Friday, January 10, 2014

Beowulf's Tales of Glory

I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, where the streets are weird. No kidding. Really weird. In St. Louis, it’s possible to be traveling west, and then turn right to go south. (Looking at the map right now, I can’t find the intersection where this actually happened to me once, but I do note that South Big Bend Blvd. is at the northern end of Big Bend Blvd.) St. Louis also used to have a road named after a street: Olive Street Road. On top of it all, in my suburb of Florissant, most throughways changed names several times, while on the other hand, three different streets bore the name of Florissant Road. I used to wonder: if they could come up with three perfectly good names for one road, why couldn’t they come up with three perfectly good names for three roads?

The names in Beowulf remind me of those streets in Florissant, Missouri. Many times I don’t know who I’m reading about because the author uses (or authors use) a nickname or a descriptive moniker or just a cryptic reference to “the one.” Too many names for the same person. On the other hand, the reader comes across a character named Beowulf on the first page that has nothing to do with the rest of the story. Confusing.

Reading Beowulf is a strange experience in other ways, too. I end up thinking back on it and enjoy all my memories: defeating Grendel by holding his arm until it rips off, diving into the mere to battle Grendel’s mother with I-know-not-what method for breathing underwater or holding breath, a barrow treasure with a curse, an epic battle with a dragon. I love that kind of thing. But going through Beowulf’s unfamiliar narrative style with its sparsity of descriptive details requires effort and doesn’t exactly seem fun at the time.

As a result, I find my mind wandering a lot when I read this epic, and this time through I thought a lot about tales of glory. The poem, itself a tale of glory, includes scenes in which warriors regale each other with tales of glory. Sure, the story of monsters and dragons puts a thin veil over a culture of bloodthirsty, marauding berserkers. But they do model and inspire courage in the face of daunting circumstances.

And that got me thinking about the stories my family passed down. My grandpa used to tell me a story of his own grandfather swimming across some river during the Civil War. Was it inspiring? I don’t know. I think my Great-Great-G was trying to get away from a battle, so maybe it inspires that better part of valor. Then there’s Charlie Cain, the neighbor from my dad’s little country town who woke up friends in the middle of the night to play cards, and who once dropped his plow in the middle of a furrow to join an expedition to California just to see, he said, if his corn would “make” without any further work. It always made me laugh, but is it a tale of glory? I used to hear about a great uncle who supposedly saved his brother’s life by plunging a knife into his side to relieve the pressure from a ruptured appendix. That one definitely has never encouraged me to perform major surgery with a kitchen utensil.

I’ve told my kids these stories, of course, because that’s what families do with stories. But we have others that I should remember to tell. How about my grandpa moving twice and taking on any work he could find to get his family through the Depression? How about my uncle who served in the Navy in World War II? How about my dad, who earned the money to become the first in his family to go to college? Or was he second? See, I don’t know, because my family hasn’t told these tales of glory enough.

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