convulsed and vehemently

Turned on the king, whose keen-edged sword

An heirloom inherited by ancient right,

Was already in his hand. Roused to a fury

Each antagonist struck terror in the other.

The hero’s last words –

Fate swept us away,   

sent my whole brave high-born clan

to their final doom. Now I must follow them.

IT has happened. I know that I can now rest easy.

So, there we have it ­– a personally appealing worldview, insight into contemporary American culture, and a grand adventure story – all in one. That’s why, Beowulf.

Incidentally, I am loosening up. Beowulf does not speak to me today as he did a few years back. Writing, journaling, meditation, acceptance, and participating with grief support groups have all helped me lighten up.  Writing my journals,  particularly Small Steps toward Transforming Grief, has been a major part of my healing process, my learning to accept the realities of life and change my behavior from dysfunctional gloom to useful activity. I have become less concerned about doom and more concerned about staying upright and useful until IT overtakes me. 

“The final stage of healing is using what
happens to you to help other people.”

—Gloria Steinem