This evening I’d like to share what I like about reading literature from the medieval past.
First, reading broadly can prevent the tendency to reduce people in other times and other cultures to sweeping generalizations and broad stereotypes, which are dehumanizing. Dirty, bawdy riddles; personal, heart-rending elegies; psychedelic religious visions; gory and glorious epics… These were all a part of Anglo-Saxon literary culture—a culture with just as much emotional range as my own.
Reading broadly also helps me see my own past differently. In college “The Dream of the Rood” had struck me with how it laid bare a human sacrifice at the heart of a religion I had grown up, rather unthinkingly, with. The familiar became strange.
Of course it’s also fun to explore themes across time and space. We can consider the Anglo-Saxon’s poetic advice that men eager for fame “bind fast their breast-coffers,” (hold in emotions), and discuss whether we have such expectations of masculinity here and now in our own world. In high school, students use Beowulf to ask “what makes a good hero? A good king? A good leader?” And I wonder why, from Beowulf to Game of Thrones, we still fantasize about dragons.
But what interests me these days about Beowulf is how it navigates the role of an individual required to live in community.
I may feel alone and may feel urges that are sometimes pathological or anti-social—to lie, cheat, inflate my ego, take from the earth and others without even thinking about giving back, to break things without repairing or growing anything. And yet in the poem, this larger-than-life Beowulf and his unquenchable thirst for glory is channeled into socially beneficial acts (saving people from demons.*).
Which makes me see anew my own daily life and the ways I react to someone or something extraordinary—how I judge the boastful, or am jealous of the awesome. And how it is sometimes difficult for me to feel amazing, or simply safe, at home in the world. In what ways am I complicit in reducing the awesomeness of others and myself?
Similarly, when I read about the elaborate gift-giving ceremonies in the poem, where good deeds are rewarded with physical, material objects that are valuable in themselves but carry additional value by the stories they tell—the stories embedded in their history—I see in a new light my own embarrassment about receiving gifts or getting payment for a good deed.
Sometimes, for me, gift-giving can be an awkward time of guilt and obligation, of embarrassment around exchanging objects as tokens of love and appreciation.
But other times I feel joy and anticipation when I know I’ve found something “perfect” for someone I care about and when I receive something obviously very thoughtful from a beloved. Sometimes, when receiving a gift, I’ve felt really seen and known, which has brought deep gratitude and a sense of belonging, of intimacy.
There’s a lot about the Middle Ages I don’t want to go back to. But when I read Beowulf, I long for more ways we can mutually support one another in our awesomeness. I appreciate how we can tell our stories and become linked to another person through material goods (rather than being in competition for them).
So, I can read Beowulf to learn more about the past; to escape into a fantasy world; to practice analysis and critical reading skills. But I can also empathize with and come to embody the values of this mythical world, which at first seemed strange but has become familiar through contemplative reading.
And I can then return to my world seeing what was familiar in a new way. I can be transformed by my visit to the past. And that’s what I think a great gift of reading about the past is. We can return transformed with the potential to transform. It can make the familiar unfamiliar, which is the start of love—seeing something we’ve always seen as though we’ve never seen it before. It keeps me enchanted with the world!
*Yes– saving “people” from “demons” is problematic for notions of Otherness. But that’s for a different posting!