There be dragons!

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Article by Katherine Kersten

Great article, again, by Katherine Kersten. I am reminded both of the old Anglo-Saxon insistence on remaining stalwart even in defeat. At the Battle of Maldon, immortalized in a mere fragment of poetry, the idea is expressed beautifully by Brythwold, the Saxon. Surveying the corpses of his brothers and father and seeing the imminent destruction of the Saxons by the raiding Vikings he says:
“Thought must be the harder, heart the keenerSpirit shall be more - as our might lessens.”
The Saxons contributed this vision to the Western world, as Tolkien points out in a great essay on Beowulf. Nowhere else exists such a substantial resistance to the power of despair in the face of defeat.
Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon poem which we teach in the 9th grade, also expresses the sentiment. Faced with inevitable death at the hands of the troll, Grendel, many of the Danes have succumbed to despair, abandoned Christianity and begun worshipping again the dark, bloodthirsty pagan gods. One such despairing man is Unferth whose despair has led him vicious attacks against nobility in others, envy of the courageous, and eventual murder of the king’s sons entrusted to his care. Beowulf defies Unferth, defeats Grendel and Grendel’s ugly mother. Even in his old age, enfeebled and weary, when other men thought of retirement by the fireside, Beowulf faces a dragon that threatens his country. He defeats the dragon, but only at the cost of his own life. As he lies dying he passes on the reign of kingship to the youth, Wiglaf, the only man who has remained by his side when others have fled.

"I would fain bestow on son of mine/this gear of war, were given me now/that any heir should after me come/of my proper blood. This people I ruled/fifty winters. No folk-king was there,/none at all, of the neighboring clans/who war would wage me with 'warriors'-friends'1/and threat me with horrors. At home I bided/what fate might come, and I cared for mine own;/feuds I sought not, nor falsely swore/ever on oath. For all these things,/though fatally wounded, fain am I!/From the Ruler-of-Man no wrath shall seize me,/when life from my frame must flee

This refusal to give in to the despairing vision of a hopeless future populated with cowardly citizens seems to embody that Anglo-Saxon toughness.
Tolkien adopts this theme in his great work of the Lord of the Rings and gives the theme a more Christian element. Frodo, as he stands on the cracks of Mount Orodruin, is unable to throw the ring into the fire. He refuses to complete the task given him and ultimately fails in the spiritual fight set forth for him. I have come.
"But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine."
He despairs, and takes action (the wrong action) to stave off that despair. It takes a struggle with Gollum, who defeats Frodo and bites off the finger with the ring, to complete the quest by stumbling and falling into the fire with the ring clutched in his hand. Tolkien saw that in the Christian vision everyone fails. There is no such thing as a successful Christian. Not that Christians can’t have good jobs, good families, happiness in life, but rather that the struggle, the Great Struggle in which Christians find themselves is a struggle which no amount of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps can win. We will ultimately fail. Christianity, Tolkien witnessed, proclaims that such failure is possible to endure and live through.
The young men on Lynch’s soccer team certainly faced no physical trolls, dragons or fiery chasms, but they faced that fiery chasm of the heart/mind of which Hopkins says:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.
If, then, the young men on that team suffering those defeats and still pursuing excellence learned any lesson it was that defeat is possible, indeed, inevitable, and yet surmountable. To quote one last less literary though no less valuable source, Thomas Wayne who says to young Bruce,
“Why do we fall, Bruce? To learn to pick ourselves up again.”

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