Home > The Source of Self-Regard(64)

The Source of Self-Regard(64)
Author: Toni Morrison

   “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.”



Grendel and His Mother



I AM HOPING that you will agree that the piece of literature I want to draw from is, as one of its translators says, “equal to our knowledge of reality in the present time.” And discover in the lines of association I am making with a medieval sensibility and a modern one a fertile ground on which we can appraise our contemporary world.

   I am going to tell you a story. First because narrative is probably the most effective way knowledge is structured and second because I am a storyteller. The practice of writing makes demands on me that nothing else does. The search for language, whether among other writers or in originating it, constitutes a mission. Delving into literature is neither escape nor a surefire route to comfort. It has been a constant, sometimes violent, always provocative engagement with the contemporary world, the issues of the society we live in. So you won’t be surprised that I take my text from ancient but by no means remote sources. The story is this. As I tell it you may be reminded of the events and rhetoric and actions of many current militarized struggles and violent upheavals.

   Once upon a time there lived a man-eating monster of unprecedented cruelty and unparalleled appetite, who ravaged generally at night and focused primarily on the people of one particular kingdom, but it was only because he chose to. Clearly he could slaughter whomever and wherever he decided to. His name was Grendel and he spent a dozen years dismembering, chewing, and swallowing the livestock, the thanes, the citizens of Scandinavia.

       The leader of the besieged country lived in a great mead hall with his queen, his family, friends, guards, counsels, and a grand army of heroes. Each night when the leader retired, guards and warriors were stationed to protect the hall and its inhabitants from destruction and to try, if at all possible, to slay their nighttime enemy. And each night Grendel picked them off as though they were ripe cherries on an eternally fruited tree. The kingdom was sunk in mourning and helplessness; riven with sorrow for the dead, with regret for the past, and in fear of the future. They were in the same situation as the Finns of one of their sagas: “hooped within the great wheel of necessity, in thrall to a code of loyalty and bravery, bound to seek glory in the eye of the warrior world. The little nations are grouped around their lord, the greater nations spoil for war and menace the little ones, a lord dies, defenselessness ensues, the enemy strikes, vengeance for the dead becomes an ethic for the living, bloodshed begets further bloodshed, the wheel turns, the generations tread and tread and tread.”

   But what seemed never to trouble or worry them was who was Grendel and why had he placed them on his menu? Nowhere in the story is that question put. The question does not surface for a simple reason: evil has no father. It is preternatural and exists without explanation. Grendel’s actions are dictated by his nature; the nature of an alien mind—an inhuman drift. He is the essence of the one who loathes you, wants you not just dead, but nourishingly so, so that your death provides gain to the slayer: food, land, wealth, water—whatever. Like genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, or individual assault for profit. But Grendel escapes these reasons: no one had attacked or offended him; no one had tried to invade his home or displace him from his territory; no one had stolen from him or visited any wrath upon him. Obviously he was neither defending himself nor seeking vengeance. In fact no one knew who he was. He was not angry with the Danes; he didn’t want to rule their land or plunder their resources or rape their women, so there could be no reasoning with him. No bribery, no negotiations, no begging, no trading could stop him. Humans, even at their most corrupt, selfish, and ignorant can be made available to reason, are educable, retrainable, and, most important, fathomable. Humans have words for madness, explanations for evil, and a system of payback for those who trespass or are judged outlaws. But Grendel was beyond comprehension, unfathomable. The ultimate monster: mindless without intelligible speech. In the illustrations that imagine him and the language that described him, Grendel is ugly: hairy, his body is folded in on itself, reeking, easy and most comfortable on all fours. But even without claws or rows of sharklike teeth, even if he had been beautiful, it would not have lessened the horror; his mere presence in the world was an affront to it.

       Eventually, of course, a brave and fit hero named Beowulf volunteers to rid the kingdom of this pestilence. He and his task force of warriors enter the land, announce their purpose, and are welcomed with enthusiasm. On the first night, following a celebration to rally the forces and draw their courage, the war is won—or so it seemed. When the monster appears, they suffer only one casualty before Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm, sending him fatally bleeding, limping and moaning, slouching back home to his mother, where he dies.

   Yes, mother. I suggested earlier that evil has no father, but it should not come as a surprise that Grendel has a mother. In true folkloric, epic fashion, the bearer of evil, of destruction is female. Monsters, it seems, are born after all, and like her sisters—Eve, Pandora, Lot’s wife, Helen of Troy, and the female that sits at the gate of Milton’s hell, birthing vicious dogs who eat one another and are replaced by more and more litters from their mother’s womb—it turns out that Grendel’s mother is more repulsive, more “responsible” for evil than her son is. Interestingly enough, she has no name and cannot speak (I would like to follow these images, but at some other time). In any case, this silent, repulsive female is a mother, and unlike her child, does have a motive for murder—therefore she sets out immediately to avenge her son. She advances to the mead hall, interrupts the warriors reveling at their victory, and fills the pouch she carries with their mangled bodies. Her vengeance instigates a second, even more determined foray by Beowulf, this time on the monster’s territory and in his home. Beowulf swims through demon-laden waters, is captured, and, entering the mother’s lair, weaponless, is forced to use his bare hands. He fights mightily but unsuccessfully. Suddenly and fortunately, he grabs a sword that belongs to the mother. With her own weapon he cuts off her head, and then the head of Grendel’s corpse. A curious thing happens then: the victim’s blood melts the sword. The conventional reading is that the fiends’ blood is so foul it melts steel, but the image of Beowulf standing there with a mother’s head in one hand and a useless hilt in the other encourages more layered interpretations. One being that perhaps violence against violence—regardless of good and evil, right and wrong—is itself so foul the sword of vengeance collapses in exhaustion or shame.

       Beowulf is a classic epic of good vanquishing evil; of unimaginable brutality being overcome by physical force. Bravery, sacrifice, honor, pride, rewards both in reputations and wealth—all come full circle in this rousing medieval tale. In such heroic narratives, glory is not in the details; the forces of good and evil are obvious, blatant, the triumph of the former over the latter is earned, justified, and delicious. As Beowulf says, “It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. /…So arise, my lord, and let us immediately / set forth on the trail of this troll-dam. / I guarantee you she will not get away, / not to dens under ground nor upland groves / nor the ocean floor. She’ll have nowhere to flee to.”

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